Monday, October 26, 2009

"Games are the new form of narrative"

I attended a lecture at last week's Wyoming Humanities Conference by University of Minnesota professor and researcher Brock Dubbels. He designs classrooms that use virtual worlds and video games to improve learning. This is probably nothing new to you gamers, but Dubbels says that "games are the new form of narrative" and that games are difficult and challenging, offering "real-time all-the-time feedback -- it's all about interactivity."

Pretty much the opposite of your standard classroom, which hasn't changed much in the past 50 years.

I came out of Dubbels' talk thinking that my son Kevin and his gamer friends may represent a higher life form. And almost all of them had trouble in junior high and high school. Interactivity? Forget it. Most classrooms still are lecture-oriented. My daughter, now a junior in high school, complains that her teachers stand up in front of the room and talk. Talk, talk, talk. And when they are finished talking, it's time to write a paper or take a quiz. This may be a slight exaggeration, but I can't discount the fact that this is how it seems to her. She is 16. She loves to draw and paint and write and read and chat with pals on MySpace and take her dog for walks and play volleyball and toss the football around with me in the backyard.

None of that involves lectures, except when I'm using the "toss-the-old-football-around" occasions to slip in some parental bromides.

When I was in high school from 1965-69, it was all about lectures and taking tests and writing papers. I was designed for that sort of classroom. Sister Miriam Catherine spoke to us about Mark Twain and I dutifully took notes and spit the answers back at her via tests and "themes." Sr. Raymond and Sr. Norbert and Father Finn all taught the same way. About the only interactivity we got was in Father Finn's religion class. Every class period was the same. He chose us at random to read from the text. And then he'd call on someone else. If that person was daydreaming and had lost his/her place, there was a choice: a whack on the ass from the priest's paddle or an F for the day. Most of us chose the paddle because we were used to it. If we took an F, we might get paddled at home.

See, interactivity.

That sounds as if it happened in the Middle Ages. But it was 40-some years ago. Public school wasn't much different, except they had no penguins on the faculty. Lectures and tests. Paddling, too, on occasion.

Our lives have changed so much. Why hasn't the educational setting?

In Mr. Dubbels' Powerpoint presentation at the humanities conference, he showed an image of a maze. It illustrated the two-dimensional way that we learned how to tell stories. He then showed another maze, a huge 3-D network of stairways and passageways and dead ends. Multi-dimensional -- and definitely not linear.

My son's gamer friends are now in their mid-twenties. The ones that survived the usual drug-and-alcohol tribulations are teachers and mechanics and filmmakers and students and writers and IT guys. They still play games. They are still learning in new and different ways.

As for my high school daughter, she's learning in even newer and more different ways. She still goes to school. She still compalins about the teachers' awful tendency to drone on and on. As I'm doing right now...

Learn more about Brock Dubbels and his work at

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