Learning with video games

In the introduction to chapter 4 of Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, “Learning and Literacy”, Mimi Ito writes about “Learning in the wild”. This view of learning argues that the traditional view of learning – that learning involves the passive receiving of information – is outdated. Learning is something that also, and possibly more efficiently, happens in the real world. Ito uses math as an example, and how people can figure out math in real world examples, such as grocery shopping and measuring ingredients.

While I think there is a necessity for traditional learning, I agree with the view presented by Mimi Ito. But I would like to make a case for non-real world, real world learning. By that, I mean the fake worlds of video games. A few weeks ago in class, the subject of learning ethics using the video game “The Walking Dead” came up in discussion. And while I think that this is a great example of using video games in a teaching situation, I feel it barely touches the surface of the possibilities of learning through video games.

But first, I must specify that learning doesn’t have to just be about facts. It’s about building a mental world, with lots of room for facts to be attached to later. As an example, consider the turn based strategy game “Civilization”. The player controls a nation from the dawn of civilization to the modern age. But does that make it a good game for learning history? There are, after all, very little historical facts.

I would argue that a game like civilization, while not presenting a lot of historical facts, allows the player to create a mental image of the history of the world to attach facts to later. First of all, the names of the civilizations and their starting locations, teaches the player about long lost peoples and nations, and their geographical location. Secondly, the technologies the player researches tells a story of the technological development of mankind.

Civilization does not teach history. But when a civilization-player learns about, as an example, the Mongols of the Middle Ages for the first time, he will already have a mental representation of the Mongols in the game: “those purple guys who take over Asia and who are very difficult to have a peaceful relationship with”. This previously unknown people will have already been implemented into the players mental representation of world history.

Mental world-building can happen in a number of games – not just strategy games. And they don’t have to be historically or factually accurate, as long as they create a world for facts and knowledge to be put into.

Mimi Ito writes about participation and learning. Participation, production, collaboration and community organizing can also be vital part of video games in the modern, connected world. People create and learn about architecture through games like Minecraft, and they organize themselves and practice politics through online games like Ark and World of Warcraft.

The Greek and Roman systems of mnemonics focused on creating mental worlds in which to place representations of things that needed to be remembered. With video games, the mental world are built for us. And in stead of being static places, they are vivid, narrative worlds with plenty of space for factual pins where information can be attached and remembered.


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