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Time to let the dragons rest

Written by Chad Sansing
December 06, 2011

Lately, my students and I have been talking a lot about a new game. Here’s what I’ve learned from the kids:

  1. Failure is a hilarious.
  2. Trying to break, exploit, and/or glitch a game is part of playing it.
  3. Taking advantage of the exploits and/or glitches in a game is part of playing it.
  4. Using console commands in a single-player game is not the same thing as using bots to improve performance in a multiplayer game. Cheating in the privacy of your own save file is acceptable, whereas cheating against other people on a server is not.
  5. The increasing absurdity of power in a game is part of its motivational arc.
  6. The amassing of power is what passes for characterization in a mass-market first-person game, despite the customizability of its protagonist.
  7. Mastery of a game requires both an understanding of how to play the game and how to interact with the glitches in the game.
  8. The inclusion of opportunities to be evil in a game makes it okay to be evil in the game.
  9. While we’re aware of a game’s code when it glitches, we don’t pay much attention to it when a game works correctly.
  10. Sharing stories about different experiences in the same game creates a sense of community.

And here’s what I’m thinking about school:

  1. At school, failure is not hilarious. Failure at school often brings negative consequences because of the time-limits we place on students’ learning through summative assessments and final grades. There’s nothing entertaining about failure at school; it’s not spectacular; it’s demotivating. We don’t allow kids to load their last save and try again after a catastrophic failure; instead, we focus on the consequence – on the catastrophe – rather than on the opportunity to re-load the task and try again with the new knowledge gained from failing. Failure at school should be more fun; work should be re-loadable.
  2. For kids, trying to break, exploit, and/or glitch school is part of playing it. For adults, breaking, exploiting, and glitching school are punishable offenses.
  3. School should be about breaking school – it should be about exploiting and glitching the system whenever possible to allow for more fun and more authentic learning than standardized curricula, assessment, and instruction allow. A world class game is like no other; a world class school system is like no other. The standardization of public education should be glitched to hell by students and teachers alike.
  4. Finding your own way through an assignment – through research or through conversation – is not the same thing as cheating or benefiting from another student’s loss. Game designers don’t stamp out wikis. Game designers don’t lock players out of console commands. Game designers don’t keep kids from talking about their games. So long as no one is hurt – and perhaps so long as nothing is stolen (whatever that means in our culture) – we should enable students to engage in personally meaningful inquiry. There is no longer any need to assess a student’s ability to take a decontextualized, standards-aligned test on his or her own. Cheating is no longer cheating; it’s customized learning.
  5. Schools limit kids’ powers in absurd ways in a mainstream culture that values economic and military power (just look at our video games!). It’s no wonder that students rebel, check out, and/or look forward to playing video games at home that fulfill their genuine, human need for agency and socialized need for power and control. If schools put kids first as players – or clients – and served kids’ needs like the best game designers do, perhaps their would be a mutual appreciation of value amongst students, teachers, admin, parents, school boards, and communities. That is to say, if schools taught as effectively as games do and engaged students as effective as games do, then maybe we’d be having completely different local, state, and national conversations about education. School would be a place to talk about – and take advantage of – the power of fun. There is nothing wrong with having fun in school.
  6. In the absence of a public education system invested in anything other than achievement, the amassing of good grades is what passes for character development amongst the elite and their supporters in gate-keeping personally meaningful, ungraded, feedback-driven work of lasting value from the masses who would benefit from it. That is to say, if schools let kids direct their own learning and helped shape that learning with specific feedback instead of amorphous grades, again, then then maybe we’d be having completely different local, state, and national conversations about education. School would matter in ways that grades and diplomas and compliance do not. There is nothing wrong with kids doing work that matters to them at school.
  7. There is no safe way for kids to exploit and/or glitch school to make it more fun and meaningful. We adults should join them in breaking traditional school by creating relevant, fun learning spaces in every classroom we can, standardization be damned. We can’t master teaching and learning in community without our kids’ help, and we can’t count on that help in places where we deny kids the opportunity to make their schools matter more to them. Kids don’t enjoy being denied a sense of mastery from kindergarten through twelfth grade – not even the school successful kids feel empowered to do anything more than play the game and to disregard its inequities and opportunities for change in accordance with our adult wishes.
  8. The inclusion of inequities in our public school culture makes it seem okay to kids to perpetuate these inequities, consciously or not.
  9. While we’re aware of the rules being broken when kids push back against the system, when everyone is compliant, we don’t pay much attention to what kids are really learning or doing in response to the pressures we place on them at school. We take passing test scores as evidence of learning and failing test scores as evidence of failure, but the for all the data we pour over in our PLCs – for all the interventions we stage – we are not systematically in conversation with our kids about what’s going on in their minds regarding teaching and learning. We punish non-compliance; we reward compliance; we analyze data; we remain unaware of the code running in our kids’ heads and how it might better our schools, ourselves, and our profession. Game designers do look at player data and can assume players are playing, but when we look at data, we assume all kids are playing the lesson or content we’ve assigned. That probably isn’t true. We don’t account for pro knowledge, experience, bias – we look at achievement. We’d get a lot better information about learning if every kid engaged in inquiry with a new topic than we ever will get from looking at how all kids perform on a common task.
  10. Sharing stories about school creates a sense of community. That’s what we’re trying to do here – on Digital Is; through the National Writing Project; as a people confronting the obsolescence of our schools..

And that, I think, is what we need to do as gamers, non-gamers, students, educators, parents, and communities. We need to share our stories of school, to challenge ourselves to question the romantic parts, and to take action against the tragic ones.

Games have given us permission to speak about morality in our classroom – about power, cheating, designing, and being in shared virtual worlds. It would be an epic feat – though perhaps an less lauded and under-rewarded one – to let the dragons rest for a night, and, instead, to take on our schools.

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