Marc Prensky, Video Games, and Support for Learning

Here is another selection from last week’s lengthy write up on Prensky for the depth portion of my human development KAM. If all goes well, I will finish the coresponding section on Gee’s work later today.

Much of what Prensky (2001) discussed related to how games (and teachers) can provide the necessary support for effective teaching and learning to take place. For instance, games have rules that give players structure (p. 106). Also, in order to focus on player experience, good games must “mak[e] the game accessible to their entire audience, including new players who might find challenging what has become trivial to the designers” (p. 134). Not only must good games be easy to learn, but they must be hard to master, thus “providing hours, or even lifetimes of challenge” (p. 135) In order to be successful, games must have a strong structure that is well thought out in advance, yet they must remain highly adaptive and “fun for a variety of players” (p. 135). They must even remain fun by “walk[ing] that fine line between not too hard and not too easy, and do it for a variety of players” (p. 135). Ideally, a good complex game “adapts to each player’s skills and abilities through highly advanced artificial intelligence programs that sense just how a player is doing, and then change[s] the game slightly whenever the player leaves the ‘flow zone’ in order to move that player back into it” (Prensky, 2005a, p. 8).

Good games can also include “frequent rewards, not penalties” (Prensky, 2001, p. 135). In fact the motivational and engaging elements of games can be considered part of their support structure. Prensky identifies “fun the great motivator” (p. 107) and suggests that “the principal roles of fun in the learning process are to create relaxation and motivation” (p. 111) Similarly, he considers play “the universal teacher” (p. 111) and reports evidence that “people enjoy difficult tasks more when presented as play rather than work, and their minds wander less” (p. 115). The win states inherent in many games can also be motivating and gratifying (p. 106). In “Evolving Instruction,” Prensky (2002a) challenges academy to find new sources of motivation in order to capitalize quickly on new virtual environments; naturally, he suggests games as a solution (p. 6)

Another support element that might be considered rewarding is a concept that Prenksy calls “mutual assistance – one thing helps to solve another” (p. 136); in other words “clues about one puzzle or task can be embedded into another puzzle or task” (p. 136). In good games, the things that players learn early on, help them be successful later in the game.

Several logistical considerations can provide support as well. The game interface must be useful (Prensky, 2001, p. 136). Ordinarily this interface must provide “the ability to save progress,” thus allowing players the flexibility to continue a game from the point at which they stopped and saved (p. 136). Of course, the content must also be meaningful, but Prensky (2001) projected that future games will have many “new game forms and subject matters” (p. 405), many of which will be suited to intentional formal learning. He also predicted that games will become “even more engaging” (p. 406), which will support student learning. In terms of developing these games, Presnksy suggested an open and collaborative model not unlike that of the existing open source software movement (2002b, p. 3)

Games used in formal education must provide support for different cultures and individuals. Games must support the needs of those who are not digital natives (including teachers), allowing them the privacy to practice in order to overcome any embarrassment (Prensky, 2001, p. 138, p. 386). In general, games will need to provide support for the needs of non-gamers of any age (p. 387). Naturally, learning games will need to address the issue of violence in video games in such a way as to avoid offending (or harming) students from various cultures (p. 139). Most importantly, games used in schools must address the needs of both genders, despite the traditionally male dominated history of commercial video and computer games.

However, the role of the teacher can be more important than any element built into a game. Prensky (2001) laid out a variety of other new roles for teachers, including being a motivator, a content structureer (integrator/reformulator), a debriefer, a tutor (individualizer, steerer, selector, adjuster, guide, facilitator), and a producer/designer (pp. 374-353). Of these, the role of the teacher in facilitating debriefings following game play may be the most vital (p. 240). Furthermore, Prensky (2002) reported that the difference between results of one-on-one tutoring and classroom learning is two standard deviations (p. 10). However, video and computer games can offer more one-to-one learning time – more student-to-computer time, and, because many students are engaged with the computer, more student-to-teacher time. Applied strategically, computer games and teachers can be a powerful combination.

Thanks for reading.