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Games could be the next frontier in teaching

After years of widespread fears that video games were destroying young American brains, educational theorists and reformers have come around to the notion that video games are here to stay — and that may be a good thing, even in the classroom.

In the past five years the field of educational video games has exploded, with ever-increasing sophistication in how content is presented, as well as with better tools to monitor student progress on the back end. At the same time, many educators discovered that cult classics, such as Minecraft and Portal, had real potential to teach everything from spatial reasoning and physics to collaboration and complex systems analysis.

Most cutting-edge educators now seem to agree that the use of video games in the classroom is now a question of how and when, not whether and why.

Greg Toppo, an education writer for USA Today, spent four years researching the frontiers of "learning by gaming" before publishing the recently released "The Game Believes in You." After logging hundreds of hours playing games and interviewing their creators, Toppo came away with some compelling insights on how far we have come and where we are headed in gaming revolution of American schooling. He shared some of those insights in an interview with the Deseret News.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

DN: You seem to argue in your book that conventional schooling is essentially built to bore kids, don't you?

Toppo: I don’t think school was built to be boring, but it has kind of lost its way. And the “games in school” movement is trying to bring back to focus on the students’ experience in school, the minute-to-minute experience. In one of the early chapters I quote Jim Gee saying that there is “no Pokémon gap.” Games are built so that anyone can succeed. Schools should be built so that anyone can succeed. And if they are not then we shouldn’t blame the students or the parents. We should figure out a better way to do it.

DN: It seems like the essence of the American spirit, in our prime, was always to find a better way.

Toppo: Yes. I want to be as fair as I can to teachers. I think they’re really trying hard, and they’ve always tried hard. I just think that they come to this task at a very big disadvantage, especially now. Their students come to them having these very vivid, exciting, embodied experiences outside of school. And school struggles to keep up. And that’s not to say that school should give up the game, and just be flashy with explosions and shooting ray guns. But I think it really does have to rethink how he gets kids access to material.

DN: There are several instances in the book where you describe intuitive discovery of high-level thinking facilitated by games. In one, the kids learn really sophisticated math essentially without symbols. What is “math without words?”

Toppo: I first learned about this in a game called ST Math, whose founder, Matt Peterson, uses that phrase. What he means is trying to get kids to engage with math using word problems or equations puts them at a disadvantage, because a lot of the same kids who are struggling with math are also struggling with reading. The interface is the problem, and if we can improve interface we can get kids doing much more advanced math much more easily.

DN: You describe kids going through Dragonbox, the game that teaches algebra with critters instead of symbols and ask kids to help "get the box alone." You describe some sophisticated algebraic thinking in 4- and 5-year-olds.

Toppo: It’s breathtaking. When I read that passage at readings, people gasp. But I played that game many times before I figured out the real excitement that was happening there. The first time it was weird and wonderful, and I could see what was happening. But I had to play at three or four more times before I could look under the hood and say that it’s not till level 18 that he’s doing this, and it’s not till level 60 that he's doing that.

DN: So you’re saying that the curriculum is subtly embedded.

Toppo: Yes. I remember the third time I played it I sat there with a notepad and said, 'OK, this is what happens on this level and this is what happens on that level.' I was able to plot it out.

DN: One of the themes in your book is that rewards have to be internal and play has to be voluntary; motivation has to come from within.

Toppo: I think that’s right. People in the gaming world have different opinions about whether it has to be strictly voluntary. And I can see both sides. Coming to school for most kids is not voluntary. So to say that everything you do has to be strictly voluntary is a bit of wishful thinking.

DN: You talk in the book about a game that replicates Henry David Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond. It sounds really absorbing and kind of Zen. But the kids who try to experience Walden this way won’t be outside, they won’t be getting sun and exercise. Is it possible to synthesize some of those essentials?

Toppo: If you sat down and read "Walden," which is what this game is inviting you to do, you wouldn’t be more physically fit after that either. There is no substitute for going out and living your life, outdoors in the sunshine, with real tasks to strengthen your body. I would never deny that. I say in one of the later chapters that we need to insist, as adults, on a balance. There has to be a balance between these incredibly engaging experiences and going outside and playing. In chapter 12 you’ll see an interesting quote from the creator of the Mario Brothers. He signed his autographs, “On a sunny day, go outside and play.”

DN: Are there risks of addiction or of kids becoming too immersed in the alternate reality games? You profile some teachers who are very into these games.

Toppo: At the very end of the book I addressed the idea of game addiction head on. Essentially I saw that with words like "addiction" we overuse, and we use the word to shut down larger conversations we should be having. Instead of saying, 'My kid is addicted,' I would say, 'My kids really, really likes games.' If I say that, I’m starting a different conversation. That leads to, 'What does he really, really like?' But if I say he’s addicted, the next question is, 'How can I stop this?'

DN: I guess the clinical definition of addiction is if it disrupts your life.

Toppo: Yes. I’m not going to deny that happens. But I think it happens rarely, and I think that usually you shouldn’t blame the game. The game may just be the only reliable, exciting piece of feedback the kid is getting in their life. If playing a game is the only time in a person's day when the world is reacting to the person in a way they like, then don’t blame the game. Take a look at the other 22 hours of their day. I spent a lot of time with this World of Warcraft after-school club. I would not characterize any of the behaviors I saw as addictive, or out of control. These kids, some of them as young as sixth grade, had found a way to incorporate it into their lives in a healthy way.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com