This is (Not) Just a Test: Ender’s Game and the Gamification of Testing
5.23.12 | We’ve written recently about high-stakes testing and robot graders, as well as how games could end up replacing testing—or, at least, how games could cloak testing in a more dynamic, authentic activity that kids would enjoy.
The gamification of testing—as well as other parts of our lives—always makes me recall the classic, and prescient, science fiction novel “Ender’s Game,” the first of a series of award-winning novels by Orson Scott Card that explore the adventures and maturing of Ender, a boy in a futuristic Earth who must lead Earth’s fight against an alien—and apparently hostile—race of “Buggers.”
It just so happens the long-awaited film adaptation is now in the works, with Gavin Hood directing, Asa Butterfield (star of “Hugo”) playing the title character, and a cast that includes Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin and Viola Davis. Cinema Blend’s Kelly West has been keeping track of the “Ender’s Game” production blog and has good write-ups on the story and the coming film, which is scheduled for release Nov. 1, 2013.
One of most fascinating elements in the first novel—originally published in 1985—is the Mind Fantasy Game. At the Battle School that Ender is forced to attend, the military leaders have crafted a type of first-person video game that students play on their portable, tablet-esque desks (bringing to mind a very early envisioning of an iPad-centric educational system).
The game is not mere distraction, however—nor is it simply something as straightforward as a training ground for military skills and tactics. The novel ultimately includes more elaborate game simulators for that type of skill-building.
What few students understand is that their game-playing is closely monitored by military leaders who want to understand the students’ psychological readiness for combat and, especially in Ender’s case, leadership. The readers get to eavesdrop in on the military leaders’ conversations as they secretly watch the students play in real-time. Slight, vague spoiler alert: Ender ends up breaking the boundaries of the game—and forcing the game’s artificial intelligence to envision challenges for Ender even the military leaders had not devised.
The multiple layers of game-playing in the narrative act as a model and a warning to the future, game-centric world that many educators are envisioning. The Mind Fantasy Game is certainly effective in both engaging the students and testing their abilities on many levels. But, by not telling the students the full truth about the high stakes of the game, it is also a manipulation of the students’ hearts and minds—one which the narrative itself questions and criticizes. A character named Bean refuses to play the game at all because he suspects what is behind it.
Perhaps most disturbingly—again, minor spoiler alert coming—if Ender did not push the boundaries of the game and force it to adapt to his particular intelligence, he would have remained limited within the confines of what the power-that-be thought was important. Any closed gaming system, in fact, while certainly holding out the promise of engagement and skill-building, will have the limits of its creators.
It’s good to know from one of the producers of the film adaptation that the Mind Fantasy Game sequences—which could have easily been excised for the sake of the larger narrative—seem to be one of the favorite parts of the book for the filmmakers. So, if you don’t get around to reading the novel by next November, you can prepare to have your mind blown—or should I say tested—on the big screen.
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