This isn’t a reaction to the panels I’ve attended at the meeting: they had some educational or learning games that I thought were terrific, smart, well-designed, and educationally effective. It’s more a reaction to some of the games I saw in the poster session or heard about in conversations.
The obvious thing to claim would be that some learning games suck because the people making them are untalented or underresourced. Or that there is some particular design failure in the game that can be avoided or fixed. That’s not it at all. Some of the bad learning games come from perfectly competent, well-meaning people who have sufficient resources to build what they’ve planned to build and they’ve made perfectly decent design decisions about the game.
The problem is that some learning games get made because someone charged with the mission of education (teaching students, educating publics, training professionals) needs to accomplish one of two things (or both of them). They have to justify their own professional existence and institutional responsibilities when they are tasked to endlessly improve educational efficacy, tied to endless progress. Or they’ve been assigned responsibility to address some small persistent reservoir of incapacity, some subject that a small number of students don’t learn or some issue that some small fraction of the public doesn’t understand the way that advocates believe they should.
Professionals who are in these circumstances cannot say, “Well, we teach what we can with the methods that we have, and whatever we can’t teach or isn’t being learned, too bad”. Many of them are responsible for producing a sense of eternal progression. When there’s no more traction on one pedagogical method, it is possible to produce that sense of progression through shifting to a new method, such as “educational games”.
So, for example, let’s say you’re thinking about public health and you want to address the problem of people who take too many aspirin to manage non-recurrent pain. Honestly, you’re not going to improve on clear written warnings on aspirin itself, regular advice from doctors with reinforcement from pharmaceutical professionals. It wouldn’t hurt to formally study people who have had medical consequences from one-time overuse of aspirin and maybe you could have some tentative sense of just how many people have done so.
But designing a game, whether simple or complex, open-ended or narrowly didactic, which is narrowly tailored to substitute for or complement written and verbal warnings about aspirin, is if nothing else a serious misuse of resources. There is nothing a game can do that simpler, terser, cheaper methods of communication cannot do, no one that game will reach who was otherwise unreached or unpersuaded. All that building a game in this case will do is give the designers a sense that they have tried to make further progress towards educational perfection. The player in “Don’t Take More Than Two” just has to sigh and endure a time-consuming exercise in the screamingly obvious.
The same thing goes for K-12 or college classrooms. There are many kinds of information and learning that a game can only deliver in a hopelessly Rube Goldberg manner compared to more conventional pedagogies. The educational games that work (and I saw plenty of those) are the ones that use games to help students understand processes, procedures, ways of being and thinking, in an open-ended way. If you’ve got one ideal or perfect “state of mind” that you didactically insist your students or the public should hold about a particular issue or question, a game is a truly crappy way to get them there. (I’d suggest that there’s a more fundamental problem with that basic objective, but that’s another issue.)
I know I’m preaching to the choir in terms of the scholars I know best and talk to most at a meeting like GLS, but even as an outsider to this particular subfield, I’m frustrated by the stubborn persistence of didactic and unnecessary games that mostly satisfy the professional needs of their creators rather than the needs of the unfortunates who will at some point be compelled to play or experience those games.