Q&A: Games in the Classroom Should be About Exploration, Not Answers


6.25.13 | Constance Steinkuehler is an associate professor in Digital Media at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She codirects the Games+Learning+Society (GLS) Center at the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery and chairs their annual conference. From 2011 to 2012, she served as Senior Policy Analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy where she advised on national education initiatives related to games.

This is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: Let me start by asking you what your thinking was in terms of digital media and literacy six years ago.

Constance Steinkuehler: I was trying to make a plausibility argument in my own work around the question “what kind of intellectual skills are young people acquiring in virtual spaces?” That was my big question.

Spotlight: Is that still your big question?

CS: My thinking on this has changed. I thought I was studying games as a digital medium, but it turns out the phenomenon I’m studying is actually engaged learning. What does it take for young people to learn concepts that usually we suck the joy out of?

Spotlight: That’s interesting. What does engaged learning look like?

CS: Let me tell you about a story from some research. We did a two-year study of teenage boys in an afterschool program. It was a highly varied sample of boys who were all disengaged at school but who loved games. We started seeing that kids who were struggling with reading in school were actually reading college-level texts as part of their game play in our lab and understanding what they read quite readily. We knew they understood it because we saw them draw inferences from the texts and implement them in the game, which requires deep comprehension. So now I know I’m really interested in the question “What does learning look like when you understand the goals and you care about them?”

Spotlight: That makes me think about this sense I’ve gotten from a lot of people who helped get game studies off the ground that they’re kind of sick of the topic of “games.”

CS: Yes, I think there have been a lot of overblown statements about what games can do. There’s too much hype. If you look at the trajectory of any research topic you usually have an explosion of interest, then overapplication and over-the-top claims, and then people settle down to the hard business of getting the work done. I think it’s good that people are like “okay, please stop with the hyperbole and let’s get down to brass tacks.” 

I think there have been a lot of overblown statements about what games can do. There’s too much hype.

Spotlight: That makes sense.

CS: The thing that is frustrating is that funders misunderstand how to use games. They’re still really overly focused on coming up with games that will address their particular goal, or topic, or agency agenda. That’s a very flat-footed treatment of what games can do. 

Spotlight: Why doesn’t focusing on a topic work?

CS: It’s like hiring a tabernacle choir to hum. If you want students to explain to you what’s on a multiple choice test, I can think of a lot more efficient ways of doing that than creating a game. If what you want is an answer and not an exploration then I don’t recommend pretending you’re looking for an exploration. Students are very attuned to bullshit.       

Spotlight: What’s a concrete example of this?

CS: I was approached by an organization that wanted to address the problem of dental hygiene among young people through a massively multiplayer online game. I started looking at it and it turned out the problem they were trying to solve wasn’t even about kids! It was about moms and dads who don’t have the time or resources to take their kids to the dentist. The problem they were trying to solve really had no connection to gaming. It was just a misapplication.

Spotlight: How does assessment fit into all this?

CS: This is probably the biggest problem—there isn’t much clever work being funded asking what kind of analytic is the right analytic when you’re dealing with games. MacArthur [Foundation] has done a better job than most. But there aren’t enough studies looking not only at what content the kid learned but also at what kind of genuine interest was generated. Does the student actually care about the topic, or feel autonomy or power to act based on what she’s learned? A lot of the problem is we’re still obsessed with the content of games. The best games are not necessarily wagging a finger at someone and telling them what they need to know. The best games are really Trojan Horses, but we don’t like to admit that. If you admit that, you don’t get funding.

Spotlight:  So what’s the upside?

CS: Well, on the other hand, some of the design strategies and research strategies that are coming out of games have been a real catalyst for moving the conversation forward. In many ways, games force you to study learning outside of an environment that is already predetermined by our education system. And that work has played a huge role in helping us put pressure on the Department of Education and other traditional institutions to reconsider what they’re doing. I don’t think any of that would have happened if not for all the work looking at informal learning spaces—MacArthur in particular. I was just invited to talk at the Institute of Education Sciences—you truly cannot get a more conservative assessment-based view of education. That would never have happened five years ago.

Spotlight: Tell me about the level of the DML conversation in DC. Are you still saying, “no really, games can actually be good for you?” Or has it moved on?

CS: The investments have been going for a while, but they’ve lacked coherence. And what would you expect? You can’t expect someone who is an expert in energy consumption to know anything about games. But they want to invest in the space because they see that maybe instead of treating everything like policy, maybe they should also be thinking in terms of designing information and interactivity. I think what you’re going to see on the federal side is a cascade of investments. They may not be in games specifically, but for the first time they will include language that courts game-type solutions to their problems.

Spotlight: So what needs to happen next?

The truth of the matter is our best bet is partnerships between academics and indie game designers.

CS: We need to be more flexible and nimble in the way we collaborate. Look, game companies like EA [Electronic Arts] may be sticking their toes in the water, but the truth is those big companies are interested in making money. You can talk to them until you’re blue in the face about the importance of games and learning, but it’s a hard sell for a company that has to show profit to its shareholders every quarter. The truth of the matter is our best bet is partnerships between academics and indie game designers.

Spotlight: Why’s that?

CS: Because academics are nerds who actually care about problems that agencies and foundations care about—obesity, poverty, unhappiness. Do you really think a large, straight-up entertainment company gives a crap about that stuff? They don’t. It’s not their job. The name of the game right now is matching up academic researchers with designers who have been doing triple-A titles and are desperate for something more satisfying or indie designers who are all about amazing creative challenges. Then they can figure out together how to use grants and other means to subsidize initial prototype development. It has to be a partnership, because if you’re going to do this, you have to have data. You have to have research.

Spotlight: What else?

CS: The second thing we have to do is start building on the partnerships that already exist between universities. If we want to show impact on a grand scale, then we need to start using one another’s instruments and connecting our data sets so that we can actually understand what’s going on. In other words, we need to build partnership and infrastructure. We also really need to think about how do we connect to the market. Michael Levine and the Games and Learning Publishing Council are really taking the lead on that, which is good, because if most of these games are going to be built out of academic institutions, I can promise you that none of them know crap about marketing. 

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