Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Monday, March 13, 2006

Lesson From Video Games

by AJ

Intrigued by the learning theory research related to game design, I bought a Playstation2 this weekend (for research purposes only, of course :) I found Dr. Gee's book... which discussed the powerful learning/teaching strategies used by video game designers very very interesting.

And so, this weekend, I gave them a try first hand. Wow! Things have progressed a long way from the Atari Space Invaders game I used to play as a child!

After my first few experiences, I understood Gee's points. The games are incredibly well designed learning modules. They manage to make learning, experimenting, and even failing.. extremely engaging. For example, I bought a game called "Rainbow Six: Lockdown". Its a commando-shooter type game. And I found it incredibly difficult. As a neophyte, I was overwhelmed by the difficulty.

One problem-- despite my "non-traditional teaching ideas"... I am, in fact, programmed by the educational system in which I grew up. That system, as Gee points out, stresses linear "one right answer" thinking.

Turns out that doesnt work very well in most video games (or life, for that matter). The games stress a totally different approach... one which stresses experimentation, probing, reflection... and a wealth of different "right answers". Like Gee, when I first started the Rainbow Six game, my mindset was linear and goal oriented. I tried to charge straight to the objective as fast as possible. That not only got me killed, it also caused me to miss the many "intel items" (ie. clues & bonuses) scattered throughout the first level.

Because the game is designed to punish linear thinking, it didnt take long before I got frustrated and realized I needed a different approach. But what? The game manual is very sparse.. gives only the details of using the controller. With no manual or rules, there was only one thing to do.. probe. Experiment.

So Ive started trying different things... taking different routes, moving my man differently, using different weapons. Typically, I still get killed a lot. But sometimes something works. Aha!

Later (or while Im playing), I reflect on what Ive tried and the various results. Based on this information, I form hypotheses about how best to proceed. Next time I play, I test these hypotheses... and try to extend them more generally. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesnt. Either way, I probe more, then reflect again.. then form more hypotheses.. then probe/test.. then reflect... over and over again.

That, in simplified form, is the scientific method. As Gee points out, its also the natural method employed by child learners... until they are subjected to formal schooling. And, he points out, its the method employed by almost every adult who achieves expertise in a certain field.

All this got me to wondering... is it possible to create an ESL classroom that encourages the same sort of process? One that encourages students to probe, reflect, hypothesize, test & probe again... on and on and on.. neverending. Is it possible to create an ESL classroom in which failure INCREASES engagement and motivation (as it does in many video games) rather than demoralizes the student? Is it possible to create a classroom in which students are completely absorbed in acquiring the language... even addicted (in a positive sense)? Its easy to get lost in a game... learning and playing for hours. You lose track of time. You are fully concentrated. Time flies. How many English classes create the same phenomenon?

Mine dont. At the moment, I dont know the answers to the above questions. But, I suppose, the way to find them is to use the same method used by video gamers, scientists, and others who rely on direct observation and learning. Ill just keep probing, testing, reflecting, forming hypotheses, testing them, probing,..... in my classes... in a neverending quest to increase my teaching expertise (and thus, the power of the students experience in my classes).

San Francisco, CA