Lecture Review: “You Have Died of Dysentery: Meaningful Gaming in Education” (PAX, 2016)

Dropping into a lecture about edutainment games might sound more like an assignment than a highlight of videogame expo PAX, and yet teacher Ashley Brandin presents valuable context to where videogames can grow in “You Have Died of Dysentery: Meaningful Gaming in Education” because we should demand better quality videogames that can provide educational experiences and expect more from videogame developers in terms of how they can use videogames as tools to educate beyond historical facts and typing tutorials.

Brandin argues that the Oregon Trail and Mario Teaches Typing are poor educational tools because they don’t incorporate the lesson materials as direct game mechanics. The trail is a historical façade and Mario can be swapped out for another character. We knew this and accepted it because at least these videogames tried to relate to our interests. Brandin found that many videogame-related research papers were outdated and biased, so she researched, analyzed, and presented some interesting statistics that should help further videogame research.

Simply put, edutainment videogames should have flow.

As posited by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the Flow Model, the player should have competence and autonomy, build relatedness to the subject matter, and avoid boredom and apathy. A good edutainment game should invite curiosity to continue playing, with the reward of enjoying the game being both intrinsic and personal, rather than extrinsic or forced. Learning should not be deceptive. Videogames as “tools must be trusted.” The videogame should also be a guide to learning, where in the Zone of Proximal Development as theorized by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the player should be able to perform simple tasks without assistance and should gradually develop the ability to perform more complex tasks.

Brandin presents A Bug’s Life as an example of a poorly constructed videogame in relation to her five categories of achievements. First, perfunctory, where you can easily accomplish a task. Second, exhaustive, where you can exhibit mastery of a task. Third, difficulty, where you can master sequentially more complex tasks. Fourth, exclusionary, where you’ve achieved a very difficult task. The fifth ties it all back together, as the meta view of achievements, where bragging rights come into play. I like this achievement model. I just think that using a more beloved example like the Oregon Trail or Mario Teaches Typing could have made a stronger argument.

I would suggest introducing good edutainment videogames into the lecture as a way to show that the medium can educate and entertain successfully. The Learning Company developed a number of fantastic videogames including Midnight Rescue!, Treasure Mountain!, and Gizmos & Gadgets! that taught reading, mathematics, and engineering. Low budget examples are myriad. The statistic as I recall was that edutainment videogames consists of less than one percent of the overall market and so I imagine their budgets are reflected in that. While this is just me being me, I also think we should encourage videogame developers to create more good edutainment videogames.

Highly recommended. We need more voices like Ashley Brandin in the videogame industry.

Rating: ★★★★☆ [4/5]

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