Let Me Edutain You

When I was a graduate student at UC Riverside, I took a class with James Tobias where, among other things, we played video games. We also read and wrote about games and gaming. The reading part has always been sort of a game to me, anyways. The writing part: definitely a game.

Here’s how we played then, and today:

I had to play a video game this morning again, as I finished reading Sherry Turkle’s opinions about video games and computer holding power, where she approaches computing from the discipline of psychoanalysis and revokes the myth of game’s “mindless” addiction, talks about how we lose ourselves in simulated worlds of altered perception, and confront our mirrored selves in a sort of perfect contest of mastering and action control. I always thought I liked platform games, and I was surprised when I discovered I really don’t. Or, at least, I don’t like them anymore. I didn’t like them back in gradschool, and I certainly do not like them now. I have to admit the last time I played consistently must have been over fifteen years ago, when I was given a Gameboy. I think I liked them then. I can’t remember if I asked for it or if it was an unrequested gift, but I remember playing Mario Bros and Kirby’s Dream Land (for a few months, at least). I can also picture my Gameboy laying next to the TV as I would play a game of Tetris while waiting for a show or for the food to be ready, our TV area was close to our dinning room.

I never played with anybody, I never took it anywhere with me, I used it mainly to kill time, which exemplifies perfectly Ito and Bittanti’s definition of ‘killing time’ as a gaming practice, something they write about in their book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, from MIT Press. I have now an iPhone with apps I could use to play games in the same way I used to play, but I don’t do it anymore. I have tried playing Angry Birds, but I get bored. I would rather check Twitter if I have a spare few minutes. I sometimes, still, just simply rather people watch.  It might have to do with my age, as Ito and Bittanti seem to suggest that more active gamers play video games until they interfere with their other worldly responsibilities, but in this case, they seem to be talking about other type of gaming: recursive gaming. When analyzing the convergence of technology in everyday life, Ito and Bittanti try to consider how gaming practice is embedded in a broader set of media ecologies —talking about the cohabitation of the rhetoric and the social practices and aesthetics of the game —and the genres of participation— different games for different social contexts. They distinguish three main types of gaming and they seem to distribute girls and boys in those groups as separate gamers. According to them, girls seem to be more socially driven when playing a game, they use games as a background element, a tool they can use to interact with others or to, simply, kill time. In opposition to this, and generally speaking, boys seem to have a more recreational drive, they develop intense relationships with the game in ways that are reminiscent of Christopher Kelty’s ideas of geeks as recursive public (they even call this type of gaming ‘geeking out’): the relationships made through the game work outside the support —online, offline, and outside the game— and are based on a technical (abilities and rule knowledge) and a moral (gamer morals) order. –“boys”/”girls,” hm… 

Even though the practices vary, gaming seems to be a general aspect of everyday life that is expanding to more institutionalized areas, such as education. Sara Corbett, in “Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom,” focuses on the educational power of video games seeing them as powerful tools for intellectual exploration, expanding the private realm of gaming to a more ‘productive’ public field. Games are discussed on two levels: at the game’s content level as a useful way of learning problem resolution skills, understanding how systems work; and also at the general skills level, as transfer, focusing on neurological benefits that can be transferred to other areas. This is an interesting point of discussion, as games that claim to be educational seem to have traditionally done it through their content, and this transfer ability apparently means something else. In New Media: a Critical Introduction (Martin Lister et al.), they talk about ‘edutainment’ in these terms of content as well, although they suggest that when technology is used for social interaction, humans do not simply interact with other humans, but with endless materials that contribute to the pattering of the social (Law 1992). This is a similar idea to McLuhan’s understanding of the environment which has been radically altered by the way people use their five senses, something maybe exemplified through the idea of transfer skills. It also shares the spirit of 1984 Turkle when she claimed that video games were an essential part of youth culture which turned the machines into a medium of self-expression: performance rules become transparent with practice, they serve as a mirror of who you are.

Growing up with a technology is a special kind of experience. Although mastering new things is important through life, there is a time in growing up when identity becomes almost synonymous with it. Today’s young people meet the games at that time. The games are not a reminder of a feeling of control over challenge. They are a primary source for developing it. (Sherry Turkle. The Second Self…)

If the content does not really matter as an educational tool, if we can really boil game greatness down to its transferrable skills –cognitive or psychological, you name it–, Corbett would agree with Ito and Battanti’s claim for the productive possibilities of a healthy social ecology of participation —including parents, siblings and peers, and she would say, classmates—, pushing for the aspects of collaborative processing in education to help the practice of other technical skills that can be transferred to other domains, leaving gender aside. Design would then be subjugated to the practice of these skills, which I apparently do not possess as it took me a while to figure out the aim of the game I tried this morning on Miniclip (fyi: Deep Freeze), and when I finally did, I scored poorly, was bored, and felt it was a waste of time. Most games are said to be intuitive, but intuition seems to be also a learnt skill in a world such as today’s, shaped by technology. And if this is the case, those are the skills we should be teaching, and Education could benefit from taking the form of a game (even though Sherry Turkle would not agree with this statement anymore).

Sometime in the Fall of 2010, James Tobias pointed out something interesting about intuition. I copy and paste here: “My sense is that the way that intuition works in games, indeed, as you point out, has to do with a particular kind of intuition that has to do with 1. logics of technical operations; 2. logics of media usage; 3. logics of everyday life in which gaming is situated.  The cumulative “intuition” at work, then, is designed in these terms, whether or not they are all the object of the design.  But this “design of intuitiveness” is actually not at all the same thing that we mean by “intuition” generally or historically.”

This is what I have to say: 

Alex Saum