Friday, August 18, 2006

The Principal's Office

A lot of people have been asking me what I think about "Grand Theft Education" in the September issue of Harper's magazine, which describes the potential for using videogames in writing classrooms. The question makes sense to ask: after all, I direct a writing program and do research on videogames. But there was so little content in the article, that I found it difficult to figure out what I should be reacting to, despite the best efforts of interviewees like Ralph Koster and Steven Johnson. Perhaps it was because I thought that Clive Thompson's recent article on games for the New York Times, "Saving the World, One Video Game at a Time," was such a superior overview for a layperson on the subject that it's difficult for me to be a fair judge.

It's true that excluding games from the classroom as objects of study or subjects for creative production will eventually seem as reactionary as excluding film. Certainly a pedagogy fostering situated learning, role playing, and communities of expertise and practice -- all obvious features of videogame play, as the article points out -- are also important for producing authoritative prose. And even Grand Theft Auto has moved into mainstream culture far enough to receive an homage in the form of a Coke commercial.

That said, my main objection to the article was that none of the game-related activities discussed by the Harper's brain trust sounded like any fun, so I couldn't see why they would be better than good classroom instruction. Zombie spelling games? Sessions with a know-it-all story-telling magician? Wikipedia group projects? Why pose ideas that dreary and stale if the aim is revitalizing education? (And I hate to sound so negative about the group's ideas, because I knew Jane Avrich in college, where she impressed me as an empathetic and well-meaning person.)

For another critical viewpoint, check out an interesting article about "Video Games, Authority, and Problem-Based Thinking," which questions one of the panelists' acknowledged premises. Author Ulises Ali Mejias points out that even advocates admit that videogames emphasize solution-based rather than problem-based learning, which is precisely the kind of non-open-ended thinking that has contributed to profoundly flawed military planning in Iraq.

Besides, there has never been a better time to teach a traditional research paper as a genuine educational experience. The digital information revolution has transformed the level of work that first-year students can produce. Of course, students start the freshman year of college at the bottom of a relatively steep learning curve, having been raised on five-paragraph essays and encyclopedic book reports for which cut-and-paste plagiarism is the norm (which "Grand Theft Education"'s echo-chamber approach wouldn't improve). But the opportunities to explore online archives, have access to tools for electronic collaboration and peer review, incorporate digital images and multimedia elements, face the challenge of appropriately acknowledging scholarly opinion and grappling with intellectual property issues, and have the experience possibly even culminate in electronic publication to a wider world audience makes for tremendously exciting learning experiences. Thanks to the work that students do with interpreting e-mail and chatroom messages, they are even able to do genuine discourse analysis for the first time, and these lateral channels of communication also empower them to contact otherwise inaccessible experts in the field.

By the way, if you don't have enough composition projects to keep you busy this summer, check out Miranda July's writing assignments.

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Anonymous Raph said...

FWIW, the zombie typing game is actually quite a lot of fun. :)

10:40 AM  

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