Professor James Paul Gee and Eric Zimmerman of Gamelab have teamed up (alongside a few other of their colleagues) to produce a new project called Gamestar Mechanic
. Its purpose is to teach young people about game making with the emphasis on design rather than programming.
Prof. Gee, a linguist and professor of literary studies at Arizona State University, and Zimmerman shared a stage together yesterday to deliver the day one keynote speech at the Games for Change festival, a conference dealing with video games used for social good.
[The conference program originally called for MIT comparative media studies professor Henry Jenkins to be in conversation with Gee in this session, though a minor illness prevented Jenkins from attending.]
Making The Most Of Games
Gee and Zimmerman spoke largely about what a game is in the very broadest sense, and used their definition as a jumping off point to discuss how games are useful as learning tools. The main problem, as Zimmerman sees it, is that the majority of people making so-called 'games for change' haven’t yet figured out how to make the most of what interactive games can do.
Zimmerman sees too many games for change trying to “inject information into the players,” rather than allowing the players to get something useful out of the play itself. “The danger of games for change or games on social issues is they are very heavy. They can be very pedantic... and lose a sense of play,” Zimmerman said.
Both Gee and Zimmerman agreed that the problem-solving aspect of a game is more important that the information-delivery aspect. “We work in a world of complex systems,” said Gee, adding, “Games are particularly good at getting us to think about complex systems.”
Gee and Zimmerman both agree on using a systemic approach to games and game design, though they disagree slightly on why. One of Gee’s principal beliefs - which he mentions in his books 'What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy' and 'Why Video Games are Good for your Soul' - is that games don’t have to be outright learning experiences.
Rather, says Gee, they can prepare the player’s brain for future learning. As an example, he mentioned Portal
, reading some text from Valve’s web site about the game, which noted that “the game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities gin a given environment.”
, said Gee, emerges the player in a new world with physical laws all its own, which gives the player a reason to take a new perspective. Players absorb some basic concepts of physics, even though the physics in the game do not mirror all the physical laws of the real world accurately. As the player becomes more familiar with the physics in the game, she or he becomes more able to learn about real physics later.
On the other hand, Zimmerman isn’t too sure about how games can prep the brain for future learning. Instead, he said he sees more potential in a game’s ability to “just [get] people interested in a topic. Sim City
inspired a whole generation of urban planners and architects,” he noted, even though the simulation was not at all accurate.
[The same subject was raised in a previous session of the conference, in which one speaker took issue with the game’s lack of private property, lack of public involvement in city planning, and false pretense that new cities are build on empty land in this day and age.]
Another strength Gee sees in games as a medium is its power to give players a new way to see the world. While the commercial industry has been extremely good at providing new experiences and reasons to see the world in a new way, the games for change group generally dismisses this quality because “it doesn’t do much for social impact.”
“Some people talk about games as a good way of delivering information,” but that’s usually dialogue and text, Gee said. But games are more powerful when they give the player a reason to see the world in a new way. And these novel world experiences don’t have to be true to life for the player to be affected.
Zimmerman claimed games are intrinsically systemic. In the informational era, when everything is seen as a part of a greater whole, games are particularly well suited for systemic learning, he said. He related this to a new kind of literacy that is emerging in the 21st Century, due to technology and how it has become intrinsic to our lives.
Technology, he said, has influenced how we manage money, how we engage with government, and even how we flirt. In this context of a complex system, being “literate” becomes an act of dealing with parts within the whole -- well beyond simply sending and receiving information.
Games, said Gee, show relationships that you can put into models. “Games are really just a continuous assessment,” he continued, in which players “enjoy the hell out of essentially solving problems.” Unlike exams or books, games don’t give the user language out of context or unasked for.
This, Gee said, is the primary difference between being able toretain information and seeing the world in new way. Whole experience context is what leverages a game’s power to teach.
“One of the things I would like to dispel is the notion that games are a cornucopia of anything,” Zimmerman said. All games are really nothing more than a very complex abstraction; they are ones and zeroes that represent other things.
Another challenge for the games for change people is that their games are not about simulations and models in abstraction, but rather about affecting real world change. The question is how to bridge that gap.
“Games can create motivation. That’s one of the mysterious things. People can’t learn anything without motivation,” said Gee. “We can’t give
them motivation,” also explaining the people, game players, only truly learn something new when an emotion is triggered. Again, this is a strength of games as a medium, and one that games for change developers need to tap. “Can we surmise new possibilities in a world?”
Gee speculated what Henry Jenkins would have said if he were able to attend the conference. “Games are a convergent media,” he said.
The Games for Change conference is taking place June 2-4, 2008, in New York at Parsons School of Design.