Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

Re: De Castell and Jenson’s “Digital Games for Education: When Meanings Play”

July 16th, 2014 · No Comments

De Castell and Jenson’s article discusses, with admirable candour, the difficulties in representing and conveying “educational” content through the medium of video games. They describe the process of designing a game called Contagion that seeks to address several public health issues, namely the class dimensions of disease transmission and state policies vis-à-vis virulent outbreaks. From their description, it is made to sound like a junior action/adventure approach to epidemiology or the “Social Determinants of Health” (but with the dystopic glamour of a pandemic panic!)

The candour I alluded to above instantiates in the authors’ admissions that the “funnest” parts of the game were the ones that touched on the social-political context of the game in only the most cursory or perfunctory ways (126). For example De Castell and Jenson describe a driving game portion of the larger game wherein players drive “through the streets of lower Pyramidea [the name of the city-state that constitutes the game world] at night, trying to locate and treat patients identified as needing assistance, while avoiding the patrolling…vans” (126). While this scenario may seem relevant to the social-political context of the game as I’ve described it, the authors allow that, essentially, “it’s just another driving game” (126).

De Castell and Jenson’s admission that the most appealing parts of the game contained the least “content” in terms of educational import lead to their greater point that the true “educative” aim of any game is, in sense, the “fun” itself:

The learning goal is such a game is simply to play it, to be in that setting, as an active and engaged participant, stringing together the parts, none of which is self-contained, but all of which can be fitted together to make up a richly educative whole (130).

The authors also go on to decry the utility-driven, instrumentalist vision of education that demands concrete measures for the displaying of learning processes that are often highly complex, social, internally-experienced, and not amenable to quantification. In this I completely follow them; I, too, think we need to resist the injunction to constantly test and show what we’ve accomplished as students and teachers. However, the question that is provoked by this line of thinking, precipitated as it has been in this article by a discussion of educational games, is what purpose the designation of “educational” content serves. Presumably, students are “active and engaged” participants in the settings of the commercial games that they play outside of school. If what educational games supply to them is something they are learning from the games that they play anyway, then is the purpose of an educational game an ethical one at its core? De Castell and Jenson do not explicitly state this to be the case, but the upshot or corollary of continuing to advocate for educational games (while admitting that they do very little to convey content) is to argue that there are suitable or unsuitable games for children of a certain age. Of course, this should not be a controversial idea. The horrific violence and virulent sexism that we see in computer games necessitates that we exercise some degree of gatekeeping. If we (and, presumably, the authors) agree that the project of edification (or, at the very least, protection from oppressive ideas) is defensible, then a careful articulation of that position might have accompanied an argument advocating gaming for gaming’s sake.

Works Cited

de Castell, S., Jenson, J., & Taylor, N. (2007). Digital games for education: When meanings play. Situated Play, DiGRA Conference, Tokyo, Japan. 590-599.

– Peter MacRaild




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