How my thinking is evolving on learning through games these days….

About a year and a half ago, I shared some thoughts via a TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design) talk about boys, school culture, and gaming as a possible tool to re-engage boys in their own learning.  Since that time I’ve had a good deal of opportunity to talk to teachers, parents, scholars, school board members, activists, game designers, kids and others who are interested in these issues as a result of the attention the TED talk brought these ideas.

Through these conversations and as a result of much thinking about these issues, watching my own kids as they move through the world of education and the entirely separate world of gaming, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

1.              We should NOT be building better educational games.  In my TED talk I expressed frustration with the lack of funding for good educational games and indicated that we should figure out ways to make educational games as robust and interesting as World of Warcraft and other high-cost, high-impact games.  I have come to a very different way of thinking about this issue and it’s probably the biggest shift from my original ideas spawned over a year ago now.  Kids can smell an educational game a mile away.  And some will play them despite them being educational games.  But we should instead begin to look at the traditional games that kids are drawn to.  The OTS (off the shelf) games that they are already playing.  What we need to do is to welcome those kinds of games into the classroom and allow kids to play them.  We need to encourage them to understand, and to show us, as educators, what it is that they’re learning from the games that already engage them.  Then as educational experts, we need to map those learnings onto state standards and national core competencies.  I call this backward educational game design.  We need to realize that we’ll never compete with the OTS games and instead use them as material in the classroom to re-engage boys and other active kids who are struggling with the current school culture.

2.              We need to relax a little.  After thinking more about the zero tolerance policies and the concurrent drop in men teachers at the elementary level in particular, I really began to see that the key issue here isn’t gaming, or even boys, but the school culture which is too restrictive at this point.  Many schools are employing zero tolerance in logical and rational ways.  But far too many are using them to excuse poor management and allow our schools to handcuff 5 year olds.  I was stunned to learn that the highest number of school expulsions happens at the pre-school level, that preschoolers are 3.5 times more likely to be expelled than k-12 students, and that black boys are more than four and a half times as likely to be expelled as girls.  (  Something in this system is really broken, and rather than looking to the culture of the boys, their families, pointing out areas where their experiences are lacking, we should be looking at the culture of the school itself instead. It is almost beyond our reckoning that it could be the school rather than the child that needs to be fixed.  We are hyper-sensitive to all kinds of poor behavior that 20 or 30 years ago would have been tolerated, if slightly reprimanded. I am not advocating for bullying here, or for a tolerance for “boys being boys” or for allowing kids to bring weapons to school. Rather I’m calling for rational application of logical limits that are necessary when we bring hundreds of kids into close contact with one another.

3.              We need to recognize the real reasons we reject gaming as a solution.  In all my conversations with parents and teachers in particular post-TED talk, and most of these have been with moms and women, there is a sincere and caring attitude of worry for our boys. No one wants to lose a generation of boys, even the most avid feminist sees the importance of both genders coming to a secure, confident adulthood.  However, while almost all of those same moms, teachers, dads, principals, school board members accept and recognize that there is a significant and growing problem for boys and men in schools of all sorts today, they tend to dismiss the possibility that gaming could be a solution.  Now let me say, gaming is NOT the only solution, I don’t believe that for a moment. We need more recess, more kinesthetic learning, more engaging experiences, more hands-on learning.  But gaming is the solution I’m most interested in at the moment, and I thought that was because I’m an instructional technologist and tended toward school reform in the Trojan horse of technology solutions.

But I’ve changed my mind.  As I have had extended conversations about why not gaming, I’ve discovered three primary reasons, violence, competition, and individual achievement.  Not all reasons fall into these neat categories, but most of them do.  Most teachers and parents do not want their kids playing games that are violent at school  They’re sure that this will result in more violent behavior in their real lives. Let me assure you, to this point, such research is quite unclear and while there is lots of media attention to anti-gaming studies, in general, there is very little to pro-gaming.  It’s in media’s best interest to scare parents into believing that if their children become involved in a game, this fantasy will turn them into killers.  More people watch that report.  I am not an avid gamer, I’m not an apologist for the movement, or even for the level of violence and sex in many games.  It’s not what I would design if I were personally designing it (which is probably why I’m not a game designer), BUT these are games that are of great appeal to boys in particular.  When we reject games because they are violent, competitive, and laud individual achievement, are we truly rejecting games and gaming? Or are we rejecting boy culture?  As a mom, on the front lines of watching my kids (boys and girls) playing with games, I see that my boys are drawn to violent, competitive, individualistic games.  But it has made them no less sensitive to real sorrow in the world, it has made them no less empathetic to suffering or pain of others, it has made them no more likely to act in aggressive ways.  For them, it’s completely understood that this is not real, but part of their normal and natural development of fantasy life.  If we are really honest about this, I believe that we are, in fact, rejecting boy culture at least at the elementary level.  Rejecting it to such a point that boys no longer feel that they can be who they are in any way shape or form.  We decry high school and college drop out rates among men and boys, but I’ve got news, they dropped out in third grade, not as freshmen.  And gaming isn’t the cause of them dropping out.  I lay that charge squarely at the feet of a school system that has rejected their culture wholesale.

