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/ log / 13th Apr, 2011

Games — A waste of time

  1. Wed, 13th Apr 2011
  2. 2 Comments
  3. Steinkuehler
  4. Method
  5. Waste of Time
  6. Adult Education

“Educational games are a waste of time. Or do you know any professor playing games?” In keeping with the motto ‘A staunch claim is better than weak evidence’ a colleague caught me flat-footed. The conviction with which the argument was stated left no other conclusion: Even the ones who propagate the advantages of video games in education do not use them theirselves. They do not have the time for playing games. Why should they use them instead of much more effective ways of gaining knowledge. — In an instant my complete derivation of thoughts crumpled away to dust in my mind’s eye. A pretty demotivating moment when you think at once about the time you have already spent. I needed some minutes to recover. I had once answered these questions for myself. But they got buried under contemporary thoughts, when you already think about video games and learning at a more advanced level every day. But despite of the first shock this subject and it’s background turned up in different facets in the following two weeks.

In her blog article Fun and games in adult learning Nicola Whitton contributed indirectly: She said that adult learners learn more strategically and always seek the “most efficient way possible”. Something that games are usually not affiliated to. Through my interjection that voluntariness plays an important part in this context, we concluded in the following discussion that games will not improve teaching just by themselves. They are just another method that has to be implemented and applied correctly.

A book review at ZEIT Online about a book from Prof. Roth, a brain researcher at the university of Bremen, linked to this subject some days later. In his book ‘Literacy needs Personality’, concerning especially the physiologic part of learning, he emphasizes the central role of a “motivated teacher” within the learning process. “His engagement and surgency determine whether he is able to carry along his pupils.”

In contrast to that a video portrait of Constance Steinkuehler at the university of Madison: She states a “literacy crisis of boys” in the United States and their “disaffiliation from school”. Her following explanations seems to me like games are the only solution to that. But does that not mean that something went wrong much earlier? I do not have the impression that children, or let it be boys, can only be reached by video games though I agree with most of her other arguments.

In adult education it is vice versa: Because of the costs and the lack of time there is an emphasis on effective learning. Adult students in further education have a professional background. They have a pretty goof idea about what they need and want to learn. Video games do have an aura of ineffectiveness in this context. Learners have to be led to them to see their advantages. If they do not develop an intrinsic interest, games will not improve education.

A quote of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry gives an idea about what this is all about:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Another quote, commonly attributed to William Butler Yeats (though there are doubts), puts it into a nutshell:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

A method — and a video game is nothing more — only works when it is applied meaningfully; When there is a motivated and motivating teacher who is responsive or bridges to the interests of his learners. I presume a professor knows his interests and is able to develop his way of exploration all by himself. And because usually he enters unknown territory nobody can have developed a game to help in this situation.

So I can just conclude with the closing words of Nicola Whitton to our discussion:

“Games have to be seen as simply another teaching tool, with drawbacks as well as benefits, rather than the panacea to all teaching ills that they are sometimes evangelically painted as.”


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  1. 1 by Heinrich on 28th Apr 2011 at 19:29

    I faced the same problem as your colleague wink: Some friends, especialley those from other research areas made this claim - games are a waste of time - too. Until now my preliminary conclusions are:
    * Games are an additional media, an additional instrument in the hand of educators.
    * Every person has preferred media, so games increase the number of persons reached by educational media.
    * For those kids, Prof. Steinkuehler cites, definitely something went wrong. Games are a way to reach them again and to have a chance to cure them partly, to focus their interests, to give them self-confidence.
    * The grade of usage of games in education may reciprocally proportional to the extrinsic motivation of the learners, i.e. if learners cannot be motivated extrinsically, they may be captured by the fun of a game. And vice versa: If a learner wants to achieve a diploma, he learns voluntarily with high engagement without games.

  2. 2 by Thomas Bröker on 2nd May 2011 at 19:06

    Yes, games extend the possible media. But I think it is not the primary reason to develop them; Or at least not for me. In my opinion they are the better medium to implement certain learning scenarios, especially in distance learning. The biggest problem why they are not applied more often is that the cost of development is still quite a big minus point concerning the cost-benefit ratio.

    So I do not agree that the grade of their usage is — or should be — an indicator for the ratio of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation of the learners. Games should not be used just to deliver fun to learning. An educational game should be a method to improve the learning process and support intrinsic motivation. Concerning the case mentioned by Prof. Steinkuehler they could be a last possibility to reach the target group.

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