Oh, sorry: some of you may not know that Skyrim is a game. From a company called Bethesda Softworks. A video game. A role playing game.
According to sources I’m connected to who know this well (who are now banging their heads on their keyboards and calling me “the aging bald guy” at home and away), that’s like saying a Bentley is a passenger car. Yesss, it is, but. . . arghh!
Why can’t learning be more like this?
Think of what’s in this Skyrim thing: you can choose a wide array of specialties to pursue from the beginning. Your ability to get good at something depends only on your ability and willingness to work at it, though if you don’t keep challenging your growing skills, you’ll slow down your rate of improvement. You can accelerate your progress by periodically going in for training – but you also have to build up experience between trainings to benefit from more training. There’s a wide variety of goals tied to stories, large and small, short and long, in which your success – and skills – are critical.
Sounds pretty good, actually.
Indeed, these environments are designed to be better than the real world, at least as most learners experience it: Challenges come to you when you’re ready for them, not when the real world happens to create them. If you fail a challenge, you can go back, try it again or work your skills farther, think about what didn’t work – and challenge the goal again. The performance task that defines a goal remains invigorating, frustrating, implacable, challenging – there’s no multiple choice quiz to get you by, you actually have to have the skills you need, or get refused (with prejudice!).
Such games include good story-telling to help drive the work and personal goal-setting. You do repeat simple actions over and over, at a number of levels: Watching someone play one of these game without seeing the screen or hearing the sound is bizarre – they mash buttons, wiggle a mouse, twitch around – how hard can it be? Within the world, a player repeats some of the earlier-mastered skills over and over as new things come up, new problems get solved, new skills (highly anticipated) become available, but the massive amount of repetition that leads to fluency is buried under the goals of the latest and greatest challenge. (So they tell me.)
Behind the scenes, these game companies have figured out how to use massive amounts of data about a player’s interaction with the world to adjust the challenges, and continuously evaluate the learner’s (oops) player’s state of skills. No need for “tests” – plenty of information pouring in about what challenges the player is ready for, and not ready for, to adjust the experience – the experience/practiceis the test. And the bulk of data from all players is used to adjust the challenges over time, through new releases that improve every players’ experience based on how all the players’, in all their variety, have found things.
These companies’ very existence depends on them making learning compelling: if the challenges are not right, if the stories are not right, if the practice ends up tedious rather than compelling and effective, if players cannot succeed, then players/learners lose interest, move on to other things, and the title (often the company) dies. Harsh Darwinian conditions to build and deliver learning!
Well? Well? Well? Where are the learning environments that are “just like games?”
Plenty of enthusiasm to date – much writing about the links between the powerfully compelling game experience and research on learning, e.g. by Valerie Shute, James Paul Gee, Jan Cannon-Bowers, Henry Jenkins III, Chris Dede, and many more. True, earlier generations thought “for sure” radio, films, or television were the answer to learning – but no magic bullet was found. Yet, the argument goes, those media were far less interactive – far fewer parallels to what learning science suggests really drives learning.
Unfortunately, real evidence showing empirical benefits for learning is thin on the ground compared with well-designed alternatives to (expensive!) games. There are efforts to tease out general principles from compelling game-play, e.g. Jan Plass at NYU with the Microsoft Games institute, but with the massive expense (multiple millions of dollars) to develop commercial games, is it worth it?
So there’s no Skyrim for Science. No Mass Effect for Mathematics. No Resident Evil for Reading (and that may be a good thing. . .). No Legend of Zelda for Literature. No Portal for Physics. No Bioshock for Biology. No Half-Life for History.
The tools are better than ever, the links to learning are closer than any other media before, experienced story-tellers know how to compel major skill progression effort, maturing and successful video-game developers (and players) have their own teen-agers in learning-environments that don’t look anything like the engrossing challenges they’ve already built (and played), several generations of students find the mechanics of gaming to be a part of living. . .
Who’s got a match? 😉
Bror Saxberg ran this blog on his site on 11/14/11.