CIRCA:Why gamers don't learn more - An ecological approach to games as learning environments


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Why gamers don't learn more - An ecological approach to games as learning environments - Jonas Linderoth(link goes to the 2010 article on

This is a rebuttal to Gee's supposition that gamers selecting commercial games naturally prefer to play the type of games that are good learning environments. A type of video analysis called Interaction Analysis is used in combination with ecological theory of learning. The main point illustrated is that many popular commercial video games design tools and hints that let players always progress in the game, bypassing opportunity to learn. Other games such as competitive games seem to have more promise but overall more empirical evidence is needed to qualify their usefulness.

useful quotes

Author's abstract:

This paper criticizes the argument that video games by their nature
are good learning environments. By applying the ecological
approach to perception and learning to examples of game play, the
paper shows that games can be designed so that players are able
to see and utilize affordances without developing skills. Compared to
other practices, gaming demands less learning of the practitioner
since progress can be built into the system. Contrary to the arguments put forth by James Paul Gee in his book
What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy,
this paper comes to the conclusion that good games do not necessarily imply good learning.

(next, a quote from page 1)

Now the problem with asking why people playing games can learn so much is that it presupposes that
they actually learn a lot. It presupposes that what seems to be highly qualified performances has to do with the skill and
knowledge of the player. The discourse of the competent gamer, a
discourse that Gee gives a voice to, is not based on systematic studies of what gamers learn (such studies are rare with a few
exceptions, see [1, 15]). This discourse is, rather, based on everyday observations and anecdotes (Gee’s own line of reasoning
starts with an anecdote about a six-year old boy playing Pikmin, [3] pp. 19-21; pp. 39-46).

The body of the paper uses a case discusses the ecological approach to perception and learning, where the key idea is that exploratory and performatory actions depend on perceiving the possibilities for action available in the environment. The point of the paper is that many games provide hints as shortcuts to make the exploration stage easier, and they also award tools that provide shortcuts to performing seemingly complex tasks without actually requiring players to develop complex skills. The analytical method employed here was a video analysis technique by the name of Interaction Analysis.

(quote from page 7)

Games can be designed to facilitate both exploratory and performatory actions.
This means that progressing in a game, being able to take actions
and reach built-in game goals is not solely a matter of learning.
Since affordances can be shown in a game, the player does not
always have to learn to differentiate between the available
information in the gaming domain. Instead, it is enough to learn to
differentiate between the pale background and the bright glowing
object in vision mode. Compared to other practices such as
identifying different plants in botany or reading notes on music
sheets, gaming demands less learning by its practitioners. 
 Games can also be designed to facilitate performatory actions, the
 perhaps most obvious example being micro-sale systems where
 players can buy advantages that speed up game progress. Level
 systems for character development are also a good example of how
 games can progress over time without requiring that the player
 develops her/his skill in the game. If something is too hard to do in
 an RPG, the player can perform easy tasks to increase the level of
 the character and then manage the task without having to refine
 strategies or develop more skill in the
 game. The tool does the work for the player. Compared to performatory actions in other
 domains like playing an instrument, performing surgery, playing a
 sport, dancing, writing a novel or acting on a stage,
 such tools are not

(continued on page 8)

 introduced systematically. If I want to learn to play Purple Haze on an electric guitar I cannot sit and grind for hours and just
 pluck one string until I receive a magical glove that does the work for me.
Gee might be correct when observing that games have unique
properties as learning environments. But with no detailed analysis
of either gaming practices or game design, he fails to see what
these unique properties are. From the ecological perspective,
observations of someone being able to play and progress in a game
cannot be taken for granted as constituting the outcome of
advanced learning processes.

best practices for design suggestion? ... Linderoth(still on page 8) suggests there are alternatives to player hand-holding game design:

As mentioned, some games, like old arcade
games and competitive games, do
not seem to have the kind of built-in progression design discussed here. It is likely that learning to
master a game like Counter-Strike
is similar to mastering a sport or
a musical instrument. Game design seems to be of crucial
importance for the kind of learning experience the player has, and
one should expect large variations in how and what gamers learn;
variations that can depend on rather small details in game design.
Thus the matter of games and learning needs to be seen more as an empirical question.
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