Recently I attended a lecture by Roger Altizer, the Director of Game Design and Production in the Film and Media Arts Department at the University of Utah, where I work. He talked about a number of very interesting things related to gaming and pedagogy, but one thing in particular really struck me.
First, he pointed out that what separates play from a game is a structure of rules and a goal. A bunch of kids kicking a ball around are engaged in play; if they agree on a set of rules and on the definition of a goal, then their play becomes a game. That’s all pretty obvious.
What struck me as very interesting was his next point, which drew a distinction that was new to me: he talked about the difference between games and serious games. What distinguishes a serious game is that it has an ulterior motive: the teaching of skills or the accomplishment of therapeutic goals that are external to the game itself.
For example, he showed us a game called Color Caster that teaches grade-school children how primary colors blend to create secondary ones. Getting good at the game, which is fun in and of itself, makes the students good at something external to the game as well: basic color theory. The learning is real, but is experienced by the player as incidental—in fact, it may not be consciously “experienced” by the player at all. You play the game, and when you’re done, you find that you’ve gained a skill. More impressive examples involved a video game that entails certain kinds of muscle movements that act as physical therapy for people recovering from surgery, and another that is organized around a story that teaches young cancer patients how their chemotherapy works and has been shown to increase dramatically their compliance with medication regimens—playing the game leads the kids, when taking their meds, to see themselves as warrior generals sending ammunition to a defending army.
Here’s the thought that occurred to me. Suppose that someone were to come up with a game that teaches the principles of algebra or grammar or the scientific method more effectively than a professor can. Now suppose a process that were indistinguishable from play could teach a much more advanced academic principle more effectively than traditional academic methods do. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?
Now let’s put that question aside and ask a similar one from a more library-specific perspective: suppose that we had the power to make research so easy, intuitive, and straightforward that it was not experienced as research at all. What if someone invented an app that could read the student’s or researcher’s mind, anticipate her needs, and deliver relevant and high-quality content with no effort at all?
How would we, as librarians, feel about that?
I think the way each of us answers that question says something about the way we think about the deep principles of librarianship—the “ultimate goals” I suggested in my first column. Granted that education ought to be a challenging, mind-expanding, and in many ways difficult experience, would we be selling our students short by making the library too easy to use?
The question may seem facetious, but it isn’t. One concern one might reasonably raise concerning game-based curricula (and those do exist) is that there are important skills kids learn at school that go beyond the subject matter of their classes. They learn how to pay attention to things that may not be immediately or intrinsically interesting to them; they learn how to sit still for extended periods; they learn how to control their impulses; they learn to wait for playtime until worktime is over. These are arguably essential human skills, and they may not be learned very effectively in an environment that elides the distinction between work and play. Just as we encourage kids to play team sports in part so that they’ll become good at being teammates, we also send kids to school in part so that they’ll learn how to do things that aren’t fun.
On the other hand, some might argue that social skills and self-discipline ought to be taught by parents, leaving the school free to focus its energies on teaching academic subject matter by whatever methods are demonstrably most effective, regardless of whether those methods look and feel like what we traditionally think of as “schoolwork.” And it’s also possible that game-based curricula help to socialize students in ways that traditional classroom learning doesn’t: by providing direct and immediate rewards for effective collaboration and for good critical thinking, for example.
Coming back to the library, we might ask ourselves: instead of trying to turn our patrons into better library users, what if we decided to spoon-feed? In the absence of a magical research app, what if the patron who approaches the reference desk looking for ten articles from peer-reviewed journals on a specific problem in molecular biology were simply handed ten good articles by someone who is better at finding them quickly and easily, thereby freeing up the patron to spend all of his time engaging with the content?
I can imagine any number of reasons that we might object to that approach. Some of those reasons would reflect what I’m coming to think of as “authentic librarianship”; others might not.
Here’s what I do feel confident saying, though: authentic librarianship is more concerned with scholarly ends (the creation and transmission of knowledge) than with academic means (the research process). Means do matter, but when it comes to research and scholarly work, we can’t let them become more important to us than ends.