4.              Focus doesn’t equal addiction.   It is very important that we continue to give healthy limits to our kids’ interests whether they are exercise, sports, music, gaming, reading, or even school.  If we are to be a society with the true interests of our young at heart, then we must recognize that our own biases do enter into what we put restrictions on and what we do not.  In Misreading Masculinity we learn that our rejection of violence is more about rejecting certain kinds of violence that we associate with young, poor, typically black men and boys.  We reject the violence of gaming and music videos, but not the violence of Shakespeare because we understand the consumers of these two forms of entertainment as very different from one another.  Children do need limits, and gaming can become addictive, but it’s interesting that the same level of true engagement with a game is often seen as addiction while if this level of engagement is observed in a classroom, while listening to a teacher, it’s considered focus.  We accuse our boys of being unfocused to the point that they are four times as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as our girls.  But if you observed those same boys gaming, or at a scout meeting, or a YMCA program, or any one of a number of other activities, you’d see high levels of focused attention. Why?  Because they’re actually learning things they’re interested in, like how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to get to the next level of a game, how to execute a football tackle properly and so forth.  So something about school has failed, epically, to engage boys and active kids in their own learning.  Rather than demonizing all those things which make school that much less appealing by making the rest of the world exciting, we should instead begin to figure out how to make school that exciting.

In the end, my thinking has evolved a good bit over the past year or so.  I don’t think school is an awful or horrible place, it’s not a prison we lock our kids away in for six hours a day, five days a week, but for a kid, it can sure feel that way.  Schools need to really look at themselves and the way that those who live inside of them, boys, girls, teachers, parents, administrators, everyone, experience that school.  There is no single answer that we can adopt in every (or even many) schools to solve the problems of schools and the culture of boys.  Instead, I call for locally initiated, locally designed, locally implemented solutions for the specific problems that a given school or system is having.  Paying attention to the problems that boys are having is only one piece of the larger puzzle of school change.

5 Responses to How my thinking is evolving on learning through games these days….

  1. Pingback: How my thinking is evolving on learning through games these days…. | Attention must be paid

  2. Mark Sherman says:

    Thank you for your very interesting thoughts. The whole question of “boy culture” is an intriguing one, and whether parents and schools should try to bend it and restrict it is a major one in today’s world of school and parenting. I welcome your further thoughts on this issue, and those from others as well.

    • Anonymous says:

      I have to admit as an educator and now a parent of one totally fabulous boy…. I do not like video games. My son, desperate to play any game on the computer (like all the other boys he knows does) does settle for educational games, not only does he settle he screeches for joy when I let him play one. Sometimes I am glad that he enjoys the educational games and attribute this to the fact that he doesn’t get to do any other games. Other times I wonder if I am not overboard in my views. My reason for not letting him play games is a complex one. My reasons are far to complex to be discussed here. I am not saying I won’t ever change my mind. My children did not watch TV until they were three and now they watch PBS and occasional movies, they do not listen to the radio except NPR, but they love music and occasionally we go rollerskating where they hear PLENTY of pop music. I do expose them to many things other kids don’t get like outdoor time, art museums, and nightly family dinners.

  3. This is the best, most thoughtful commentary I’ve ever seen on these subjects. As a mom of four boys, I think you’re right: a lot of schools (and society) reject boy culture, and that’s a problem.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. As one who was educated non-conventionally in grade school, I found the benefits of not necessarily following a system. I entered college ahead of the game but found that while I was well equipped for tackling all that it could throw at me, I did not find the conventional learning method effective. College for most professions is over rated. It effectively help us pursue those things for which we are best suited. Educating boys to be thinkers, creators, and leaders is essential. Following a set code for getting it done is not. Look forward to checking out some more of this blog.

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