When should we use serious games?

This question was underlying several comments and questions put forward by the audience during a master class I gave early November. So, how do serious games relate to other educational resources?  When should you use a serious game and when you should prefer an alternative solution, such as a book, a video, a lab, or even a classroom session? The question is legitimate. But it is also biased and  incomplete as I’ll explain below.

Suppose we want to learn someone how to bake pancakes. The learning objective: “being able to bake pancakes”. The learning content: “knowledge of the ingredients, tools and procedures and their application”. So how should we deal with this technically? Shall we deploy a serious game, or do we choose a video or a book, or do we invite a chef?

Everything goes. Most people use a cookery book for learning how to cook. Fair enough, the book is a great technology, indeed. There are also videos about successfully baking pancakes. Likewise, there are cookery workshops that allow you to experience and learn baking pancakes yourself. Games about this are unknown to me, but it does not really matter for the argument. So, generally it doesn’t seem to matter much what technology is used.

But there’s more to it. Each educational technology has its specific features. From a book you would easily  learn about the ingredients and their mixture, what temperature the frying pan should be and how to reverse your pancake with a “prudent but fierce swing of the wrist”. Unlike a book, a video directly shows you how to pour the batter into the hot, buttered pan without making a mess and how the throw for reversing the pancake should be performed (slow motion!). In the practical lesson you would directly experience how thick the batter should be, you will learn the smell of burnt end product, and you will sense how difficult it is to give the pan the right sweep. You learn differently in each case, but you also learn different things!

The various technologies aren’t neutral to the pedagogy, but determine what is possible and what isn’t. So far so good. What many people tend to overlook is that the relationship between pedagogy and technology is reciprocal. The denial of this is naive and goes back to a 19th-century idea of the role of technology. Let me explain this.

In the naive view pedagogy is an independent, conceptual domain in which the principles of learning and teaching are used for designing lessons. Technology is completely ignored, with the reasonable argument that you have to consider first what you want before you’re going to put it together. This, however, reflects an instrumental conception of technology – technology as a tool, a useful instrument for the realisation of your plans – a view which is especially convenient for those who aren’t very fond of technology anyway. At the beginning of the 20th century it became clear that technology is much more than just a simple tool for achieving our plans. Technology appeared to intervene deeply in human life, in our actions and the way we arrange the world. In many respects, new technologies create new ways of thinking, new behaviours, and new relationships we have with the world we live in. Technology directly helps us developing new ideas.

Back to the pancakes. A naive didactic person, ignorant of any technology whatsoever, would say: first I’ll make my lesson plan and subsequently I’ll produce the lesson possibly using some technological tools. Different technologies (book, video, game, etcetera) may be assessed for appropriateness, and finally the best solution is chosen. The problem is that the lesson plan of this naïve didactic person is basically of a technology-neutral nature. Consequently, it is in no way inspired by any technology. For instance, being ignorant of any video technologies this naive didactic person will never be able to include any ideas about “slow-motion” footage in the lesson design. A missed opportunity. Instead of the new features (in this case) to use video technology, the naive didactic sticks to the existing didactic principles – whatever these may – in extreme cases only to non-technical patterns. So the book, the blackboard with chalk and pencil are ignored, leaving just the verbal tradition to remain. Such a conception of ignoring technology makes pedagogy static, limited and isolated.

In practice, however, teaching really is the product of technical possibilities, even tough this remains usually implicit and naïve pedagogues may not be aware of this. Instead of asking what technology to use for implementing a lesson plan, the reverse question is also relevant: how could technology enhance my teaching? Only then there is reciprocity and pedagogy is allowed to grow.

Back to the question: when using serious games? The question is incomplete and deserves the extension with reverse: so what new opportunities for learning and teaching emerge with serious games? Now, that sounds much less instrumental, less defensive and less naive.

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