Designing games as Vernier Probes

Many moons ago when Jim Gee first published What Video Games Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, he painted a portrait of a gamer engaged in an immersive world where the gamer is lost, for hours, in meaningful play as a soldier in WW2 or a Greek god.

Probes help teachers do what they were all ready doing, but a little bit better
Probes help teachers do what they were all ready doing, but a little bit better

What Gee was talking about  is that schools should rethink their design to be more akin to games. What if curricular design had as much depth as the design of major commercial video games? For the most part, this topic was never explored. Instead, media and foundations alike concentrated on funding the development of educational games. Fair enough. I certainly won’t complain because this is my passion and livelihood. In our excitement, however, some critical ideas were confused…

…Here is the problem. Gee argues that games, unlike schools, offer deep, meaningful, and somewhat inefficient learning experiences. This is in contrast to schools, where we go for shallow and aim for efficiency. Standards, for instance, are all about efficiently know which kids will know what key information by when.

So realistically, what does that mean about the games we design for schools? If schools won’t dedicate 40 hours a week to history or science, why design games that demand just that? This is where the original funding for games in education started to head: trying to recapture the magic of best-selling commercial platform games.Therefore, games that required 8+ hours that focused on really cool, but really not standard-aligned content were bandied about for funding. Immersive 3D environments that could barely make it over a school’s firewall were greeted as liberators from the oppressive school curriculum. In the mean time, schools ran about business as usual and by the end of the decade, funders and academics were scratching their heads, blaming teachers for their lack of tech savvy and deciding that when it came to games in classrooms, it couldn’t be done.

But of course it can be done. Educational games are the top draw on our site at work and they’ve found incredible use in the classroom (check it out here and here). Part of the reason for the success, I believe has to do with the fact that I design my games to be more like other technologies that have been easily absorbed in the classroom as opposed to a commercial opus. EDC researcher Katherine McMillan Culp identified those features as being something similar to Vernier Probes, smartboards, or graphic calculators:

  • The technology needs to address conceptual “sticking points” for students that teachers are familiar with
  • The technology needs to be flexible and adaptable
  • The technology needs to be able to be used simply at first, and allow teachers to grow the sophistication of use over time

Part of the implication here is that we need to turn our attention to more casual games for ideas and examples of how game designs can inform learning. Games in education are not only a worthwhile, but vital pursuit because of their ability to engage all students and transcend learning, langauge, and motivation barriers like few other curricular implements can. But we have to work within the realities of schools. We’re stuck with the bathwater, but that is no reason to walk away from the baby.