Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Portal: Apologias Abound

Why do so many academics feel they have to apologize for bringing video games into the classroom? It seems like every last paper and book I'm reading begins with "Just hear me out, despite everything this is totally a good idea."
After a brief hiatus from the blog because life decided to happen all at once, I've decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to my current research on Portal - that quirky, engaging game from Valve Software. If this is your first time reading about my Portal ruminations, you might like to start here where I talk about the hidden depths of the game and its 2011 sequel. I'm developing a paper about the pedagogical and philosophic dimensions of a video game to present at Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association conference in April, 2012.

Since I've already developed a few ideas that I want to explore further, the first step is some research. What have other people said about Portal and Portal 2? The list of blog entries and reviews is pretty substantial, and there are some very good ideas out there. But there's a problem: none of these are really peer-reviewed publications; that is, they aren't published by professionals after (usually anonymous) review and editing by fellow specialists. Basically, no one in Academia has talked about Portal specifically. It's a little disappointing, but also understandable and exciting; there are no ideas for me to use as a springboard, but that's because this game is so new, in a rather niche field, and it means I'm really breaking into new fresh territory with this project.

Still, I need some outside research for a well-rounded analysis. Solution: broaden the scope to video games and teaching. Ah hah! With some judicious trimming of search parameters, I've snagged about twenty peer-reviewed articles. Looking towards books, it's no secret that Kennesaw State's physical holdings are meager in any area. However, we have a wonderful new tool via EBSCOhost's new eBook database. Voilà: a dozen full-blown book-length studies and anthologies. So now I have a nice, hefty stack of reading to sift through for ideas.

I haven't finished, but I wanted to talk about a recurring theme in many papers and introductory chapters: an apologia for video games. It's sad and silly all at the same time. No one feels the need anymore to say, "Hey, this Socratic method thing is pretty wild, but listen, it can be effective." (Though apparently, it can get you fired.) Neither does anyone make formal arguments about the inclusion of multimedia elements in lesson plans or that wild and wacky thing called a whiteboard.

The notion that the pedagogical utility of games in general and video games in specific needs to be carefully defended is silly because play is fundamental to learning. Games are effectively heavily-constructed problem-solving tasks with built-in formative feedback. They accomplish almost naturally (I say "almost" because they are designed, after all), what good teachers struggle to do with every lesson: motivate students to confront, analyze and overcome a challenge.

This mania for apologia is sad because it seems like so many academicians and pedagogues have their serious-pants on a little too tight. Don't they remember the joy of play, the freedom of exploration and jubilation of victory; those "Eureka!" moments? Didn't they learn something from those experiences, too?

On one hand, of course, we have to realize where this skepticism - or perceived, potential skepticism - comes from. Video games have a bad rap, so much so that there have been Congressional hearings about violence in contemporary video games and their potential to warp impressionable minds, blah, blah, blah. Videos games are largely thought of as commercial products and diversions - so much so that educational games have developed their own moniker: "serious games." It's difficult to think of a more Orwellian paradox of a term.

To boot, a little skepticism is healthy in the professional realm. Technology should serve instruction, after all; the latter should not bend to the latest fad just because it might better motivate a slice of the demographic pie. While games may be an exciting innovation for effective instruction, the jury's still out about how well they contribute to effective learning. That is, do players/students retain the knowledge, skills and attitudes they acquire during play/study and are they able to apply them later in a different context? To a certain degree, it's a chicken and egg conundrum. There's relatively little evidence because video games as pedagogy are thin on the ground and not many people are using video games to teach because the hard evidence isn't there. (Round and round we go...) Moreover, developing effective video games is a complex endeavor that usually entails a whole team of people with divergent sets of skills, aims and backgrounds. Even more than that, recent findings are conflicting: half of the studies show that games are more effective than traditional instructional techniques, the other half say "not so much..." (Full disclosure, there's a third edition of this book that I've just ordered. Maybe there's something new since 2008.)

But what I'm really interested in with Portal is not so much its uses in the classroom (though I can imagine many), but the way it models good teaching design. Michele Dickey is on the right track with her 2005 article "Engaging by Design," analyzing computer game design and its potential as a model for instructional design. Put simply: good video games are good lesson plans.

Check out her hypothesis yourself the next time you're playing a video game for the first time. Game tutorials are short-cuts: deductive lessons that are time-effective, but often retention-poor. More intelligent games (like Portal) teach you the inherent rules as you go along, using concepts like Vygotsky's zone of proximal development to help you slowly pick up the necessary skills to succeed, and then they let you jump the track and go wild behind the scenes.
Michele Dickey. "Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design." Educational Technology Research and Development. 53(2). 67-83.

1 comment:

TheLittleDeath said...

For quite some time now I have been considering if (really, how) theory as it relates to film and other texts could be applied to video games. I am not only thinking of their cinematic cut scenes, but game play, and, probably most importantly, the interaction/dialogue between individuals (online or within the game). This 'Game Theory' is apparently a real thing with a Wikipedia page to prove it, and some very smart guy wrote his dissertation around a few of these ideas in Denmark in 2007. Solid internet stuff aside, I do not think that if I really tried to pursue these ideas while at KSU it would not be... welcomed, at least as more than a passing novelty. Very recently a professor told me that an adult (me, in this particular conversation) playing video games was a waste of time and "infantile."
So, it is nice to see someone (who happens to be intelligent) outside of my small group of nerdy gaming friends who sees (educational) value in video games.