The Academic A
by Lloyd Prentice
Many teachers don't like games. On the other hand, many do.
It just goes to show how elusive learning really is. Even the experts disagree on where, why and how it happens.
Take chess, for instance, is it educational? Or is Monopoly, poker or pitching pennies against the school house wall? What about Pac-Man, Frogger, MasterType or Snooper Troops? Can it be some games are educational and others not? Or, at least, that some games surpass others in educational merit? And if so, what makes the difference?
These questions are no longer academic. If you've browsed the racks of your local computer emporium lately, you've probably noticed signs of a bear market for shoot-'em-ups and a bull market for educational games. You've seen scores of educational games commanding shelf space. They have big marketing bucks behind them, all carefully designed, packaged and positioned for families with home computers. And soon you'll see more. Move over Blast'em! Make way for Phasor Math.
The touts from the market research companies are saying that when they look at computer use in the home today, learning is neck-and-neck with entertainment. Within four years, they say, 70 percent of all educational software will be sold for use in the home. When you couple these facts with the widely respected projection that 30 million American homes will have computers by the end of the decade, it's easy to see why the smart money is crowding in on the ground floor.
But this leaves the consumer with a problem. If teachers cannot agree on the educational merit of games, what is a parent or motivated youngster to do? Even if you accept, philosophically, the educational merit of games, how do you choose among the many attractive offerings?
Here are some helpful hints.
To assess the educational virtues of a game you must consider at least three levels - informational content, logical structure and the social context of play.
And, oh, yes, you must decide whether or not the game is fun to play.
At each level you must ask, specifically, what skills or abilities are necessary to win, to what extent these skills or abilities generalize to the larger spheres of life and whether or not these skills or abilities are enhanced through repeated play of the game.
Back to chess. From an informational point of view, chess provides a highly abstracted model of European power politics in the Middle Ages, but not enough facts to get you through a quiz in freshman Western civilization. The social interactions of chess are equally simple minded dominate or be dominated.
The elegantly simple rules of chess, on the other hand, encourage intricate strategies that demand the utmost in concentration, visualization, search and planning to mount or defend. Nothing is bidden except the strategic intentions of the opponent. Prowess develops through experience and careful study, and the most skillful player always wins.
The logical structure of chess, in other words, is everything. It's difficult to assess how effectively skill at chess generalizes to other domains. But it is often used as a metaphor to help visualize strategic problems in international relations and business. The qualities that make a good chess player are certainly valuable in any endeavor requiring analytical ability and logic.
Contrast chess with pitching pennies against the school house wall. You throw. I throw. If both pennies come up either heads or tails, you win. If one comes up heads and the other tails, I win -- virtually no informational content and little room for strategy. Assuming fair coins, pitching pennies is pure gambling. Lady Luck determines the winner. There's little room for educational experience. The most to learn is a smidgen of probability and how to win or lose gracefully -- and maybe something about how to get along with the fellows out behind the backstop.
Let's look at a typical educational computer game from the point of view that we've outlined above--Gulp!!, an EduFun! game from the Milliken Publishing Company.
Gulp!! is a math game for children ages seven to 12, which provides drills in addition and multiplication at two levels of difficulty and speed.
When the first frame comes up you're underwater, looking at an anchor and a graceful stand of kelp--simple graphics, but effective. A little fish appears frame left with a big fish in hot pursuit. The goal is to answer 20 math problems as quickly as possible. If you make too many mistakes or take too long to respond, it's curtains for the little fish. The big fish eats him -- a kind of one-dimensional Pac-Man. If you elude the big fish, you are rewarded with a bonus game. You get to cast a hook into shark-infested waters. Using the arrow keys to control the hook, you try to snag as many numbers as you can and bring them to the surface before the white shark eats them. You score 100 times the value of each number you hook.
Clearly, the informational content of Gulp!! is limited to simple number facts. The game reinforces this, but does not actually teach them. The implicit biology lesson in Gulp!! is not significant enough to give a second thought. The logical structure of Gulp!! leaves little room for strategy. The only effective strategy is to solve the math problems as quickly as possible. Since Gulp!! is a single player game, social interactions do not enter into the picture.
In other words, Gulp!! is educationally thin. It is a pure drill without any attempt to make the logic or purpose of the arithmetic operations visible or manifest. Also, it's not clear why subtraction and division modes are not provided. Finally, the skill being reinforced is disconnected from the scenario of the game. For all we know, arithmetic skills are of little survival value to a little fish trying to escape the voracious jaws of a whopper.
But Gulp!! is not without redeeming value. Youngsters do have to learn the basic number facts presented in Gulp!! and rote practice is an important element in mastery.
Gulp!! has the virtue of motivating the youngster to put time into the traditionally boring practice task. It's a simple, unpretentious game that can be played many times without getting utterly tedious.
When you purchase Gulp!!, you also get Arrow Graphics, a pattern-making game that teaches problem solving and directionality. Arrow Graphics requires the player to decompose a complex pattern into its basic modular elements. The game is not as much fun as Gulp!!, but it makes effective use of the computer to reinforce a difficult idea. Well-packaged, Gulp!! and Arrow Graphics come in a sturdy 7-by-7-inch vinyl binder containing a single disk, a simple, but adequate instruction booklet and a reusable practice/score card. The cost is $39.95.
Gulp!! gives you a good idea of where most educational computer games are today -- clever and cute, but one-dimensional. It's not from a lack of care or trying. Simply, the designers are still trying to understand the possibilities of the computer as a medium for instruction.