Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Will Wright, gaming, and the impact on higher education

The New Yorker's John Seabrook has an interview with Will Wright, creator of the The Sims franchise and Spore (still in development). In the interview, there is a debate on how a new generation of kids, raised on videogames, is impacting teaching and learning. Lara M. Brown, a professor of political science at California State University, Channel Islands has observed the following changes in her students, reports the New Yorker:
"Most of us are in agreement that this younger generation—raised on video games—has learned to be reactive, instead of active, and worse, they have lost their imaginative abilities and creativity because the games provide all of the images, sounds, and possible outcomes for them. Our students tend to not know how to initiate questions, formulate hypotheses, or lead off a debate because they like to wait to see what ‘comes at them.' They also have difficulty imagining worlds (places and/or historical times) unless you (as a professor) can provide them with a picture and a sound to go along with the words. . . . In essence, they seem to have lost the ability to visualize with their minds.”
This is how Wright reacted, according to the New Yorker:
Wright, though, believes that video games teach you how to learn; what needs to change is the way children are taught. “The problem with our education system is we've taken this kind of narrow, reductionist, Aristotelian approach to what learning is,” he told me. “It's not designed for experimenting with complex systems and navigating your way through them in an intuitive way, which is what games teach. It's not really designed for failure, which is also something games teach. I mean, I think that failure is a better teacher than success. Trial and error, reverse-engineering stuff in your mind—all the ways that kids interact with games—that's the kind of thinking schools should be teaching. And I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success or failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later. It's starting. Teachers are entering the system who grew up playing games. They're going to want to engage with the kids using games.”
I am inclined to agree with Wright. And it's not just because of his background (educated at a Montessori Schools) or success at making videogames that encourage creativity and experimentation (The article says that Sims players have gone on to become architects and urban architects, and Sims has attracted a huge legion of female fans). It's because of a few generalizations in Prof. Brown's argument, and a few observations of my own that contradict her conclusions.

Brown says the new generation has learned to be reactive, but doesn't quantify how reactive they are compared to previous generations. Also, how can she be sure that reactiveness is a result of videogames, and not television, twinkies, or some other factor? Many college students have grown up in households with cable or satellite television packages that have hundreds of channels, including specialty kids channels that are on 24 hours per day. Television encourages passivity to a far greater degree than videogames, which really do encourage exploration and testing -- even in the most mundane first-person shooter, players have to learn to use their equipment, and explore for secret passages or tricks to defeat their enemies. Certainly, Prof. Brown is entitled to her opinion, but to win people over she will need to present some quantitative research that isolates video games from other environmental factors in kids' lives.

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