On Game Based Learning

Of course, anytime Bill Gates decides to shower money on public education, it’s news. And, while it is hardly surprising that the manufacturer of the X-Box supports “game based learning,” I find it surprising that anyone takes this as a sign of the efficacy of game based learning.

So often, as games are touted as educational wonders, one hears tales of flight simulators, battle simulations, biohazard and terrorism response simulations, and Myst. Myst. Seriously. Students narrate their fantasy world of Myst and explain their problem solving along the way, and that’s a great language arts lesson. Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna, but I believe that students have real, analog lives worthy of narration – real or imagined (remember imagination?). Surely young people are solving problems in life, maybe even in our classrooms, in more compelling ways than choosing which door to walk through or decoding digital runes in a make-believe land with gentle background music. So, while spinning up student interest in writing about reality may take real, concrete instructional steps including instructor modeling (What? Me, write?), and involve a fair amount of non-sexy time in which students work together, talk, share, laugh, play, get off task, come back to the task, and ultimately write, I can’t help but wonder how electronic game play beats life?

Answer: Because stuff blows up engagingly in video games. Let’s keep in mind the overwhelmingly martial usages of game-style simulators, which have become most authentic these days via Predator drone attacks currently being flown remotely from southwest American desert bases in far off countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya to name only the most obvious and least classified. In the case of Predator piloting, I totally see the logical link between game play and actual authentic tasks. I can also see a time in which students play “Operation: Baby Pig” on their iPad app instead of doing actual dissections, which has no authentic benefit over the real thing. Martial simulations are acceptable substitutes to combat because nobody gets hurt in video games, and we can always get Elf food and drink or locate a cache of extra lives and ammunition under a stairwell. Academia should be a simulation of sorts as it is, an opportunity to explore, to try, to succeed, to fail and try again with a new approach. Adding an additional, electronic layer of simulation to a simulation that is already becoming wildly divorced from that which it is meant to replicate, at least in some ways, seems silly at best.

The benefit quietly touted is cost savings, using resources as best we can – and those resources are always financial. Would Bill Gates go to a doctor who had done his cadaver work on his PC? Done residency with a team through “Scrubs for X-Box?” Probably, but probably not a physician who worked on iDissect; count me out for both. When the dust settles, game based learning is likely to mean that every kid gets to fly a simulated plane, but no feet will ever leave the ground. Every kid gets to be a Guitar Hero, but the orchestra pit is vacant. Every kid gets to write about her Second Life, while the first atrophies from a paucity of attention. I believe everybody wins when “FIFA 2011” is turned off and a game commences in the backyard, and I believe our kids should be making actual products and messages with their technological tools, rather than wallowing in the virtual ether, unaware of what they are missing.

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