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Video games and the future of learning

December 2004

David Williamson Shaffer Kurt R. Squire Richard Halverson James P. Gee

University of Wisconsin-Madison and

Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory


Will video games change the way we learn? We argue here for a particular view of games—and of learning—as activities that are most powerful when they are personally meaningful, experiential, social, and epistemological all at the same time. From this perspective, we describe an approach to the design of learning environments that builds on the educational properties of games, but deeply grounds them within a theory of learning appropriate for an age marked by the power of new technologies. We argue that to understand the future of learning, we have to look beyond schools to the emerging arena of video games. We suggest that video games matter because they present players with simulated worlds: worlds which, if well constructed, are not just about facts or isolated skills, but embody particular social practices. Video games thus make it possible for players to participate in valued communities of practice and as a result develop the ways of thinking that organize those practices. Most educational games to date have been produced in the absence of any coherent theory of learning or underlying body of research. We argue here for such a theory—and for research that addresses the important questions about this relatively new medium that such a theory implies.

Computers are changing our world: how we work... how we shop... how we entertain ourselves... how we communicate. how we engage in politics. how we care for our health.. The list goes on and on. But will computers change the way we learn?

We answer: Yes. Computers are already changing the way we learn—and if you want to understand how, look at video games. Look at video games, not because games that are currently available are going to replace schools as we know them any time soon, but because they give a glimpse of how we might create new and more powerful ways to learn in schools, communities, and workplaces—new ways to learn for a new information age. Look at video games because, although they are wildly popular with adolescents and young adults, they are more than just toys. Look at video games because they create new social and cultural worlds: worlds that help people learn by integrating thinking, social interaction, and technology, all in service of doing things they care about.

We want to be clear from the start that video games are no panacea. Like books and movies, they can be used in anti-social ways. Games are inherently simplifications of reality, and current games often incorporate—or are based on—violent and sometimes misogynistic themes. Critics suggest that the lessons people learn from playing video games as they currently exist are not always desirable. But even the harshest critics agree that we learn something from playing video games. The question is: how can we use the power of video games as a constructive force in schools, homes, and at work?

In answer to that question, we argue here for a particular view of games—and of learning—as activities that are most powerful when they are personally meaningful, experiential, social, and epistemological all at the same time. From this perspective, we describe an approach to the design of learning environments that builds on the educational properties of games, but deeply grounds them within a theory of learning appropriate for an age marked by the power of new technologies.

Video games as virtual worlds for learning

The first step towards understanding how video games can (and we argue, will) transform education is changing the widely shared perspective that games are "mere entertainment." More than a multi-billion dollar industry, more than a compelling toy for both children and adults, more than a route to computer literacy, video games are important because they let people participate in new worlds. They let players think, talk, and act—they let players inhabit—roles otherwise inaccessible to them. A 16 year old in Korea playing Lineage can become an international financier, trading raw materials, buying and selling goods in different parts of the virtual world, and speculating on currencies. A Deus Ex player can experience life as a government special agent, where the lines between state-sponsored violence and terrorism are called into question.

These rich virtual worlds are what make games such powerful contexts for learning. In game worlds, learning no longer means confronting words and symbols separated from the things those words and symbols are about in the first place. The inverse square law of gravity is no longer something understood solely through an equation; students can gain virtual experience walking on worlds with smaller mass than the Earth, or plan manned space flights that require understanding the changing effects of gravitational forces in different parts of the solar system. In virtual worlds, learners experience the concrete realities that words and symbols describe. Through such experiences, across multiple contexts, learners can understand

complex concepts without losing the connection between abstract ideas and the real problems they can be used to solve. In other words, the virtual worlds of games are powerful because they make it possible to develop situated understanding.

Although the stereotype of the gamer is a lone teenager seated in front of a computer, game play is also a thoroughly social phenomenon. The clearest examples are massively multiplayer online games: games where thousands of players are simultaneously online at any given time, participating in virtual worlds with their own economies, political systems, and cultures. But careful study shows that most games—from console action games to PC strategy games—have robust game playing communities. Whereas schools largely sequester students from one another and from the outside world, games bring players together, competitively and cooperatively, into the virtual world of the game and the social community of game players. In schools, students largely work alone with school-sanctioned materials; avid gamers seek out news sites, read and write faqs, participate in discussion forums, and most importantly, become critical consumers of information. Classroom work rarely has an impact outside of the classroom; its only real audience is the teacher. Game players, in contrast, develop reputations in online communities, cultivate audiences as writers through discussion forums, and occasionally even take up careers as professional gamers, traders of online commodities1, or game modders and designers. The virtual worlds of games are powerful, in other words, because playing games means developing a set of effective social practices.

