Papert on Video Games in 1993!

I thought I would share some of what I have been working on these past two weeks. Most of what I am writing is currently focused on constructivist theories of cognitive human development, and so is a wee bit less exciting than most of what I have been reading and writing about for the past year. However, I did get to include this bit on Seymour Papert and Video Games from his 1993 book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. It certainly makes Prensky, Gee, Aldrich and the other game-based learning enthusiasts of 2005 seem something less than revolutionary….

By 1993, video games were also common, and within the first few pages of his book, Papert was making the argument that these games encouraged in students “an industriousness and eagerness that school can seldom generate” (p. 3-4), despite the fact that “most are hard, with complex information – as well as techniques – to be mastered” (p. 4). He argued that “video games teach children what computers are beginning to teach adults – that some forms of learning are fast-paced, immensely compelling, and rewarding” (p. 5). In contrast, Papert suggested that “school strikes many young people as slow, boring, and frankly out of touch” (p. 5).

Papert (1993) went on to imagine the idea of a “Knowledge Machine” (p. 8) which would extend the range of experiences with immediacy to a child, by placing “the power to know what others know into [a child’s] hands” (p. 9) and allowing the child to “grow up with the opportunity to explore the jungles and cities and the deep oceans and ancient myths and outer space” (p. 9). More importantly, this Knowledge Machine would offer children “a transition between preschool learning and true literacy in a way that is more personal, more negotiational, more gradual, and so less precarious than the abrupt transition we now ask children to make as they move from learning through direct experience to using the printed word as the source of important information” (p. 12).

Following the articulation of this revolutionary vision, Papert acquiesced that he shares much with constructivist philosophy, including the “criticism of school as casting the child in the role of passive recipient o knowledge” (p. 14). He suggested, though, that most constructivist experiments had failed because “they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object” (p. 14). However, he also suggested that they were limited by the fact that they “lacked the tools that would allow them to create new methods in a reliable and systematic fashion” (p. 14). Of course, he offers the use of computers “for the construction of microworlds” (p. 17) as just such a tool. He also saw computers as enabling a future in which “millions of children all over the world [will be] engaged in work that makes a real contribution to the … study of a socially urgent problem” (p. 25).

Thanks for reading.