I've managed to get along to the gaming for learning day of the Edinburgh Interactive Festival, a fest not about interactivity in its broadest sense, but about gaming. I'm wondering whether the organisers have built in a bit of slack for what we all know will make the games industry more successful in the long term. The title of the event offers huge potential to expand a rather quiet conference floor, and the word "interactive" offers more scope for gaming than the public exhibition space would have us believe.
Though social interaction through gaming can be seen oozing through education projects of the kind we see coming out of the Consolarium, most of this interaction is engineered by the combination of a superb teacher, guidance from a full-time gaming specialist and the stamp of approval from the national education agency. The interaction is not engineered by the commercial, off-the-shelf game itself, designed instead for entertainment for oneself rather than entertainment with others. The interaction is coming from the framework of teacher, classroom and planning. The one relatively recent and significant exception to the rule would be the Wii.
Where games are used in learning, there is significant social interaction whose scaffold is the teacher - the way the students play the game, the way they talk about the game, the tasks they undertake and then the way they reflect about their learning. The teacher plans and prepares the play of the class.
Education does social interaction
Take Kim Applin's use of Endless Ocean at Meldrum Primary School: a game that provides a rich graphical interest is used much the same as Rylands and co would use Myst for creative thinking and writing. They record species they find on their 'dives', write about what it feels like to dive to the coral reef, design their own fish, make Crazy Talk animations of their creations. It's great. But all the support, ideas for taking the game for learning and the outcomes are done within the context of a curriculum, which Kim refers to repeatedly, and it is a teacher, not the students, choosing the rough direction of travel for interactivity.
Education has done well to use computer games or video games to enhance or create new contexts for learning, but the methods and outputs, though digitised, more varied and of increasingly higher production values, hold much in common with the process and output of the primary school classic Granny's Garden, which I was playing in 1986. Students play game, in a group or individually or both, teacher structures activity around social interaction between students, students create objects and (mostly) linear stories, illustrations, movies, iStories, podcasts. If this is, rather simplistically put, the process we see re-modeled in 2008, where can we take things in 2009 and beyond, to encourage some truly student-led and student-structured interactivity? Moreover, where can we take commercial or online games that are played outside the classroom, with no teacher to scaffold activity?
(Un)interaction in the 'real world'
In the real world, outside school, it's going to be rare that kids get as much out of their games in terms of social interaction and, in turn learning. Even forgetting the learning argument for the moment, the "ticky box" approach to applying games to learning and curriculum, we can see that the games industry has, by and large, left social interaction to the domain of the educator, the enthusiastic parent or precocious child. After all, is 10 seconds of abuse of our competitors before playing Halo really interaction? Is text chat with strangers during our F1 racing really interaction?
Truly engaging, long-term interaction with endless opportunity to build upon requires something more profound, more complex and hard-to-grasp to happen: people need influenced by other people (not by the computer-generated, limited characters), actions need to be completed with other people (not with a game's cues). Social interaction from within the game (and not through the imagination of a teacher and his/her students) is where the games of the future will find themselves. ARGs may not be the elixir (or they might be) but they have more of the kind of true inherent interaction I'm talking about than any other gaming interaction we can see.
The challenge for those working in education is threefold. Truly interactive gaming such as ARGs, from a player's perspective, are
hard impossible to predict and can't be preplanned to fit in with curricular goals. They are incredibly challenging to author, arguably more so than recreating a 3D copy of something we've already played, on a game-making application like Missionmaker. Finally, they require the use of social and mobile tools that are misunderstood and maligned in most education circles: social networks, blogs, video podcasting sites and, above all, cell phones.
This is where gaming, and particularly gaming for learning, has to go eventually. I'm heartened when self-confessed glutton-for-punishment Susan Yeoman ends her talk on educational uses of gaming by pressing the importance of pubishing and sharing output from game-playing with as wide an audience as possible on the web. Sharing, listening to feedback, collaborating and republishing ideas is much tougher than picking a game off a shelf which has rich graphics for stimulating creative writing or which trains our brains in mathematics or foreign languages.
Above all, really making games social within and of themselves further asserts the roles of learners, not teachers, as the ones who direct and plan learning, regardless of whether it 'fits' into a curricular plan. If it works, with the complicity of talented teachers and informed parents, then we really are headed towards something of excellence.