Playing the Learning Game: Degree Directory Speaks with Tom Chatfield

Tom Chatfield is a U.K.-based game theorist and author of the book 'Fun, Inc.' - an analysis of the role that video games play in the 21st century. In 2010, he gave a talk at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference - a forum that includes big thinkers in all areas of knowledge production - about how fun and games can be harnessed as powerful tools for learning. Degree Directory caught up with him to learn more about his research and what lessons video games have to offer education.

Tom Chatfield What is your educational and professional background, and how did it lead you to become a 'video game theorist'?'

Tom Chatfield: I studied as an undergraduate and then a graduate at St. John's College, Oxford, researching contemporary literature and philosophy for my doctorate and teaching at a number of Oxford colleges. At the same time, I have always been fascinated by digital technology and its impact on culture, society and learning. This led me to do some design work for games companies.

Then, after I moved to London to work as a writer and editor, I began to spend an increasing amount of time exploring the video games sector, eventually researching a book on games and moving into writing and doing digital design and consulting full-time. Can you define the term 'video game theorist' for our readers? Your research and work definitely goes beyond just writing about video games - please tell us more about it.

TC: I'm interested in games because they are one of the most innovative and popular cutting edges of digital culture - and because I have always believed that notions of fun and play connect to many of our most fundamental behaviors as human beings, and in particular to learning. But I'm certainly not just interested in games: As much as anything, I hope that my background in literature and philosophy equips me to extend the discussion of games and digital technology beyond its conventional limits, and into dialogue with other arts and sciences. In your recent book, Fun, Inc., you examine the way that games engage our brain's pleasure centers. Can you tell us more about this phenomenon, and the skills that video games are imparting to frequent gamers?

TC: In one sense, games are simply teaching people to get better at whatever core activities a particular game consists of. The key point is that a good game is an astonishingly good way of teaching someone to do something. Indeed, you could argue that most games are best understood as concentrated teaching experiences - neurologically speaking, people love few things more than learning, and the kind of gradual mastery combined with moment-to-moment immersion that games can offer is powerful stuff.

Beyond this, I think it's important to differentiate between the ways in which games structure rewards - something that has real overlaps with the mechanisms that make gambling so appealing - and those things that make for a satisfying experience of actually playing. The best games achieve an incredible combination of effects. You see this at its most powerful in the kind of training tools that people from the military to doctors are already starting to use, with virtual training environments and complex systems modeled and made accessible in a way that really can't be done elsewhere. Similarly, for teaching multitasking, systems analysis, decision-making and a lot of team-based skills, many modern multi-player games are fantastic learning and engagement environments. You've suggested that the neurological reward systems tapped by video games could be harnessed in education. How do you propose that we apply this feedback system to learning?

TC: In many ways, none of the lessons here are new. They're very old psychological principles, which game-playing taps into on a very basic level. What is new is the expertise the games industry has to offer - and the sheer quantity and quality of data it has at its disposal, which means in turn that the methods it uses to keep people engaged are extremely sophisticated and finely-honed.

As I outlined in a talk at TED in 2010, I'm especially interested in learning particular lessons about rewarding effort rather than punishing failure, giving people multiple, clear objectives in both the long and short term, establishing clear, frequent and rapid feedback, using elements of chance and variety to boost engagement, harnessing the presence of other people as a motivating factor and offering more sophisticated progress systems than old-fashioned marks of grades, based on the kind of character profiles that we see giving people such a powerful sense of ownership of in-game characters. Are there already practical ways in which this research could be integrated into public education, higher education or both?

TC: I think much of the above could certainly be integrated - and indeed is already starting to be acted on in some cases - by concentrating on rewarding effort and giving people clear, multiple paths toward success; not to mention by giving people a greater and more sophisticated sense of ownership toward their own progress via online profiles and portfolios.

