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Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The first section of this book is devoted to working through the complex definition of what constitutes a “knowledge game,” and more specifically, what does not. Schrier’s book is a substantial literature review of the vast – and rapidly growing – field of games that contribute to knowledge production. “Knowledge games,” by her definition, are “the set of practices, contexts, designs, and relationships that emerge from and around those games with a goal or sub-goal of generating new knowledge about humanity, society, the universe, and any previously unknown phenomena” (26). In contrast to games such as “citizen science games,“ “crowd games,” “collective games,” “participatory games,” and “human games,” Schrier takes great care to delineate that she is exploring only those games which seek to produce knowledge, solve authentic, applicable problems, and/or “generate new ideas and possibilities for real world change” (25).
A few of the games she examines include those she designates as “cooperative contribution games” (Happy Moths, Citizen Sort, Reverse the Odds), “analysis distribution games” (VerbCorner, Who Is the Most Famous?, IgnoreThat!, Apetopia), “algorithm construction games,” (The Restaurant Game, Foldit, EteRNA, The SUDAN Game, Which English?), and “adaptive-predictive games” (SchoolLife), although she notes this final category is not yet robust, being instead “the next frontier of knowledge games” (30-31).
The second section of Schrier’s book tackles the challenging question of “why” knowledge games. That is, in what ways might knowledge games contribute to problem-solving? What kinds of motivation to play exist within these games, which are often produced very cheaply and without access to the million dollar production budgets of games in the entertainment world? Further, to what degree is social interaction nurtured or constricted by such games? Schrier acknowledges that these are complicated questions that require deeply contextual responses. She does not really offer answers, instead choosing to sketch out a brief summary of relevant research findings that point to principles related to motivation and games.
The final section of this book turns towards “perspectives, potentials, and pitfalls” to be found in the midst of knowledge games. While Schrier draws on significant theorists and wider literatures here (for example, Lave and Wenger, Jenkins, Benkler, Gee) she only lightly engages issues of ethics, and leaves entirely untouched pragmatic questions of pedagogy.
This book is not likely to be of much interest to people teaching in the fields of religion or theology, with the limited exceptions of those for whom shared knowledge creation in the midst of significant amounts of data are of pressing concern, or those for whom games are a specific focus. In that case Schrier’s appendices, where she lists categories of knowledge games along with examples, and where she enumerates a significant set of design principles, will prove useful. Aside from those small exceptions, this book is not likely to be pertinent to the readers of Teaching Theology and Religion.
Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2015
Mark C. Carnes’s Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College is the work of a true believer seeking the conversion of others to the path of right pedagogical practice. Fortunately, the approach he advocates, teaching history through month-long, immersive, student-led role-play, seems a worthy recipient of his impassioned testimony. I came to this book curious about contextualizing knowledge in the theological classroom, given the prohibitive expense and time commitment of many of the strategies currently used in theological education to achieve this goal (such as travel seminars, immersion, and community-engaged learning). As someone who has been frustrated by the inability of my school’s curriculum to excite students and engage them in the history of the development of religious traditions, I wondered if role-immersion games would be a useful tool in my setting.
Reflecting on the use of published games from the Reacting to the Past consortium, a group of which Carnes is the founder, Carnes describes in glowing terms the work that these role-plays can achieve in classrooms full of disengaged, unmotivated college students and instructors. He makes sweeping claims, such as: “Role-immersion games in higher education today hold the promise of restoring the churning passions and subversive impulses that have always invigorated the life of the mind” (297). Using interviews and other outcomes data with former participants and instructors to weave compelling narrative descriptions of the method in action, he makes a strong case for why immersive play increases critical thinking, community, empathy, leadership, and other qualities that most schools have in their mission statements but are often unclear about how they actually teach them. He also addresses critics who worry about letting amateur historians imagine their way into historical periods, explicitly tackling concerns about the probability of “getting it wrong” and why this is educative.
I appreciated Carnes’s depth analysis of two motivational vehicles for engaging historical material with critical passion: imagination and subversive play. While Carnes dismisses the luminaries of educational philosophy who would argue against role-play as a part of education, in one place lumping together “Plato, Freud, Dewey, Piaget, and Erikson” (295) as people who would hate this method, he unfortunately ignores the fine work of educational philosophers such as Elliott Eisner and Kieran Egan who have argued passionately for the role of imagination in education, and who would strengthen his argument tremendously.
