As I sit down to share some thoughts in the third, gaming-focused week of conversation in the connected learning course, #clmooc, I want to once again start with the friendly Philosoraptor for making my first point. Imagine that you jumped off a spacecraft using a parachute, aiming to return “down” to earth, but then you start wondering if you are falling “toward” or away from or tangentially in relation to the earth. That’s how I often feel about the increasingly hi-tech modes of living and learning.
I’ve lived in places with a lot less of advanced technology that characterize life, so when I shift into more hi-tech modes of doing things, I usually think that I’m always moving in the right direction, making “progress.” But once in a while, I wonder if “advancement” is basically a matter of perspective, what I leave behind when I go for the “more” advanced, whether greater complexity expands or contracts my opportunities to connect with people across contexts, and so on.
This week, I’m thinking about the questions above in the context of gaming—or playful ways of learning and interacting with people, ideas, and objects. More specifically, how are hi-tech games more “advanced” than the simple, low-tech interactive activities that I grew up with, used as a teacher, and lived as a part of life?
New Species of Human—Or, Who Gets to Say So
To add a little more of the broader context, I’ve been noticing quite a bit of media and academic discussions suggesting that humans may be evolving into a new species altogether (well, in “advanced” societies). Among them is a Ted video in which the speaker starts off in a fun way by critiquing an “arrogant” world view among humans as a species—in a particular context, that is, because anyone unfamiliar with that particular sociopolitical discourse of science can’t understand much of the talk. Then, at minute 12:30, the speaker starts suggesting that the sheer amount of information that people are absorbing today may be making them hyper able to remember, know, etc—hence making them a new kind of species—as well as “modifying” themselves in more concrete ways such as through chemical and biological methods.
While watching this particular talk, one part of me freaked out about the possibility of a minority of rich or privileged humans in any country getting advanced medical treatments to remain young (if not become immortal), strong and healthy, and most importantly smarter than anyone in the rest of those nations and the world. But the other part of me was instead bothered by the speaker’s way of describing the current and possible future divisions among humans: from his kind of perspective, those with have access to more information, more food, more technology, and more “modern” things and ideas are “evolving” into a new species altogether.
Luckily, or unluckily, depending on how you look at it, the speaker also (rather paradoxically) showed that those with greater power and privileges don’t necessarily use them to overcome problems in their lives and societies (like they seem to develop new and more insidious diseases); they don’t seem to always make the best decisions (like they make their own lives too complicated and abuse others); and they also often do very dumb things with their super “evolved” brains and super advanced technologies. This means that the whole idea of so-called “evolution” is only a “progress” or “advancement” in the right direction only if you use a particular perspective. If we look at it from a different perspective, we could say that the farmers in so-called “backward” communities far away from the centers of technological developments are “advancing” in their own ways, say, because they’re staying or moving in the right place or direction because, for instance, they have enough to eat, enjoy healthy and peaceful lives with their families and community, and die naturally (let’s add, with relatively few physical ailments, emotional pressures, and social challenges). So, in quite significant ways, it comes down to who gets to define what progress is and what it isn’t.
High-Tech Games versus Any Playful Learning
Now, back to games. Since “gaming” and “playful” learning became all the rage in academe (I think most prominently in the last decade), the conversation has been dominated a bit too much by games that involve new media, interaction with or mediation by machines, and dominated by certain cultures and fashions. But games and play are age-old phenomena that continue to engage individuals and communities even with “primitive” technologies. In fact, games can be socially interactive (rather than simply made to interact with machines and software); they can use words/communication as the means of interaction and engagement; and they can draw on long-standing traditions of verbal as well as physical, musical, artistic, and intellectual activities/interactions.
It is also worth nothing that in a world where physical, verbal/human, and artistic “games” are being rapidly replaced by virtual objects and responses, I think that we should be wary of moving too much of our time and attention to the mechanical and virtual. Consequently, as an educator, when I embrace more technology, more hi-tech options, I am cautious about potentially causing or intensifying “cultural” divides between those who are on the low tech and high tech ends when they move into new domains like gaming—as well as reinforcing the digital divides between those with more and less access to technology, the internet, and people beyond their local contexts–both in theory and in practice. I am reminded about how drawing on more traditional “games” can help us do some much-needed pausing and slowing down in our “advancements” in education. Activities that may seem primitive/outdated, old-fashioned, low-tech, slow, etc, seem to be disappearing from education these days—and quite often, it seems necessary to address the side effects that the speaker of Ted video, to my surprised, lauded as positive signs of “evolution” of the human species. If we look at past civilizations, we see examples of whole societies/civilizations indulging in meaningless activities, getting addicted to dangerous substances, doing things harm others, and so on.
