Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review: Videogames and Education by Harry J. Brown

Videogames and Education (History, Humanities, and New Technology)Videogames and Education by Harry J. Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brown’s engaging read can serve as a primer for looking at video games. The first section, poetics, looks at video games through the lens of storytelling, aesthetics and film. He points out the two approaches of seeing video games: Ludologists who essentially see them as puzzles and Narratologists who see them as story. One difficulty in looking at games as stories is that they lack a clear central narrative  - but this is judging them as traditional literature. At their best games weave multiple threads, with the player a part of the story, presenting perhaps a conversation, or a shared performance, more than a telling, with an end result that is more “history”, rather than novel. Perhaps games have not yet found their Dickens, as Brown suggests, but we don’t judge all literature by the most hackneyed romance novels. The great works may be just around the corner, but they won’t be like books. This book does a good job in placing games in a wider context, but also notes that they remain ‘other’ – a point Brown re-inforces by pointing out how badly games have translated into movies!

I think Gee has argued that games are inherently educational, that their structure begets learning though the problem solving required in games. Brown, I think, would be more cautious, and in several places he emphasizes that games do not replace educators, but ask them to be more like guides, than the source of all wisdom. Some of the controversy over the use of gaming in schools is more clearly as discussion of what and how students should be taught, rather than a disagreement of the efficacy of the methods. But in the second section of the book, Rhetoric, Brown talks about the rhetoric of interactivity, the idea that playing a game, or perhaps using ‘playful mechanics’, is a fundamentally different engagement for students than reading, listening or watching. It’s an engagement that he sees relating to the teaching of empathy, but it also ties into different learning styles for different students. Maybe some, but not all, students will learn better this way.

In the final section, “pedagogy” he examines education, identity and communication, and finally “modding” using the tools of gaming to create new environments. He looks at the creation of social spaces and points out that for effective learning these spaces still need to be mediated. I personally doubt that shy students are suddenly ‘freed’ by a virtual identity, bullying still occurs on the online world. But equally an online environment changes the social dynamic, and its emphasis on non-verbal communication is clearly a benefit for some students.

In most of the literature I’m reading, and in this book, there seems to be a lack of clarity at times about what video games are. Some arguments seem to relate as much to games, as video games. Do video games have to consist of an immersive space? Are we criticizing the games, or the biases, and failures, of the gamemakers. How is the aspect of social media playing out in learning? While there is discussion of MMORPG’s how does playing alone, or in a group shape the learning experience? What are the implications for distance learning?

For both fiction and non-fiction I often feel that a books ‘success’ for a reader depends when it is read. For me this book served came at the right time, broadening my understanding and leaving me with the desire both to go back and re-read certain sections and follow some threads and questions into cyber space.

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