Toward A Better Culture of Games

September 06, 2014
By Educator Innovator

Posted from the White House Game Jam

Let’s take it as given: there are games we won’t play just like there are books we won’t read. There are games we won’t teach, just like there are books we won’t teach. There are games we don’t like, just like there are books we don’t like.

Although books have been out longer than video games, games have been out longer than books. Regardless, we won’t often teach with games – let alone video games – in our classrooms.

Sometimes, our biases get in the way. We don’t all value video games the way we value textbooks or novels or copies or articles for a variety of reasons. However, great games exist – games that can teach as much as any traditional text. We should unpack our feelings about video games and work towards a better understanding of the genre, its tropes, and how they can be taught not only to deliver content, but also – appropriately – to help kids identify and critically respond to the media and world around them.

Of course, sometimes we don’t teach video games because of factors outside our control: we don’t have the technology we need in our classrooms; we don’t have the money to buy textbooks AND games; we don’t have school boards willing to approve video games as class texts.

There are workarounds that at least chip away at those problems. We bring in our own copies of games. We demo them or make them available to small groups of students on our own machines or on the half-dozen un-supported computers to which our IT friends give us admin rights (before the hard drives get shredded). We call a video game a supplemental material and teach it to just a few kids at a time or offer it up as a station or extension so it doesn’t fall into the category of a whole-class text subject to approval.

We make do.

But we make do a lot. And we make do with all kinds of scarcity, not just a scarcity of video games. Scarcities of justice and compassion; scarcities of materials and time; scarcities of motivation and endurance.

I think we live and teach in a time when we need to return to fun and games at school. We need to return to playful learning. We need to decouple valuable standards and expectations from curriculum and tests that devalue all of us. And, coincidentally, we need to help our kids and ourselves redefine video game culture so that it reflects our better selves and our better values through challenges that seem meaningful and significant, rather than through stock genre bits that seem careless and trivial.

We don’t get there without teaching and learning through those games. It’s possible that we could create abetter society without video games, but it’s improbable that video games will go away or that our kids will stop playing them or thinking about them as we go about the business of school. There’s no time better than now to begin looking at how each of us can begin to explore video games in the classroom as one path to engaging students with the topics we love to teach.

These are my thoughts at my first White House Game Jam (#WHGameJam) where developers, educators, policy-makers, and researchers gather around the work of prototyping video games to help kids learn concepts that seem universally difficult to teach. Think biological complexity, compassion, the electoral college, and trigonometry.

The more we explore video games as a teaching tool, the more opportunities we’ll see to match kids and content with them the same way we work to match kids and content with traditional texts or video. To use video games well in the classroom, we need ‘read’ them, play them, and watch them. We need to equate lifelong learning with lifelong playing the same way we equate lifelong learning with lifelong reading. We have to do this ourselves to understand how our students might do the same for themselves.

When we do that, we’ll learn to see what games offer us in the classroom, but we’ll also see how to begin scaffolding learning around games – we’ll see how mastering a game or part of game leads to kidding it or running a server or forum for it. We’ll see paths from games into expository and narrative writing. We’ll see readers who are not writers become coders. We’ll see players become friends. We’ll see classrooms become workshops as kids expect more from games and more from us; we’ll see them move from consumption to production in ways that tests and textbooks don’t advertise or privilege.

So let’s make do with video games, for now, and encourage our colleagues to do the same. Let’s encourage our kids and push ourselves to become ambassadors for game-based learning. Let’s curate and share examples of games that are difficult and reward the kind of critical problem-solving ‘academic’ tasks often do not. Let’s make do until we make a better future for games in the classroom and a more purposeful and critical community of gamers and game makers in our schools.

The freedom to play is the freedom to learn. We should play with the time and materials we have to help kids learn through the best texts and resources we can put in front of them or help them find, and we shouldn’t shy away from awesome games and video games as exemplars of the same.

There’s simultaneous joy and determination here at the game jam and both are things I want more of at school. Video games aren’t the only way to foster those feelings, but in their absence video games are a way to begin questing for them.

By Chad Sansing, a National Writing Project teacher and Education Advisor at the White House Game JamĀ 2014