So, there is something about most instances of “progress” that also seem to make societies throw away good ideas, resources, and behaviors in favor of new and “advanced” ones, only to realize later (if ever) that the old and the new could complement each other.
Back to playful learning and interaction. When I started thinking about what to do for the gaming week, my instinct was to finally use a few summer days to learn how to create interactive games—using web design applications if not creating a gaming app for mobile devices. That ambition went down the same road that the desire to learn Adobe Flash animation went many years ago. Then I started thinking that I am responsible for creating a bid divide between those who can create games and those who, like me, can’t. And the division was based on the assumption that anything I can create—such as socially, physically, intellectually, or otherwise interactive activities for my teaching and learning—are “not” worth calling games. We live in the era of the Angry Birds, right? Not entirely. We also continue to live in the era of humans interacting with humans using a wide variety of means, mediums, and modes.
We need to learn better to live interact playfully and creatively with people across material and cultural contexts with different levels of access and desire to use hi-tech means for doing so.
Being a Thoughtful “Luddite” has Benefits
Those of us who can only create and execute more traditional types of games in the form of any interactive learning should continue to do so. We should continue to make our classrooms and our communities more engaging. Yes, we do live in a world where we constantly compete with things and activities that can more easily attract (or distract) our attention and interest. But that doesn’t mean that we can only fight fire with fire. There is and should be place for slower, more contemplative, more social, and more border and culture- crossing games and activities in our teaching and learning. We and our students need to be able to perform, sing and dance, recite poetry, engage in creative verbal contests or gameplay; we should play and have fun without calling more traditional modes of engagement or learning boring or ineffective without reason; and we should value both the old and the new, the high-tech and low-tech, the “advanced” and the primitive in order to diversify our understanding and enrich teaching and learning.
The debate between advocates of educational reform vis-à-vis incorporating new trends such as gaming is beyond the scope of this blog post, but one scholarly debate seems worth quickly mentioning here. In his book Beyond Technologies: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture, David Buckingham criticizes scholars like Marc Prensky and James Gee for uncritically celebrating the power of new technologies. Commenting on Gee’s advocacy of games as an ideal way of learning and schools as the opposite, Buckingham says: “At best, his argument about ‘good games’ appears to be tautological: what he calls ‘good’ games are games that illustrate his ‘learning principles’—which presumably ‘bad’ games do not” (107). He goes on to add that Gee “appears to have an extraordinarily uncritical sense of how the game industry works. . . . the industry’s obsessive insistence on ‘fun learning’ reflects an implicit rejection of the contrary view—that learning might actually involve work,” because “work might not always be pleasurable” (111). Most importantly, Buckingham reminds us that games too must be seen as culturally “situated” and therefore things that “do not provide a level playing field: on the contrary, they are spaces in which relations of power and inequality are inevitably rehearsed and reproduced” (110). In his book Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling, Gee argues that “young people of all races and classes readily learn specialist varieties of language and ways of thinking” with games (4). Thus, as Buckingham suggests, students do not become engaged in our classrooms just because we decide to use certain high-tech and gamey way of learning. Any principle, method, media, activity, and style of teaching/learning will have mixed effects on different students who have different motivations and expectations.
On that note, let me share a very simple soccer/football-themed game (in honor of US team, especially its incredible goalkeeper playing well, though they lost against Belgium at a 2014 World Cup semi-final game today) that I created by using PowerPoint (Language Football–A PowerPoint Game) where you can score goals and get cheers from the audience if you correctly match country names with major languages spoken in them—or a “try again” message and gesture from the audience. It’s not a quiz, you can’t fail, you should quit whenever you like!
Buckingham, David. Beyond Technology: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture. Malden, MA: Polity, 2007.
Gee, James Paul. Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. New York: Routledge, 2004.
[PS: If I manage to find the time, I will share a list of classroom activities that I have found effective over the years.]