Why gamers don’t learn more – Jonas Linderoth

*Apologies for this article not having a PDF link. The link was removed (or is broken). If readers would like a copy of the paper, please add a comment and I’ll make a copy available.

Linderoth writes a critique focusing on James Gee’s book “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy” and concludes that good games do not necessarily facilitate good learning. This critique draws heavily on the Ecological approach developed by J. & E. Gibson. The ecological approach focuses on the idea of learning being a process of differentiation and distinction, not enrichment (as other learning theories would suggest).

As such, Linderoth positions games as a “perception-action” cycle. In a game, the player explores the environment and develops a perception of that environment. Based on that, the player takes action and then returns to perceiving changes and acting again. The player makes an exploratory act (to yield knowledge) and the performatory act (an action with expected results). 

Since, Linderoth states, that games have built in markers and that the game’s design facilitates the perception-action style. The game has numerous affordances which guide the player and don’t require learning how to differentiate. The case study used to prove this theory is observation of two players (a boy and a woman) playing LEGO Indiana Jones on a Playstation 3 console.

While I agree, to an extent, that there is some exploratory and performatory action within many game models, not all games fit within the rigid boundaries he has described. Many games, to my reasoning, are experimental. Games such as Minecraft (minecraft.net) are both experimental and exploratory.

Where Linderoth’s ideas fall short are the supposition that learning isn’t necessary. He claims that a player can easily distinguish between the pale background of a game facade and the shiny items that the player can interact with. However this is a very specific style of game which, Linderoth should have noted, is aimed at a young audience (one of the participants in his study was 8 years old). This kind of guided differentiation is essential for younger learners. These rules can be applied to more mature games, but as many other experts note that if a game’s obstacles are too simple, the game is not challenging and, thus, boring to play. Obvious affordances such as shiny objects are too overt for most games.

Rather than focusing on differentiation, it’s important to apply experiential learning and tacit knowledge to games. Players learn by trial and error, doing so gives them experience related to that game (which can sometimes be applied to other games). Through repetition the player acquires tacit knowledge of the game mechanics (how to play) and game world (information). They apply that knowledge to new situations (experimentation) to see if the learning they’ve already acquired can be applied to new situations. If not, they adapt and experiment further.

While Linderoth raises some good points, I can’t agree with the conclusion (especially based on such a limited observation) that gamers don’t learn through games. Gee, Ito, boyd, Seely Brown (and numerous other academics) have provided enormous data supporting learning within games.

Try applying Linderoth’s theories to World of Warcraft or even Minecraft … the results would be far from compelling. Besides, the contributors to WoW’s 95,000 page wiki might disagree that gamers don’t learn.

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