Games with a Purpose: Interview with Anastasia Salter

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Salter_BioAnastasia Salter is an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore in the Department of Science, Information Arts, and Technologies. Her primary research is on digital narratives with a continuing focus on virtual worlds, gender and cyberspace, games as literature, educational games and fan production. She holds a doctorate in communications design from U. Baltimore and an M.F.A. in children’s literature at Hollins University. She is on the web at http://selfloud.net.

This interview was conducted by Mike Roy, editorial board member of the Academic Commons. A founding editor of the Academic Commons with long-standing interest in the impact of new technology on the meaning and practice of liberal education, he is currently the dean of library and information services and chief information officer at Middlebury College.

Q: There are at least two ways of thinking about games in education. On the one hand, games are a form of culture that is increasingly important, and worthy of study in the same way that TV and Film have found their way into the curriculum. But they also have an instrumental value, as vehicles for helping to teach and learn about traditional subjects. What are the most interesting and useful examples you can think of where games are being used in the curriculum to facilitate learning?

Salter: Games with a purpose can be powerful both as classroom experiences and as design challenges: some of my favorite examples of games in the curriculum are student-designed games related to course topics. Games offer agency to students whether they are players or designers. Experiential games, including alternate reality games such as the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry, Adeline Koh’s Trading Races, and The Pericles Group’s Operation LAPIS demonstrate the possibilities of play with or without technology. Commercial games like World of Warcraft and Civilization are also being integrated into the curriculum: all games can promote learning of some kind.

Q: As a professor who teaches using games, to what extent do you think that games are “just” effective vehicles for learning that could be achieved through other means, and to what extent do you think that integrating games into the classroom promotes new  types of learning that can be achieved no other way?

Salter: To some extent, everything is “just” a vehicle for learning–but why trivialize that? Games provide environments where we learn from our failures safely. They bring experiential learning into the classroom, and provide models for thinking about problems where there’s not only one right solution. The dynamics of games help distinguish them from learning environments where knowledge is dictated, lectured, presented or otherwise placed in front of a student. Games have the power to change how we think about the classroom, and while they may not be the only means to that end, they are invaluable for re-imagining learning as play.

Q: So using games in education fits into a broader movement to re-think education as something other than  “placing knowledge in front of a student.”  I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, and ask: how do you strike the right balance between transmitting the ‘facts in the head’ needed to work within any given domain of knowledge, and the imperative to support students’ development where ‘content’ is really a means to a greater developmental end?

Salter: Well, I’d say that transmitting those “facts in the head” is only ever really successful when learners can place facts in a meaningful context. When people are given a reason to learn, they tend to learn:  just look at the instant recall of Pokemon strengths and weaknesses by young gamers, the endless application of tactics and rotations by World of Warcraft players, or the hazard memorization of competitive Call of Duty and Halo players. Acquiring knowledge is always a first step towards application, but traditional learning tends to isolate the facts and leave the learner without clear motivation.

Q: As you point out, it is clear that a person playing a game is extremely motivated to learn what she needs to know in order to succeed at the game. The promise of games in education is that this same motivation and excitement can be leveraged to learn more traditional subject areas. However, most educators run their classrooms without using games. What do you see as the barriers to broader adoption of using games in the classroom?

Salter: Classroom education has always struggled with the isolation of the learning environment from the real world. Games can bridge that gap, but first they have to be seen as acceptable and not just a waste of time. In K-12, most educators are stuck with way too many administrative restrictions on their teaching to get away with something as apparently radical as teaching with games. In higher ed, we have a different problem: most faculty aren’t actually trained to teach so much as they are trained in research, so if games aren’t on their personal radar they are unlikely even to encounter the possibility. In that sense, our current education system is very self-perpetuation: teachers are products of the current systems, and it’s easy to reproduce what they experienced.

Q. Short of completely dismantling our entire educational system, what can we do to address the challenges you identify as standing in the way of broader adoption?

Salter: Well, I can’t say I have any problem with the idea of dismantling and rethinking the entire educational system! There are a lot of ways to address these challenges. Bringing teachers into gaming is a great first step, particularly when there are opportunities to demonstrate that gaming isn’t all Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. Empowering teachers and students as collaborative designers of their learning experience is the next step, and the one I work on a lot: any teacher can bring a playful approach into the classroom through creative activity, and making a game can be a great way to express ideas and probe at a system of knowledge. It doesn’t even matter if the final game is any good–the act of making something, and playing with it, and even failing is essential.

  1. Final thoughts?

Salter: Even if every educator doesn’t bring actual games into the classroom, there are lots of ideas we can take from the way learning happens in games. Games offer a sliding difficulty, and a space where failure is part of the learning experience, not an end outcome. Furthermore, games are inherently collaborative and often offer multiple ways to master something. Just like in life, if not the traditional classroom, there’s rarely only one “right” solution.

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This article is part of a special issue of Transformations on games in education, published on September 30, 2013. An earlier version was circulated for open peer review via Media Commons Press. The “Games in Education” issue was developed by Mike Roy (Middlebury College), guest editor and editorial board member of the Academic Commons, and Todd Bryant (Dickinson College), who was instrumental in organizing and developing the special issue.