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Games are not good for you #gls7

June 15, 2011

That was the provocative title of the opening keynote address at the Games+Learning+Society conference this morning. The speaker, Eric Zimmerman, is a game designer and  co-founder of GameLab, which created Gamestar Mechanic and many other products. He is also a visiting scholar at NYU and co-author of Rules of Play with Katie Salen.

The speaker’s main premise was that we need a cultural shift from considering games as mere vehicles for learning to thinking of them as cultural, aesthetic objects. He compared thinking about games to thinking about art or books (Zimmerman was trained as an artist). I am attracted by a related idea, that we should not want a games in schools because ALL games are good, but because specific games can help with specific kinds of learning.

Zimmerman proposes that we are entering a “Ludic Century” – an age of play centered on systems, play, and design. He said, “The opportunity that WE have is to use games to help shape the future of education.”

The speaker objects to instrumentalism – the idea that games are only valuable if they can solve specific problems. In the case of education, that would seem to refer to achieving learning goals. Zimmerman believes “We need broader rubrics for thinking about games.” He says that many people suffer from “design literalism” – they insist that games must directly depict a subject if they are to be effective learning tools. Zimmerman counters, “If you want to keep kids in school, don’t make a game about school.”</p

The speaker mentioned a debate at the AERA conference where one of the parties was Richard Clark, who is famously opposed to what I call “technological determinism.” Clark’s seminal research suggested that trying compare one teaching medium to another was futile – that what really mattered was the teaching strategy being used. To me, that is right in line with Zimmerman’s ideas.

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