Gaming Pedagogy

Inspired by the game carneval ludopedagogy seminar I attented last month, some basics on the topic follow. This is mostly just unwinding stuff from my own head without a particular goal to it in the short term; in the long term I wouldn’t mind working on some new pedagogical gaming; it’s an interesting topic, after all, and definitely worth exploring. So consider this material simply preparatory, and perhaps I’ll come back to it in some more concrete manner at some point.

What are the requirements of pedagogy?

A pedagogy, as noun, is a model or theory of teaching. As such it requires the following to exist:

  • An understanding of subject matter to be taught. This may well be a most complex epistemological question, simply because often enough our understanding of the role of the teacher and benefits of teaching is muddled by social pressures and unfounded expectations. When the subject material to be taught is something complex like “virtue”, good luck trying to get an analytical handle on what it is and how it is stored by a human. Skills, knowledges, habits… all need different pedagogies by the virtue of their differences.
  • An understanding of the mechanics of learning, applicable to the subject material. In other words, the pedagogy needs to specify the mechanism by which the learning happens. Pedagogy without a transmitting factor is mysticism, not craft.
  • A comparative practical context in which to gauge the usefulness and applicability of the pedagogy. Some of the highlights here include teaching resources, study motivation and student psychology: just like a radical political system will certainly be most perfect for a community of individuals hand-picked for the system, almost any pedagogy will be most perfect if applied by people who just happen to act just like the system requires. This is of no use to us as educators, we need to construct tools for the craft of pedagogy, and we need to make them practical.

Speaking of teaching by play, or ludopedagogy, all of the above points bring up crucial questions: what should be taught via play? What can be taught via play?
How, exactly, do we imagine play to transmit the desired subject matter? And most importantly: how does ludopedagogy compare with traditional methods of teaching? Is it faster or slower in teaching a given subject matter? Are the results more uniform across a body of students? Is it cheaper in some manner? Easier for the teacher or student?

What does gaming teach?

As it stands historically, what kinds of things does gaming teach? This question is largely parallel to asking what art teaches us; in both cases we are interested in the virtues of the practice itself detached from pedagogy. This is important, because analyzing gaming in the wild might give us some clues as to what subject matters might be taught via games in a more formal condition as well. Following the analogy of art, several arts are considered so beneficient to the practitioner that they themselves are actually not methods of teaching, but subject matter themselves for our school system. Perhaps gaming is the same, useless as a teaching tool but beneficient to learn?

  • Ethology and comparative psychology hold that play is an important part of early growth process for both humans and a wide swath of other animals. This might be considered a tacit implication that there’s something important to games, even if an exact pedagogical model would still be up in the air.
  • Competition is primarily learned via games. It’s also considered quite an important thing to learn, when it comes to the vague and largely non-curricular area of social skills. I would also hazard that while our school system as it stands tries to teach cooperation, another important social skill, via cooperative learning assignments, it might be that games would prove more efficient in this role.
  • Going even more vague, if possible, my own experience is that games have taught me to think in a rigorous, orderly manner, and to apply logic and analysis to practical problems. I would have great difficulty pointing at any real pedagogical mechanism as the cause here, just as I couldn’t outright say what is the use of this particular skill and why a society might wish to teach it. Even more problematic, nothing proves that this personally perceived effect is more efficient or even significant compared to other ways of learning to think.

The reason I ramble about ludopedagogy here is that it’s really a quite fascinating question to consider whether the social activity of gaming could be harnessed for the purposes of education in a completely artificial manner, outside the above list of “natural” affinities taught by games. I could well imagine that we have a future ahead of us where games are taught in schools the same as music, literature and other fine arts are today – this is, however, a different proposition than using games as the pedagogical factor itself. While the former is, to my mind at least, a foregone conclusion in the long term (and I’m available for a curriculum planning committee whenever we get around to it!), the question of whether games have something to offer to pedagogy itself is a fine and interesting one.

Hypothetical ludopedagogies

Here follow some hypothetical ideas on ludopedagogy. They concern both the subject matter to be taught as well as the pedagogical mechanism utilized in the process of learning. All are, to my mind, worthy of further consideration and testing.

  • Consider learning as an activity: it can be slow and arduous for the student. A potential pedagogical mechanism to be levered in ludopedagogy is to attack the techniques of study and give them recreational reward cycles, akin to how games (and art, certainly) achieve their enjoyability. Ulterior reward mechanisms are both universally accepted (as part of the universal schooling initiative) and unilaterally reviled (in that academic pedagogy tends to judge against motivating students with explicit ulterior rewards), so it’s not a simple matter whether a game can unify study motivations and come out as a genuinely educative and enjoyable practice. Certainly this approach is in unabashed use in the edutainment industry, regardless of effectiveness at higher grades.
  • Consider interactivity: games are interactive and designed as self-correcting, regularized environments purposefully directed by the game designer through various states. The majority of game design is socially interactive as well, as the gameplay happens between several players. The discipline of the players, as well as purposefulness, is several degrees above even the best class-room, not to speak of the degrees of interactivity. From a game design viewpoint the lecturing teacher is the utmost in interactive simplicity, intentionally designed to minimize communication among a group striving at the common goal of learning. The difference in analytical approach is staggering when the structural tools of game design are brought in.
  • Consider subject matter: the core subjects of general education are stratified and encapsulated already. We know, or at least any given educator knows, what he should be teaching to students. This is an ideal situation for game design, which thrives no specified, artificial frameworks. I have great difficulty believing that we don’t already have games with topics like “Spanish as second language”. Or at least, we don’t have any that would be interesting for an adult mind.

What little experience I have with pedagogical gaming is very much directed at autodidactism; I want to have powerful learning tools for my own self-improvement, creating edutainment with pink teddy bears for 5-year olds is not very high on my own list of interests. Consequently my greatest interest in this regard has traditionally lain with language learning, an area of scholastic pursuit where I’m just awful myself. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve entertained these projects last, so perhaps it’s soon time to revisit those pastures and see if I can improve on what I’ve created so far. And really, learning a new language is certainly something a person should do at least every decade, just to keep the mind going…

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