Videogames and Australians

It would be incorrect to assume Australians have responded to the phenomenon of videogames in the same way other nations have. In a sense today’s contemporary gameplay is a global network of servers and players whom preference certain games or genres. However, despite the ease of access to international information about videogames, childhood, parenting and school, very little information is based on national evidence and is not one single progression of discussion, study or debate – but a multitude which often have little in common aside from the term videogames.

I argue that videogames are essentially grouped into three periods of study and interest. Each period of study has seen increasing diversity and technological advancements of videogames and gameplay. I make a point of also separating videogames and gameplay because they evoke quite different conceptions and emotional reactions in both adults and children.

The first period is pre-2001. I realise that between the mid 1970s and 2002 videogames made many technological and cultural advances, but in terms of study, this period was concerned mostly with what games are, what play is and the effects of video games on society. It followed a long tradition of viewing media with suspicion and conducting experiments with small groups of participants to try and guage how playing certain games (mostly violent and sexualised) altered the behaviour of the sample subjects. As numerous scholars have argued, the methods used to do this are suspect and they made many assumptions, demonised and simplified games to the point of being little more than an erant-interactive film. Despite the claims from clinical science, it has not been shown to lead to real-life violence in any predictable way.

The second period is between 2001 and 2009. This is essentially because this period of scholarly interest and research began to look more deeply at the assumptions being made about videogames. In the literature, you will find many respected media, sociology, game and educational academics began to write about and discuss new dimensions of games and critically appraise the ongoing claims about aggressive and habitual behaviour in real-life. People like Marc Prensky, Jasper Juul, James Gee, Henry Jenkins and James Seeley Brown expanded the field of research (and potential research) well beyond the realms of science, economics and mathematics. This era also is the foundation of the majority of ongoing debate about videogames in popular culture. It plays out in newspaper, magazines, television and websites on a daily basis.

The essential question is usually: Are videogames bad for childhood development (and therefore society) and what should be done about it.

The answers probably lie in the third period of research and study of videogames, which can best be described as beginning. In Australia and prior to 2008, videogames were treated in national studies as a leisure activity. In that regard a videogame was treated like a trip to the movies, playing a game of soccer, listening to music or reading a book. It was not treated as a media-text with unique properties. It was not investigated in the public domain in association with or in preference to the kind of media-choices that families take in their stride in 2014. Most significantly, it was not treated as a form of literature nor something which was used in education or the workplace.

We therefore know very little about videogames and Australians right now. We have seen reports of statistics, but these often focus on simple demographics and size of the market. This is unsurprising given the close association some scholars now have with the games industry — and how secretive the game industry is about their data and their customers players.

In 2008 we knew that most parents were not overly concerned about aggression, violence or so called addictive qualities of video games. We also know that those parents with children aged 12 and over we considered to be the first generation of children to have grow up with access to video games and that over half had played video games as a child and continued to do so using a computer. Again, no specific details on the type of computer or game and even less about consoles and handhelds.

We can’t compare todays figures with older figures because there have been significant revisions to how videogames have been classified and how questions have been asked at the national level. For example, videogames are now considered part of children’s ‘screen-time’ use, but as most parents know — that use varies as does children’s access and the type of games they can play at any given available time. No data is being collected on the use of screen time or games in education, despite the billions of dollars of educational technology funding lavished on teachers and school systems since (weirdly) 2008.

What we do know is that the media presents videogames in ways intended to gain the attention of parents: either as customers or to perpetuate the same ‘media effects’ panic which has been rolling though popular media since the 1930s. We do know that all children and the vast proportion of adults play video games of one sort or another in the home, where as the vast majority of teachers and students (identity switch) do not. It strikes me as bizarre that some teachers are now expressing new interest in game-based-learning as though our culture has not already embraced it as media entertainment and used it to make sense of the world from the inside out for a very long time.

Videogames are a prolific and much enjoyed form of media entertainment in Australia. Despite ongoing media panic, Australians have not had the level of negative emotional reaction to videogames as might have occurred in other nations. We can’t assume that data and facts from PEW (American Life) can be generalised to Australia in the way the Aussie Dollar is a bit like the US Dollar.

We don’t need to hide from teaching and studying games, and games don’t have any excuses to make. The fact that Australians are highly likely to engage with complex, computational problem solving from pre-school onwards despite un-ambitious and media-conservative educators and narrow media ownership whos dislike of games is obvious — is quite remarkable.

So if anyone questions why you’d want to use videogames in school or home it is fair to say that as a media-text we see far more value in them than media reports broadly admit and far less danger than they claim.

How to select great topics for PBL in Australia

The driving question is always a sticking point for teachers new to PBL. Writing a few powerful words in a sentence or two, powerful enough to charge curiosity and enthusiasm is a skill. This is why great copyrighters get paid vast sums for writing relatively little.