By participating in these social practices, game players have an opportunity to explore new identities. In one well-publicized case, a heated political contest erupted for the president

of Alphaville, one of the towns in The Sims Online. Arthur Baynes, the 21 year old incumbent was running against Laura McKnight, a 14 year old girl. The muckraking, accusations of voter fraud, and political jockeying taught young Laura about the realities of politics; the election also gained national attention on NPR as pundits debated the significance of games where teens could not only argue and debate politics, but run a political system where the virtual lives of thousands of real players were at stake. The substance of Laura's campaign, political alliances, and platform—a platform which called for a stronger police force and an overhaul of the judicial system—shows how deep the disconnect has become between the kinds of experiences made available in schools and those available in online worlds. The virtual worlds of games are rich contexts for learning because they make it possible for players to experiment with new and powerful identities.

The communities that game players form similarly organize meaningful learning experiences outside of school contexts. In the various web sites devoted to the game Civilization., for example, players organize themselves around shared goal of developing expertise in the game and the skills, habits, and understandings that requires. At (a site devoted to the game), players post news feeds, participate in discussion forums, and trade screenshots of the game. But they also run a radio station, exchange saved game files in order to collaborate and compete, create custom modifications, and, perhaps, most uniquely, run their own University to teach other players to play the game more deeply. Apolyton University shows us how part of expert gaming is developing a set of values—values that highlight enlightened risk-taking, entrepreneurialship, and expertise, rather than formal accreditation emphasized by institutional education (Beck & Wade, 2004). If we look at the development of

game communities, we see that part of the power of games for learning is the way they develop shared values.

In other words, by creating virtual worlds, games integrate knowing and doing. But not just knowing and doing. Games bring together ways of knowing, ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of caring: the situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, and shared values that make someone an expert. The expertise might be of a modern soldier in Full Spectrum Warrior, a zoo operator in Zoo Tycoon, a world leader in Civilization III. Or it might be expertise in the sophisticated practices of gaming communities, such as those built around Age of Mythology or Civilization III.

There is a lot being learned in these games. But for some educators it is hard to see the educational potential in games because these virtual worlds aren't about memorizing words, or definitions, or facts.

Video games are about a whole lot more.

From the Fact Fetish to Ways of Thinking

A century ago, John Dewey argued that schools are built on a fact fetish, and it is still true today. The fact fetish views any area of learning—whether physics, mathematics, or history—as a body of facts or information. The measure of good teaching and to learning is the extent to which students can answer questions about these facts on tests.

But to know is a verb before it is a noun, knowledge. We learn by doing—not just by doing any old thing, but doing something as part of a larger community of people who share common goals and ways of achieving those goals. We learn by becoming part of a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and thus developing that community's ways of knowing, acting, being, and caring—the community's situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, and shared values.

Of course, different communities of practice have different ways of thinking and acting. Take, for the sake of example, lawyers. Lawyers act like lawyers. They identify themselves as lawyers. They are interested in legal issues. And they know about the law. These skills, habits, and understandings, are made possible by looking at the world in a particular way—by thinking like a lawyer. The same is true for doctors, but for a different way of thinking. And for architects, plumbers, steelworkers, and waiters as much as for physicists, historians, and mathematicians.

The way of thinking—the epistemology—of a practice determines how someone in the community decides what questions are worth answering, how to go about answering them, and how to decide when an answer is sufficient. The epistemology of a practice thus organizes (and is organized by) the situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, and shared values of the community. In communities of practice, knowledge, skills, identities, and values are shaped by a particular way of thinking into a coherent epistemic frame (Shaffer, 2004a). If a community of practice is a group with a local culture, then the epistemic frame is the grammar of the culture: the ways of thinking and acting that individuals learn when they become part of that culture.

Let's look quickly at an example of how this might play out in the virtual world of a video game. Full Spectrum Warrior (Pandemic Studios