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February 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 5

Shooting Aliens: The Gamer's Guide to Thinking

Many educators are unified in the opinion that video games are a complete waste of time. Barring a full-scale invasion by extraterrestrials, how can shooting aliens help students develop skills that will be useful in the real world? What value does pretending to be an elf have in this world where, at last census, the total elf population was zero? Clearly, time playing video games could be better spent. But despite these games' apparent uselessness, students who are unwilling to spend more than a few minutes on a school-related task spend countless hours playing, mastering, and enjoying video games. Are these students merely wasting time?

Learning from Games

A number of studies have shown that video games may actually have educational value. Even the Federation of American Scientists, which normally comments on topics such as nuclear proliferation, has begun to take notice:The $7 billion per year video game industry can teach educators about motivation and emotional involvement. Today's 8th graders play about 5 hours per week of video games; 60 percent of college students are regular game players. Educators are waking up to the possibility that "serious games" could motivate students to learn. (Howell, 2004)
The assumption that video games are a waste of time has become an outdated argument based solely on the wistful remembrances of "the good old days." Today's video games are more than just flashing lights and moving pictures. In an effort to market to a population that is increasingly comfortable with advanced technology, the industry has developed much more complex and stimulating games that are a far cry from those of the early Pong days.
James Paul Gee (2003) tells us that "good games—and the games get better in this respect all the time—are crafted in ways that encourage and facilitate active and critical learning and thinking" (p. 46). Gee argues that many games assumed to be a "waste of time" are in fact excellent at teaching critical-thinking skills. So how do video games encourage critical thinking, and how can we take advantage of this phenomenon in the classroom?

Probing a New World

  1. The player must probe the virtual world by looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action.
  2. On the basis of the probing results, the player must form a hypothesis about how an item or action might affect game play.
  3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
  4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.
This probing cycle should look very familiar, as it is essentially the steps of the scientific method. This is important to note because, as any good science teacher tells students, the scientific method is not a magic tool just for scientists in the laboratory. It's a way of problem solving that we can use in nearly any unfamiliar situation.
Successful problem solvers use this sort of process to move beyond knowledge and comprehension and to apply, synthesize, and evaluate. The probing cycle forces players to not only analyze an object, but also synthesize the properties of the object with their prior knowledge about similar objects in the game world and evaluate the object's usefulness in achieving the game's objective. For players not adept at probing, the video game can become immediately frustrating and exceptionally difficult.

Achieving a Goal

Once players begin to discover how the virtual world works, they must decide how to accomplish the game's goals. Although the overall goal of the game may be to stop an alien invasion, it may not be possible to accomplish this goal by simply shooting every alien in the game. Instead, the player may have to kill the alien leader. To do that, the player may have to enter the alien stronghold. To do that, the player may have to find the alien key, and so on, and so on.
To reach the final objective, players must learn a skill that Steven Johnson (2005) callstelescoping, which is "about constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the tasks in the correct sequence. It's about perceiving relationships and determining priorities" (p. 54). Telescoping requires that players not only determine their objectives but also prioritize them. However, video games rarely spell out the objectives—players must use what they have come to understand through probing the world to determine how to accomplish the objectives.
In the classroom, many students struggle with telescoping. So much information is given in a specific unit that it can easily become overwhelming. As teachers, we may use spiraling and other techniques to organize the topics in a way that takes advantage of telescoping, but students who aren't already adept at organizing and prioritizing can quickly become lost in a sea of information.