The driving question, I always found to be an awkward and misleading term. What PBL is trying to do is drive a topic, not a reply to a philosophic question. Kids are not tested on their philosophic ponderings by the machine. This to me is the biggest reason teachers struggle with PBL early on – it seems too arty or foggy to hit those content standards hard enough. This is not a reflection on BIE, more a reality of the vast cultural differences between how Australia goes about teaching and how America does. America, great at lots of things, drives on the other side of the road and can’t make a car that goes around a corner anything like the Europeans. My point is – Australian teachers need to adapt all US-Import PBL models – and that is hard work.

I prefer to think about topics. I’m not sure crafting one kick-ass question is a brilliant strategy, as learning for kids is all about the extremes of experience and the limits of reality. A kid won’t discover these using the BIE framework though it’s better than the relentless lecture/exercise regime.

PBL in Australia is significantly different to the US (warning to those gazing at US consultancy networks for the answer) – our and their frameworks are significantly different as is the culture and side of the road we drive on. While I respect the hard work and success of groups such saw New Tech Foundation, they are selling a product that was built for America, it still needs heavy adaptation for Australian culture, methods, environments and approaches. It’s not a “one click head-shot” to get better performance or outcomes. Worse still it assumes one method supplants another, and at the really really rubbish end are those who are proposing that PBL combined with business development models are somehow going to improve critical thinking – with no evidence at all to back it up.

PBL is better (in Australian contexts) to be thought of as topic based. Being able to identify quality topics requires using a criteria that can be sustained and justified. It’s easy to be too vague and philosophic when scratching down ‘the driving question’. Don’t do that, it’s a really bad idea.

Not every aspect of the Australian curriculum (or a topic in it) is suitable or needs it! This relates to the idea that PBL is not a full-time requirement either (but if you sell cars, you don’t talk about bikes much), so I wince when people say “we’re a PBL school” – if they are, they are doing the students an injustice in my view.

I prefer the idea that teachers use the best strategy for the job – and the job is to create wonder and curiosity such that students explore the limits and extremes of the world, not the prescriptive view. Even though they undoubtedly benefit from puking up the ‘model answer’ in the big test, and high-stakes HSC teacher (PBL or otherwise) will coach the last term to get those grades (for the students and the school), as least with PBL you can be honest and say, this the answer they want, what would be the opposite, what would be the biggest mistake, the smallest use and so on. It’s better than pretending, and everyone knows how the game is being played – they do anyway, we just elephant in the room it I guess.

So what is the criteria for topics? In my experience, this is something the PBL-lead group establish and help the rest of the staff identify – ahead of trying to actually do it. PBL requires BOTH teacher and exec training of course … it’s dan hard for a teacher to drive on the right when the rest of the school drives on the left.

  • sufficient width
  • sufficient depth
  • sufficient connections with the self—cultural, imaginative, and emotional ties
  • not too constrainedly technical
  • not too general or too unconstrained (e.g. animal is too general, tiger is maybe OK, but cats is optimal)
  • not focused on the more degrading features of human existence or common phobias
  • each topic must provide an equivalently rich experience for all students.

So once you have identified your topics (not based on the fact you HAVE to teach them) – then you can start to think about the kinds of questions that will get kids emotionally involved – and that to my mind is also going to be quite different to much of what I’ve seen in the BIE handbook too.

MobilzeThis – Charles Darwin University Conference

This unlikely character is part of the Mobilize This conference which in on in Darwin, Australia 22 – 24th October 2008

At some point, I’m doing a presentation during the three days along with about 20 other educators.

The conference is about making learning connected, fluent and mobile. It is also FREE. It will be a little out there in places, but it will also have people pushing the edges of ‘what’s next’.

This photo is of a set of wifi enabled glasses, which Alexander Hayes was testing over a few beers in the back yard. I love how homebrew some of this stuff is and how great a discussion you can have with via Ustream.

The f2f face events at the Charles Darwin University will be using this technology, so that presenters can Ustream media from their perspective – which I think is a significant change in how we still consume streams from the third, not first person view.

The glasses are audio and video enabled, with a decent transmitter that would cover a kilometer or more hooked up to it. The gathering was talking about how these can be used in vocational settings, especially for on site learning where teachers would benefit from hands free learning, and where safety glasses are normal.

Even in high school, these things would be so easy to hook up and record practical lessons.

The price point at $600AU is not cheap, but then a wifi webcam is about that. It won’t be too long before Nokia et al, have blue-tooth enabled POV (point of view) cameras available too, which begs the burnin question of at what point do we stop calling something like the Nokia N96 a phone. Its a much more than that. Its amazing to think how a decade ago, this kind of technology was sci-fi – now a bunch of blokes in the back yard can stick them on the dog and watch where it goes. Amazing times we live in.