My experience with video games has, from the beginning, been two-fold: with certain game experiences being earmarked for fun and enjoyment, and others more explicitly connected to the expectation of learning. As I have been working with my group colleagues and delving into the history of multimedia and instructional media, it has been impossible not to reconsider the technological breakthroughs and attitudes I lived through in the last decade of 1940-1990.
In 1983, when my father first purchased a Commodore 64, I remember the expectation he had that I would learn while using it. The primary game I remember was called Lemonade Stand, and ran off a tape deck, which took thirty minutes to load. I remember constantly being frustrated at having to wait so long just to play a game.
During this time, I thoroughly enjoyed arcade games (such as Centipede, Pac-Man and Space Invaders) that I played whenever I was invited to a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party or allowed to visit an arcade with my older brother, born a decade earlier. I also enjoyed playing board games like Monopoly.
My brother was a roleplaying wargamer who frequently had to babysit me during game night at the University of Michigan student union. Despite a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy television, I couldn’t understand how the dry games of statistics he and his friends seemed to be playing was “fun”, or how they actually worked. Likewise, when we loaded a copy of Star Trek, a very early strategy game (Mayfield, 1971), I could never seem to get past the first or second screen, or understand the underlying strategy that was the point of the game. Trek is fundamentally an optimistic tale of exploration, friendship and diplomacy before violence whenever possible – this is what hooked me – and yet it was a game where the strategy was to get the Klingons before they got you.
I recall my father, and teachers at school, presenting educational games that left me emotionally detached. Unlike a board game where I might be competing against a friend or family member, I didn’t feel emotional investment in The Oregon Trail – well, perhaps some existential dread and pity for people who were dragged along in a covered wagon. And then there were the computer magazines my father would purchase for both of us to use. In the back of these magazines were detailed BASIC programs. As carefully as I could, I would type each command into the computer, in order to create a new game in the system – or occasionally, it would turn into a graphical output of some kind. If you typed everything perfectly, it would work; but if you made a mistake, it would fail. This seems like a logical outgrowth of the behaviorist learning theory, and programmed instruction, popularized by Skinner and likeminded colleagues; since we can’t read the black box of the mind to tell whether schema adoption has taken place, we can tell that learning took place if diagrammed steps are followed, one after another, and we get the behavioral outcome we desire – a completed, and correct, program.
Yet, I can’t help but think that my father, and so many other people in the college town where I was growing up, were enamored with the ideas of Seymour Papert, who believed that the use of Logo, designed with his colleagues Wally Feurzeig and Cynthia Solomon, would transform the way children think. Everything I have learned as an instructional designer suggests that they were on the right track, that exposing younger children to new skills should provide dividends, and yet my memory of using Logo turtles is one of frustration, an emotion I know I share with my classmate Kim, as well as my husband. Did it really change the way I think? Did it really change the way I learned?
Today, I am more excited about video games than I have been in a long time. That is not just the experience of being in this program, and working with Kristi and Bill, whose passion for gamified learning and using games to help with post-service or even post-traumatic growth, have carried into each of our classes. It is also the sense that my education and my intrinsic passions have caught up with improved technologies, and attitudes about the use of games.
Mayfield, M. (1971). Star Trek. [software].