As someone who teaches primarily adult students (average age 41) rather than traditional college-age undergraduates in private liberal arts institutions (the primary subjects in this text), I was less enthusiastic about Carnes’s reflection on how taking on roles in the first person led to training in leadership, imaginative empathy, and other skills often already present in adult students. Descriptions of class starting before the assigned time and running late in the evenings and on weekends in residential dorms was also troubling, as the heavily scheduled lives of nonresidential adult students who also have jobs, families, and caregiving responsibilities would not lend themselves to this sort of educational strategy. The amount of time and intellectual commitment necessary to succeed in the games also causes Carnes to admit the inability of the Reacting teaching mode to become the single mode of instruction in an institution, “if only because no student wants to play more than one Reacting game at a time” (291). Additionally, Carnes’s detailed reporting of making African-American students argue for slavery in their roles without addressing the ethical implications of such imaginative ventures seemed inappropriate.
I was intrigued by Carnes’s very exciting hint at transforming this mode of pedagogical instruction through collaboration with the world of immersive video gaming, and would welcome this innovation as a strategy in online teaching and learning. If you are interested in this topic, initially explore www.barnard.edu/reacting and the role-plays and teaching resources available through W.W. Norton and The Reacting Consortium Press. If you are intrigued but wary, Carnes’s book may be the motivation you need to invest in learning more about the method and trying it on for size in your setting.
Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Beginner's Guide
Date Reviewed: December 23, 2014
In her Teaching Theology & Religion review of Nicola Whitton’s Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education, Rachel Wagner observed that the book “offers general advice for those brave enough to write their own games for educational use, but the book is not, nor does it claim to be, a handbook on how to produce video games” (Teaching Theology & Religion 15, no. 1: 91). Whitton’s newer co-edited collection with Alex Moseley, presumably, is intended to be that handbook, though many of its initial chapters seem to replicate Witton’s original call for more educators to take an interest in game pedagogy and put some investment in games for the secondary and post-secondary classroom. From there, the book offers the fundamentals, from the rudimentary to the quite advanced, but breaks it into such discrete units that a certain degree of disconnect forms between the separately useful entries.
Whereas an entire chapter, co-written by Whitton and Dave White, did not need to be dedicated to “Narrative” (such as explaining what conflict or plot is), other sections, like “Mapping Games to Curricula” by Moseley and Rosie Jones, could have been given more page space to explore their complexities. In fact, the collection does offer real-life case studies of games developed for and attempted in the classroom, but their lack of variety in terms of academic disciplines disappoints; [in]visible Belfast and ViolaQuest are marvelous examples of games-based education promoting the literary exploration of a city and the social orientation of students to the wider campus community, respectively, but, in as much as they document successes in this form, they do not suggest how to replicate it in other fields.
Perhaps the most useful portions of the collection for instructors of religion or theology come from two altogether different approaches within its covers. The chapter with the clearest ready-made step-by-step process or blueprint for game development is Simon Brookes and Moseley’s primer on constructing authentic learning activities (ALA) across what they term “the reality gap” of the game and the classroom (94, 96). Though editors Whitton and Moseley have their own chapter on design considerations, Brookes and Moseley’s discussion includes and exceeds the editors’ clear preference for Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) where a blend of real-world technologies lead students through a semi-fictional narrative toward the game’s learning objectives. While the thrill of an ARG can be contagious, chapters like Brookes and Moseley’s will still benefit the instructor-reader who is not yet ready to take such an intensive, immersive plunge.
Sarah Smith-Robbins delivers the other superlative chapter, a highly theoretical but ultimately rewarding consideration of virtual worlds’ utility for learning. True to Whitton’s early warnings to “scaffold” games so that they move from easy to harder to then still-harder tasks, Smith-Robbin’s chapter is reserved until close to the end, a quantum leap into Activity Theory and Game Ecology Models from the rudimentary material on quantified competition (such as “pointsification”) or multimedia options that form the initial foundation of the book. It seems highly unlikely, however, that the reader who began with those would “level up” to Smith Robbins’s discourse.
Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching is an impassioned, valuable book, entirely worthy of educators’ consideration, as are games for educational purposes overall. The collection can easily be likened to some of the most popular games available, with many playing them simply to complete them and not to uncover their every secret. Likewise, most educators will find the book more valuable for its constituent pieces rather than its entire whole.