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Games-to-teach or games-to-learn : unlocking the power of digital game-based learning through performance
Chee Y., Springer International Publishing, New York, NY, 2015. 190 pp. Type: Book
Date Reviewed: Dec 8 2015

Albert Einstein is credited with the following assertion about education: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” There are several variations on this theme attributed to other pundits, and it reflects a view of education that used to be more dominant than it is today. Is the purpose of education to convey content to students or is it to teach them how to engage in the process of inquiry? If the purpose of education is to convey content, then students should learn stored knowledge about the real world and demonstrate their mastery of that material through examinations. If the purpose of education is to teach students how to engage in the process of inquiry, then content becomes much less important and the focus of education can be seen as the acquisition of skills that can be used in the process of inquiry, as the Einstein quote suggests. These opposing views in education also emerge in the field of edutainment or serious games, which are video games designed specifically for the purpose of education or persuasion. Games-to-teach embody the content-driven approach, while games-to-learn embody the inquiry-driven approach.

The author of this book promotes the inquiry-driven or games-to-learn approach. He provides compelling arguments that are well grounded in philosophy, the sociology of games and play, as well as educational theory as promoted by John Dewey. The philosophical basis for the inquiry-driven approach is summed up as follows:

To summarize, we must understand the following key ideas. First, what humans know arises from a process of social construction rather than one of discovery of eternal and immutable truth; consequently, human understanding shifts over time. Second, language allows us to create a secondary reality based on words, but words on their own furnish no access to the primary reality of nature; consequently, we should not believe that abstract words refer to real, material objects. Third, teaching and learning that is based on the use of language alone, whether written, spoken, or both, is misdirected because it does not empower students or grant them agency with respect to what they know about. (p. 29-30)

This is a bit to digest, so I would simplify it by saying that knowing facts about a thing is not the same as understanding the thing. To take this a step further, one comes to understand a thing by satisfying his or her curiosity about it through inquiry. The author goes on a few pages later to say,

Games-to-learn are founded on a model of inquiry learning articulated by John Dewey. For Dewey, learning is triggered by an interruption to meaningful activity in a person’s lifeworld. The interruption leads naturally to contemplation directed to achieving a successful resumption of the activity. For this reason, knowing as inquiry is something that we, as humans, literally do. (p. 34-35)

For example, imagine that you are in your kitchen making breakfast (meaningful activity) when you feel a drip on your forehead (interruption), which causes you to look up and see that the drip comes from the ceiling. You proceed to learn a little more about plumbing (knowing as inquiry), fix the problem, and return to making breakfast (meaningful activity).

He goes on to say: “The fundamental difference between the paradigms of games-to-teach and games-to-learn is broadly mirrored in the distinction between schooling children vis-à-vis educating them” (p. 37).

After providing the philosophical justification for games-to-learn, the author introduces a performance-play-dialog model for designing games-to-learn. The idea here is that education is less about the acquisition of content than it is about the changes that occur in the learner as he or she adapts to the knowledge domain. Going back to the plumbing example, we learn more about plumbing by trying to stop the water from dripping on our heads than we do from reading books about plumbing. Once these fundamentals are established, the author provides examples of this type of game and discusses the challenges (which are nontrivial) in adopting this new pedagogy.

This is an impressive work and it gives the reader much to think about. Unfortunately, it is not without flaws. First, it attempts to cover way too much territory from philosophical grounding to implementation challenges. Second, because of the scope of the book, many of the arguments feel patched together; believers will be convinced but nonbelievers will not. Finally, if one agrees with the basic tenets of the book, which I do, it is easy to see how the arguments provided might well serve as ammunition for either side of the debate.

Nonetheless, despite the flaws, I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in edutainment, serious games, or more generally in the pedagogy of video games. Game designers, whether their games are educational or not, will find useful guidance and much to think about. And game researchers will find much to like about this volume, as it provides testable claims.

Reviewer:  J. M. Artz Review #: CR143999 (1602-0117)
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