It seems like no matter where you turn these days, stakeholders are throwing out hyperbole surrounding the affordances of games. One doesn’t have to look beyond Jane McGonigal’s supporters and detractors to see the range in which things can be vastly overstated for whatever their purpose might be. I wanted to take a little bit of time today to hone in on the one statement: games have the power to save the world.
At the risk of putting words into McGonigal’s mouth, I’m not sure that even she believes that a group of gamers, controllers in hand, are going to be directly responsible for the cure for AIDS or cancer, solve the global energy crises, prevent world hunger, or even discover alien life. Distributive computing, even if it is gamified, isn’t the same thing as “gaming” and it just isn’t productive to give “gamers” as a subgroup (which almost has no meaning in this day and age given the percentage of people who play games) that kind of credit.
We’re clicking the wrong cow.
The power of games, especially in education, isn’t that games directly allow us to save the world. Even if you agree with Roger Travis that saving civilization is what education is all about, then the sum total of students’ entire experience equips them with what they need to better the human race, not just the components taken from their game-based learning courses. So what really makes games such key pieces of that educational puzzle? That’s an answer I didn’t start to formulate until I was asked a specific question by Nathan Maton in preparation for his Mindshift article.
“What is the most compelling part of the narrative for your students?”
It was only at that moment that I had the sudden realization that it’s not entirely the narrative that keeps the students engaged in the course. Certainly it plays a large role — the stories and the characters are engineered to allow students to care about the ancient world which we’ve constructed. This care and compassion for the fictional people in the fictional world unlocks the greatest power that games have (especially in the formative years of high school and into higher ed): the idea that you can be a part of saving the (virtual) world.
In a system where so much is dictated by summative measurements such as standardized test-scores and grades, there is seldom opportunity to learn how to be a part of something much larger than yourself. Game narratives — whether they involve finding an ancient stone with an inscription possessing the power to save the world in a practomimetic course or taking command of the Normandy to save the universe from the Reaper invasion in the Mass Effect trilogy — allow all of us to experience that feeling of saving the world in an immersive and instructive way much in the same way the Odyssey shows us how to be someone greater when our destinies required us to rise above our previous limits. Games allow for us to work through complicated frustration points, both individually and as a part of a collaborative unit, in a way that traditional curricula don’t, in their failure to allocate the time necessary to the scaffold the task of finding solutions to those problems.
In other words, the most compelling part for my students (and the greatest power of games in general) is the feeling that at the end of the course (or the game) they have played a part in saving their fictional world through tackling the complex problems they solved collaboratively — a feeling that they’ll take with them through the rest of their lives, and that they may never have experienced before. I hope that feeling will act as a foundation for their drive someday actually to save our world.