unboxing games

Unboxing Games: Down the Rabbit Hole

Rachel Bolstad’s blog post, Games for learning: Opening all the black boxes, got me thinking about my own journey exploring the relationship between games and learning.

When talking about this topic, I always feel it compelled to confess that I came to games reluctantly. I was that teacher… the one who sternly declared, “NO GAMES in the computer lab!” It still makes me cringe to recall that.

Looking back, I understand that I took that hardline position out of my own insecurity and ignorance. It was 2004 and I was newly appointed to be my school’s digital technology teacher. My only qualification was that I had been using technology in my classroom. I had absolutely no clue how to create a school-wide curriculum for new technologies that were emerging and disappearing at dizzying speeds. It didn’t matter that I was a seasoned teacher with over twenty years of experience, I felt like a total noob and completely out of my depth. I fell into playing the role of a serious, no-nonsense teacher to hide my lack of confidence from parents and colleagues.

In addition to my insecurity, I had no personal experience with digital games. My own youth was pre-digital. During the 80’s, the golden age of digital games, I was too busy getting a degree and starting a career to pay much attention to the growing enthusiasm for Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Mario.

Thankfully, my passion for keeping learning relevant surpassed any preconceived notions or misguided fears I had about “allowing” students to play digital games in the school’s computer lab. To this day, I am completely embarrassed to even admit that I once banned games. /facepalm

The first peek into “the box” occurred in 2006, when I first learned about two unusual games; World of Warcraft and Second Life. Both came on my radar in a rather negative way. While on holiday with family, everyone was talking about how worried they were for my nephew who had become “lost” in a game. Being both intrigued and concerned, I asked my nephew to show me the game. It was fascinating. The fact that people from all over the world could meet up in this virtual game and play together blew my mind. I asked him to give me other examples of games that could be played in that way. He told me about Second Life but admonished me to stay away because it was a place where people went to gamble and have virtual sex. Oh, my!

Both came on my radar in a rather negative way. While on holiday with family, everyone was talking about how worried they were for my nephew who had become “lost” in a game called World of Warcraft. Being both intrigued and concerned, I asked my nephew to show me the game. It was fascinating. The fact that people from all over the world could meet up in this virtual game and play together blew my mind. I asked him to give me other examples of games that could be played in that way. He told me about Second Life but admonished me to stay away because it was a place where people went to gamble and have virtual sex. Oh, my!

In April of 2007, I heard ISTE was in Second Life. Say, WHAT? I immediately downloaded SL and started to explore. I figured if ISTE had built a presence on the platform, it must be okay. Actually, it turned out to be epic!

 

 

The community of teachers who gathered in Second Life in 2007-2009 created an incredibly dynamic and unusual learning community. I finally connected with other educators from all over the world who, like me, were trying to figure out where all of this technology was taking us.

The conversations that took place in that virtual space were some of the most thought-provoking professional development I’ve experienced. One of the persistent threads we discussed were games. It’s kind of funny now, but we were adamant back then that Second Life was NOT a game and we zealously defended that point if challenged. I’m guessing that I was not the only teacher who was feeling unsure about stepping away from traditional norms to face the oncoming tsunami of change.

From those intense discussions, we realized it was disingenuous to denounce the value of games if we had never played them. We agreed to take the plunge together. We all got World of Warcraft accounts and formed a guild called “Cognitive Dissonance”. Our motto was “Learning to Play, Playing to Learn”. We were all blown away by the game’s complexity and awed by the way in which new skills were learned through play. Looking through a teacher’s lens, we recognized that World of Warcraft had masterfully created a beautifully scaffolded learning system.

I moved on to explore other games, but the guild continued to grow. In fact, it is still active today.

 

 

Everything changed since those first steps in 2007, and I’ve been unboxing games and learning ever since. In fact, I would say that games have had the greatest influence on changing my thinking about how to keep learning relevant. It has absolutely changed my pedagogical practice. I would even go so far as to say as it put me on the path that led me to New Zealand.

Rachel raises some rather provocative questions regarding the relationship between games and learning. I agree, there is much to unpack. And, yes, it is very complex.

Over the last ten years, I have been investigating those same question with my students. We have played games and designed games using a variety of platforms. Sometimes the learning goals drove the play but, just as often, the play revealed new learning paths and reshaped goals. It’s been an extraordinary journey full of unexpected lessons. Riffing on Rachel’s box metaphor, in this series I will unbox what I have learned along the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *