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Edugaming-A Bad Idea for All Ages

Edugaming-A Bad Idea for All Ages

The edugaming craze is based on ignorance

A GAGGLE OF SELF-PROFESSED futurists is currently filling education conference programs, professional journals and the media with wildly optimistic proclamations on the role of electronic games in schools. This current edugaming craze is based on sloppy thinking that (a) kids hate school, (b) kids love games, therefore, (c) we should sneak school into games. Though the conclusion represents deeply fl awed logic, edugaming is hardly a new idea. In fact, in 1990 Nintendo donated $3 million to Seymour Papert's research group at MIT with the hope that wondrous educational games would be created. Yet not a single tangible product resulted from this collaboration between one of the world's finest education research labs and the top video game company at the time.

To prove my contention that "in education, bad ideas are timeless," one need only peruse a conference program to find entrepreneurs who think they invented dancing fractions. But drill and practice programs and racing games where your player advances each time you answer an arithmetic problem correctly have been around in some form since World War II. Large publishing companies even wrap such "games" in expensive management systems that promise to adapt to each learner and report progress to Big Brother. However, there is little evidence that such computer assisted instruction-even when dressed as a game-does more than close the smallest gaps in skills or knowledge. Most educational games, even those created by leading proponents of edugaming, are little more than quizzes with primitive rewards and punishments. This hardly lives up to the rhetoric of edugaming champions.

Lessons from Video Games

There are many lessons to be learned by watching children play video games, most of which were known to education philosopher John Dewey a century ago. For example, children engage for long periods of time when interested in an activity, so the best motivation is intrinsic. Also, learning is creative and social, and not governed by a preset linear curriculum.

"In education, bad ideas are timeless."

Unfortunately, edugaming advocates cannot redesign school based on what they learn from observing kids playing games, so they apply educational games to an otherwise unchanged school system. These games fail educationally and financially and are despised by children. The hubris that leads to the creation of these games is based primarily on three types of ignorance:

Ignorance of learning. Shooting at mixed numerals or dropping dipthong bombs may seem like fun to adults who didn't grow up with video games, but these fall far short of the complexity and immersion "gamers" enjoy when playing commercial games. Console game interfaces also tend to reduce activities to the lowest levels of intellectual engagement, including true/false binary and multiple-choice quizzes. This, unfortunately, mirrors much of the ineffective curriculum.

Ignorance of gaming. Most edugaming proponents take no notice of different gaming genres or the fact that users tend to play only one type of game. Puzzle, strategy, role-playing and sports games are but a few of the genres, and each has its own devotees. When educators say "gaming," one must ask "What kind of game?" Popular computer games reward success with more difficult challenges, and many encourage modification by players, so victory usually requires working cooperatively with others. This is light years away from the curriculum, management and assessment priorities in schools.

Ignorance of business. Cramming schoolwork into a computer game is hardly as attractive to young people as Grand Theft Auto and will never justify the development costs.

In 1982, Pacman for the Atari 2600 cost $100,000 to design and manufacture, and in 2004, Halo 2 cost Microsoft $40 million to develop. A company can invest years and millions of dollars on a game only to have it rejected. This is a highstakes gamble that most developers lose. Edugames simply cannot compete in the marketplace economically.

Gary S. Stager,, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (