Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Using Authentic Gaming to Engage Kids in Authentic Learning

Here's a reader comment from Steve Lissenden on yesterday's post about gaming and student networks. I repost it here for your perusal as I think he touches on some really important topics -- like using MMOGs to foster creative writing -- that all of us should consider when we talk about authentic assessment and measuring student understanding.
I'm a teaching assistant in a year 5 class (9/10 years old) I am trying to engage one student, who is almost totally switched off from most lessons, by tapping into her interest in WoW. I asked her yesterday to write me a story based upon her adventures in WoW and she straight away picked up her pen and started to list the characters in her story. She has not yet started writing sentences but even so this is progress.

I intend to keep going down this route and intend to bring in opportunities to explore other virtual worlds, such as Myst, as a platform to engage creative writing.

I'm also having conversations with the children about the games they are playing on their consoles to understand the networks they are involved in and the contexts they prefer. This in itself is something new as I have found most teachers either do not think to discuss gaming or, in some cases, actively discourage talk about games. This something I find baffling considering the major part gaming plays in children's lives and the many opportunities this provides for educators to connect with their students in meaningful ways.

Gaming itself is a form of 'text'. And, especially in terms of fantasy MMOGs, games are complex narratives. Well, if you've got a kid who won't read a book, but who maintains a high-level character on a complicated MMOG, the problem likely isn't that the kid isn't able to understand complex narratives.

There's something deeper going on.

I think the key to Steve's method is getting the student to write about his or her character and their experiences in the game. As any gamer knows, it's easily possible to get by on quests after only reading a small portion of the available [directional] text within the game itself; so the experience within the game is often more self-directed and often less driven by a written narrative.

A problem for teaching kids reading and writing?

Not necessarily. Steve's method bypasses the obvious difficulty therein presented. [i.e. Steve makes it not about reading the text necessarily, but reading the experience.]

For if I'm reading him correctly, what Steve is getting at is that he's got a student who may not be a great reader, but who has a natural inclination for internalizing narrative.

And I think most kids internalize narrative. And it expresses itself in different ways whether in MMOGs or running around in the backyard with a wooden sword. It's the foundation of the kinds of role playing games all creative kids enjoy.

The thing we have to consider in terms of reaching these kids is that their internalized narrative might turn out being a better vehicle for expressing understanding and aptitude than any narrative we can pull from the shelf and force upon them. The internalized narrative might prove more valuable to authentic assessment than any of the books on our shelves.


  1. I know this is old hat (2003?), but James Gee's "What Video Games have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy" (Amazon link: ) covers this in great detail. The same slant, focusing on constructed user narrative rather than presented in-game narrative, also works for a variety of single player games. I had a batch of "non-reader" 8th graders a few years back who had built near-encyclopedic knowledge of the various cultures and groups in ES4:Oblivion. They skimmed the quest text for the important details, but built their map and knowledge from the world encountered through play.

  2. I have a group of 6 special ed kids in a self-contained program. I am NOT a special ed teacher. I'm an English teacher and the kids (& their teacher) come to my room for 76 minutes every other day for English class. These are kids with 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade reading levels, but are sophomores and juniors in high school (ages from 15-17). In just a week we'll be starting RealMyst with them for exactly the reasons stated in your post. It's visually engaging, they need to take notes, read maps and problem solve in order to progress; and since we only have one copy of the "game" they will also need to learn the art of making a decision as a group.

    As to this last, I'd love to give them each a copy, but I've discovered RealMyst seems to be a collector's item and even used disks are beyond our budget. Thankfully the district never switched over to Vista, so our machines will play it (2001 is OLD!). The kids will keep a hard-copy journal of their travels with the goal of creating a walkthrough (we're thinking we'd like the kids to put the walkthrough on a wiki when we're done. We're not using it throughout since working laptops are at a premium right now).

    Good post! Nice to know I'm not alone in thinking along these lines!

    (Signing with my name since computer is not letting me sign with my Google account),

    Cindy Duprey

  3. Another great post... have you seen the independent game awards games? There are all sorts of very useful and unusual stuff like machinarium, crayon physics, where it is not all about killing stuff... it is about problem solving.

    Could be interesting to look at for teachers.

  4. I found this post to be uplifting also. I love James Gee. I gave his books to a student last year and encouraged him to use them in his senior thesis. It was an exciting project.

    I love to have kids play tetris and other pattern recognition games in creative arts classes. ( Our tech classes in the middle school are part of our creative arts rotation..) An interesting idea which I got from Gee is to have players create a narative around each game or series of games of tetris that they play. The process is begin to understand the imagination of the players and how it creates narrative around what they do... I hope this continues

  5. What a great way to look at gaming and how it affects learning. I'm a world of warcraft fan myself and have encountered a lot of kids who play it so well.

  6. Cool post! Im sure your students love you.


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