I think games themselves can make a fantastic part of learning - not as a magic wand that you simply wave over pupils, but as a tool that good educators can use to engage students who may be alienated by traditional learning environments. I especially think that clear, frequent and rapid feedback is vital if people are to fully engage with any learning process. By this I mean things like the creation of virtual experimental models that pupils can play with in real time, covering everything from physics to environmental sciences or logic and philosophy. There isn't a game for every lesson or skill, and there shouldn't be. But there are simple, profound ways in which the necessary processes of assessment and measurement could be made far, far more effective and accessible. Do you envision ways in which the video game reward system could become part of education in the future, and can you describe what that would look like?

TC: In addition to what I said above, I see the in-game ideas of avatars and achievements becoming important for students to really feel a sense of involvement and ownership in their learning process, and to be able to relate the small things they are doing to the larger focuses of education. Linking together these rewards and achievements is a powerful prospect and the use of virtual environments is also pretty tantalizing, given the fact that the human memory functions so much more effectively when recalling physical spaces and routes than when trying to remember abstract facts.

The ancient Greeks built imaginary 'memory palaces' to enable them to organize and recall the vital facts in their lives. Using virtual versions of these to help people navigate not just data, but ideas and arguments, could be a powerful innovation in learning. And of course the aim of technology should in part be to make some things easier, so that those things that can only be learned by deep, individual thought or interpersonal dialogue can be given proper time and space. In what other ways do you think that the unique skill set acquired by the upcoming generation of gamers could be applied to social innovation?

TC: Learning how to think about and navigate dynamic systems is a vital skill in the 21st century, and it's one that games - these automated, marvelously complex virtual worlds - are brilliant at teaching. A generation more educated to understand data in terms of complex systems is potentially one able to more effectively engage with a host of vital social issues that are almost impossible not to simplify or misrepresent when you try to simply describe them: Economics and tax; the environment and climate; health and the human body; international relations.

I'm also very interested in the collaborative skills that games can teach, given the centrality of multi-player action in gaming - the team interactions in many games are highly sophisticated, with people learning about everything from specialized roles to decentralized labor, leadership, group dynamics and notions of fairness and equality in reward-sharing. Virtual worlds are also an exciting arena for exploring social and political ideas - everything from tax to voting to health and public awareness - and I hope much more will be achieved in this field over the coming decades.

I should add that another vital skill that absolutely has to be taught and learned is that of discriminating technology usage - and knowing how to switch off and unplug. Getting the best out of games is not about playing them all the time. Indeed, for a lot of people it's probably about cutting down, thinking a little more and trying to understand how media differ and what each medium is and isn't suitable for. Do you have a favorite video game? Is there a particular game (or type of game) that you would recommend as the most educational, in terms of teaching these core skills?

TC: I have always been a huge fan of Sid Meier's Civilization series of games, and I do think they are educational in the best sense. There is plenty of world history and historical data in there, but more than that, there's the experience of creating and manipulating a complex, evolving system and attempting to understand its layers of interaction.

I am a huge fan of this style of gaming in general, too, where a game environment embodies a set of rules, a certain game 'physics,' and it is your task to create and sustain increasingly complex systems. You're being asked to puzzle out the rules governing a dynamic, evolving system in real time, but you also have the opportunity, in the best such games, to be a little wild, idiosyncratic and creative. Watching complex behaviors emerge from these simple, well-designed systems is hugely satisfying - and also, I think, educational in the best sense. You become your own teacher and there's always something that can bring to bear on attempting to puzzle out that most complex of beautiful, chaotic systems, our own world. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about your research, your recent book and what video games have to offer the world of education.

TC: Anyone who says games are a panacea, or can teach everything and anything, is simply wrong. They are tools - and tools that good teachers should be using. They are, of course, tools that are especially good for some things and I think to get the best out of them it's vital to look at the incredibly vigorous commercial games industry, and harness its research and expertise for positive ends.

This doesn't mean looking at games that are directly about learning or 'educational' topics - in fact, these are often pretty dismal as games. It means applying the principles of good design to reward structures to improve engagement and help target effort, it means using game resources as contexts for learning and for engaging those people who may be left out of more traditional teaching methods and it means taking things that games do brilliantly - such as modeling systems, placing people as a team within virtual spaces and turning an abstract proposition into something experimental, delightful and interactive - and seeing how these can be used as part of a 21st century educational structure that also values other media, not to mention time away from all media.

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