Solving Problems

Once players have learned how the virtual world works mechanically through probing and what their objectives are through telescoping, they must determine how to reach their objectives. Many games offer a variety of possible options, all of which players can discover through probing. These possibilities may be as simple as, Which weapon should I use to annihilate my enemies? The bazooka or the assault rifle? or they may involve more complex choices that accommodate a variety of playing styles. In our "shooting aliens" game, some players might blast everything they see, and others may prefer stealth. Gee (2003) suggests that in a good video game,there are nearly always multiple solutions to any given problem. Players can choose strategies that fit with their style of learning, thinking and acting. This, of course, is highly motivating both for learning and for playing the game and a rich source for reflecting on one's own styles of learning and problem solving (and, perhaps, experimenting with new ones). (p. 81)
Some games require the player to solve traditional puzzles, such as word games. Others require players to understand relationships among people, items, and clues that they have uncovered through probing. Players who can't problem solve and make decisions get nowhere.
Players who fail in their first attempt to solve a problem must reevaluate their solution and try again. Gee (2003) suggests thatthe game encourages him to think of himself as an active problem solver, one who persists in trying to solve problems even after making mistakes; one who, in fact, does not see mistakes as errors but as opportunities for reflection and learning. It encourages him to be the sort of problem solver who, rather than ritualizing the solutions to problems, leaves himself open to undoing former mastery and finding new ways to solve new problems in new situations. (p. 44)
The ability to "undo former mastery" is vital to learning. Very rarely does one solution work for all situations. A successful learner must be able to adapt to new situations and problems. Great discoveries in science—such as Planck's theory of quanta, Heisenberg's theory of uncertainty, and Einstein's theory of relativity—have come about when a scientist refused to look at the problem in the traditional way. Johnson (2005) comments thatall the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. (p. 41)
Like video game players, scientists get nowhere by bumbling over a problem forever; they must decide on a course of action and experiment—often taking a counterintuitive course of action.

Working Toward a Payoff

It seems clear that the learning required in the video game world is remarkably similar to the learning we desire in the classroom. Why, then, will a teenager spend countless hours using critical thinking to blast aliens but won't spend 10 minutes working on balancing chemical equations? Inevitably the response, "Because video games are fun!" springs to mind, but such a statement must be qualified. In fact, "the dirty little secret of gaming is how much time you spend not having fun" (Johnson, 2005, p. 25).
Good video games require players to accomplish a number of monotonous tasks before receiving any payoff. In a game like World of Warcraft, a group of players (as many as 25 working together) may spend a couple of hours each night for a week trying to defeat one "boss." They must develop, test, and reevaluate new strategies. These repetitive attempts quickly become discouraging and irritating—it doesn't take long for the novelty of the game to wear off.
So why keep playing? Why do people who put their homework aside after 10 minutes spend hours at tasks that can be even more monotonous? Because there is some reward at the end that the player wants. This reward could be a new weapon that will make the player more successful or another piece in the puzzle of the story that's unfolding, or simply bragging rights. The rewards keep the player playing:In the gameworld, reward is everywhere. … You want to win the game, of course, and perhaps you want to see the game's narrative completed. In the initial stages of play, you may just be dazzled by the game's graphics. But most of the time, when you're hooked on a game, what draws you in is an elemental form of desire: the desire to see the next thing. (Gee, 2003, p. 36)

Stepping Outside the Game

To help students translate the skills they've developed playing video games into the real world, teachers need to create classroom environments that encourage students to use these same thinking skills to solve problems that don't involve aliens or elves.
Just as we strive to show our students the real-life applications of classroom information, we must train our students to recognize the overlap between the thinking they do when they turn on their Play Stations and that required in real-world problem solving. The most effective way to do this is to be honest—there's no need for secrecy! You can encourage students to use the same probing strategies needed in video games when they work on their lab reports. And when students begin to write research papers, you should show them how preparing an outline resembles telescoping. Once they begin to recognize the similarities, students will start to make these connections on their own.
So how do we encourage students to trudge through the probing and telescoping cycles? The video game industry has it figured out; our classrooms must be crammed with rewards. These rewards, which must be equivalent to the amount of effort put forth, can take a variety of forms. Chemistry students may use new knowledge to develop an experiment to test old theories and discover new ones. History students may develop a presentation on a topic they are studying to share outside the classroom. Art students might synthesize what they just learned about negative space with their talents working with charcoal to create a new piece for their favorite teacher.
As students begin to experience success for their efforts, an addiction for learning will set in. Before long, they'll be spending as much time investigating microbes as they do blasting aliens.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Howell, K. (2004, August). Learning science and technology R&D: A roadmap to the future of learning. Presentation at the Navy Learning Strategies Consortium Conference, Washington, DC. Available:www.fas.org/main/content.jsp?formAction=297&contentId=330

Johnson, S. (2005). Everything bad is good for you: How today's popular culture is actually making us smarter. New York: Riverhead Books.

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