Concepts to Give a Rest: Part I — Procedural Literacy

23’s been nagging at me lately. In the rush to use “games to teach” we keep skipping over the obvious question: Teach what?

So, it was with some interest I picked up on this item:

Kotaku, the Gamer’s Guide

The MacArthur Foundation has decided to contribute $1.1 million behind a new public school in New York for 6-12th graders. The curriculum for the entire school will surround designing video games. The idea is that if children have “gaming literacy”, or in other words, teaching kids about dynamic systems.

All well and good. But can I ask another question–do games really teach “procedural literacy?” I’m not saying that they don’t. Just asking.

As for an entire school based around games, well, that sounds like fun. So does an entire school based around comic books or sports or cooking. In fact, I think this is really the same idea that Disney uses when it comes to building hotels. They call it “themeing”, and I’m down with that.

I’m just not sure that I understand how playing games will make kids any better off that, say, using Google and the Wikipeduia and maybe learning Flash and a little BASIC. All things equal, I’m happy that someone is trying this out. We’ll see how it goes. And I’m equally glad that my kids are not in this particular program.

Heresy, you say? As a videogame researcher and writer, shouldn’t I want my kids to get that extra edge in the digital economy and learn this new literacy? Yeah, well, here’s the problem. My house is full of games and I am sure that whatever lessons games have to teach, my kids soak up on a regular basis. They don’t need to learn non-linear thinking at school. They need to remember to put their coats in the closet when they come home and to pick up their toys.

So what has been nagging? I think that we need to put these notions of computational, procedural or gaming literacy under the microscope and see what’s there. These notions sounded nice when we were trying to find reasons to justify studying games. Now we need to question those very assumptions.

5 Responses to Concepts to Give a Rest: Part I — Procedural Literacy

  1. I think you’re right, this seems kind of extreme. I’m also excited about video games being studied as part of a curriculum, but the whole curriculum?

    I was living in Montana after college, flyfishing and bartending. I had an opportunity to become a fly-fishing guide, and I was considering it. An older guide took me aside and said “Look, don’t make what you love your job. It changes everything.”

    I love playing games, but if you’re going to make games part of my homework and tell me I can’t play my favorite game because I have to study something in a game I don’t enjoy, I’m not going to like that.

    I hope the grant proposal was solid and addresses the need for diversity and paying attention to the differences in the ways people learn.

  2. I probably shouldn’t be so salty about the concept. Katie Salen, the lead behind this effort, has certainly proved that she’s dedicated to the idea of game studies and done as much as anyone to advance it.

    But this whole effort is sort of a philosophical Matrix move. If we take games/procedural literacy that seriously, then we are acting like computers are sooooo important that they must describe the fundamental nature of everything. Maybe, that’s the way it is. But thinking about it too much sort of makes it so.

    Like I suggest in the title of this post–we should give the concept a rest, not retire it:)

    — David

  3. I tend to agree with your qualms about procedural literacy in the school, but then I have similar qualms about any kind of literacy program, or any educational program, that economics forces us to standardize for the efficient assembly-line processing of large groups of students. (That’s one of the reasons why we homeschool.) Having said that, I know that homeschooling is not for every family or for every kid. What you describe does sound a bit like a trendy way for administrators who are have just gotten a decent grip on the technology to assure parents who have no clue that the kiddos will get their basics covered.

    I see plenty of talented, intelligent students who spend a lot of time online, but who don’t know how to find a file in a directory tree, or who don’t have the slightest idea how an icon associates a file to a particular program. The SimCity/Civilization style games are certainly promising for teaching procedural concepts, as are Rube-Goldberg-type games like The Incredible Machine and Marble Drop.

  4. I agree 100% with all of you.

    Like Rick M. said about the not turning a hobby into a career subject, is something I’ve been saying for a long time. Making something you enjoy into a career isn’t always the best move. For example: If you are someone who loves writing poetry, just enjoys writing at any given time no matter how crappy their writing may be, wouldn’t want to be a professional poet. Then poetry is being critiqued by others, you have deadlines, you have this you have that. Your turning something you had fun doing, into something that’d be losing it’s uniqueness.

    In what Dennis said about the assembly-line process, I’ve also believed that thought for a long time as well =D That is what schools are. Just the government putting people on a conveyor belt, turning each one into the same person, with the same knowledge, same skills, and same functions, turning them into the same people.

    Okay okay, I got a bit off subject there, =p But, I don’t think it’s right to have these “themed” schools. In elementary/high school, you need those basic math, English, history, and science studies. In a way, taking those courses helps you figure out what you’d like to learn more of. Thats what colleges are for. Though, I’m not going to lie, being on the computer all day at school and playing video games wouldn’t be so different from my home life =D Maybe it’s good I go to high school…

  5. I agree very strongly with your statement. I think that using video games as a primary tool for education is a big risk. Sure games can be educational and a student of Caillois would say that they’re even fundamental to our society. But we all played games way before they became computer simulated. Why, I even used to create my own games. That’s something these kids might be missing out on.

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