Games and Learning: Double Standards

Do we in the videogames industry employ a double standard?

The answer is yes, but that’s hardly unique to our field. Every line of business, from handguns to ham sandwiches, is quick to point out its own benefits, and ready to dismiss common criticisms. However, when the same logic is used to arrive at two separate conclusions, a second glance may be in order.

This morning, Game Theory’s Scott Steinberg wrote an excellent article for CNN, serving to illustrate the many benefits of our favorite pastime, including “active teamwork and high-level project management” in co-op games, and “building players’ confidence and helping them see the world from multiple viewpoints,” to name a few. Steinberg’s points are all well-taken, and the article makes an excellent counterpoint to gaming’s detractors. It’s on one particular point, though, that it’s tough not to be reminded of the most common videogame criticism:

More interactive and absorbing than passive forms of entertainment like movies and TV, video games promote higher levels of engagement because observers are actively and enthusiastically involved with on-screen activity.

Steinberg is citing author James Paul Gee, and making an excellent observation about games as a positive learning tool. But what if the learning is less desirable? The reasoning seems to hearken back to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, frequent critic of the industry, who originally coined the term “killology” in his studies surrounding the psychology of killing. Grossman argued that videogames, particularly the violent ones, could indeed teach powerful lessons due to their interactive nature – lessons about taking human lives with few consequences.

Are we allowed to laud the potential for teaching and learning in games, and then deny that exact same quality as it applies to violence? Steinberg himself even lists the U.S. Army as an organization that has successfully employed gaming as a training tool, which is precisely the basis for Grossman’s criticisms 15 years prior: if games are so effective at teaching our soldiers to kill, they can do the same for the rest of us.

Ultimately, the question of what can be taught by games involves a broader view of the lessons’ context; MIT professor Henry Jenkins reminds us that “The military uses games as part of a specific curriculum, with clearly defined goals, in a context where students actively want to learn and have a need for the information being transmitted. There are consequences for not mastering those skills.” He also points out the usual distinctions between fantasy, reality, passive learning, and conscious goals.

In the great debate about videogames, as with all debates, a single rationale can be used to argue both “pro” and “con” sides. Take care not to accidentally make your opponent’s point for him – nobody likes a teamkiller.