The goal of this chapter is to emphasize a certain notion of self-induced education, to discuss it in the context of digital games and to provide the means for assessing digital games as well as to give hints on their educational use. In the first section, the concept of “self-education” is introduced and distinguished against less complex learning phenomena. The second section discusses and analyses the different layers of “educational space” inherent to gaming software, providing the analytical means for the further sections. The third section presents and analyses educational aspects of single-player games, while the fourth section adds the socio-cultural impacts implied in multi-player communities. In conclusion, a synopsis is given, which sums up the main educational dimensions and connects them to aspects and analytical criteria, allowing a pedagogical assessment of digital games.
Learning Vs. “Self Education”
According to the latest report of the Council of Science and Public Health [CSAPH] (2007), about 70 to 90% of North American youth play digital games. The broad dissemination and great popularity of computer and video games have made digital gaming part of everyday culture, especially—although not exclusively—for children and youth (also see Entertainment Software Association [ESA], 2007). It is therefore not really astonishing that some people are considering the possibilities of taking advantage of this development by adapting and applying digital games for training or instructional purposes. And there are some encouraging results, too. For example, “video games have been shown to have beneficial effects as learning aids within the health care sector” (CSAPH, 2007, p. 3). However, while considerable attention is being paid to this instrumental approach—for example, using digital games for pedagogical purposes—the informal educational relevance of entertaining games is barely ever mentioned.
Key Terms in this Chapter
MMORPG: Massively multi-player online role-playing game, such as World of Warcraft (2005, Blizzard Entertainment).
Online Gaming Communities: Unlike classical forms of online communities or the newer phenomenon of social network sites, community structures of online gamer communities tend to be diverse, highly complex socio-technological structures centred around the organization, (meta-) communication, exchange (e.g., of virtual items) of game-related issues and events. Depending on the type of multi-player game, online gaming communities can vary from relatively small online interactions (e.g., in one dedicated discussion forum) to huge interconnected network activities encompassing clan homepages, clan networks, Weblogs, gaming zines, online forums, gaming league sites and so on. So-called ? “LAN parties” are offline events directly linked to online gaming communities, giving them a real-life representation.
Simulation: Basically, simulations are formalised models of real processes, objects or environments. These models can, when implemented in computer software, respond to an input in real time, simulating the behaviour of a certain object. Because of this ability and advanced computer graphics, simulations can provide a form of virtual experience that—on the level of sensory perception—is quite similar to “real” experiences. Simulations are also known for the creation of a so called flow effect (Czikszentmihalyi) in the sense creating an immersive experience within a ? virtual environment. Whether this form of immersion prevents or facilitates learning or self-educational processes remains controversial.
LAN Parties: Local area network (LAN). LAN parties are emergent forms of social interaction where online gamers meet each other in real life, connecting their computers to a local area (wired) network. LAN parties may be as small as a handful of participants, but can also involve up to several thousand gamers meeting in one place (“Giga-LANs“). While the history of LAN parties reaches back to the 1980s, the phenomenon became widely recognized in the late 1990s when multi-player shooters such as Counter Strike and Quake hit the mass market.
(Virtual) Environment: New media, especially software-based applications, differ from traditional media. While traditional media have been regarded as a channel that provides certain content that can affect a (passively) receiving user, software applications offer more active forms of participation (? interactivity). This is mainly due to the fact that software functions as a structured space, an environment with which the user is enabled to interact. To talk of a software program as an “environment” accentuates the fact that software usage always requires navigation through a pre-structured space. From this perspective, not only is the content of the software relevant to learning and self-education, but also the structures and layers of software that limit, frame or expand possible forms of interaction.
Serious Games: The idea of using games or game technologies for “serious”, e.g., educational purposes is as old as the idea of “learning games”, but is not limited to those forms. As opposed to games designed for entertainment, serious games can be defined as computer games aiming towards an underlying second “off-game” goal that differs from in-game goals such as finishing a level or gaining high scores. Beyond the surface of gaming actions—or embedded into those—, serious games try to evoke learning processes or even complex experiences (e.g., through taking the perspective of political refugees, trying to bring them out of a danger zone). Computer game art can be seen as a related form of serious games, aiming, for example, towards open aesthetical experiences rather than following didactic concepts and defined learning goals.
Self-Education (Bildung): In analogy to the pedagogical core idea of Bildung as developed by German idealist philosophers, especially Wilhelm von Humboldt, in the 19th century, the term self-education describes a process of changing world references and self-references, that is, transformations of framings or world views as a whole. Structurally, self-education can be seen as a highly complex and reflexive form of learning (cf., e.g., the higher stages of learning in Gregory Bateson’s learning theory) and as a result of a certain form of “experience” (in the sense of John Dewey). Self-educational processes cannot be forced by other persons (i.e., parents or teachers). Thus, didactic strategies to provoke and facilitate self-educational processes have to aim on the one hand towards achieving appropriate, stimulating situations, opportunities and environments, and on the other hand towards assisting and encouraging informal and non-formal processes of learning and self-education.
Interactivity: Interacitity can be regarded as a key term for the discussion of the new media. In a technical sense, interactivity designates the ability of a system to respond to an input through a certain output (which depends on the inner structure of the responding system). This ability can be implemented in forms of varying complexity. The reception of a mediated message can be regarded as a very simple form of interaction. E-learning software usually displays more complex HCI designs, such as interactive forms of testing, branched courses or systems that are able to adapt to the learner’s abilities. Computer games implement a slightly different form of interaction, while providing a more or less open interaction environment offering a broad range of interaction facilities not limited by didactic strategies. Advanced games can be regarded as highly explorative interactive environments.