On: October 18, 2009
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About Rakesh Kanhai
New Media MA student, All-Round Turntablist DJ, Media Addict, Pro Evolution Soccer and Gears of War Champion of the world, and as of now: a Blogger... Recent theoretical interests : Lessig, Jenkins, Deuze, Gerd Leonhard (Music 2.0), Kevin Kelly and the such... Right now i'm very interested in the 'future' of the Music industry('s), its convergence with other industries and the way artists challenge precarity with creativity in contemporary conditions...


In the movie War Games (1983) Matthew Broderick wanted to hack a new computer game, in the process he accidently hacked the actual American defensive system. He engaged in global thermonuclear war in the process. While he’s playing a game the world suffers the real consequences of his actions. The connection between playing games and real war was far fetched at the time this movie was made, but since then a lot has changed. In this post I will discuss the learning potential of video games, the new Army Experience Centre opened in Philadelphia, and the use of games in recruiting practices.

In: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007)James Paul Gee stresses the importance of video games in the learning process.  According to his writings people have much more learning experience playing a game then they have in the school benches. When I read some of his work I quickly realized that there is some truth in this, I remembered playing a game while also studying for a test. Each time I memorised one chapter by heart I rewarded myself with an half an hour of playing. I soon realized that solving the problems in the game was harder then memorizing dead authors and theories which I had to reproduce just once. While I was taking the test, which I aced, I still found myself thinking of ways to advance in the game, frustrated but intrigued by it. This experience showed me what every kid already knows; studying is boring and playing games isn’t. so why don’t we make studying more like playing games?.  Alongside James Paul Gee are other thinkers like Kurt SquireDavid Shafferand David Hutchison who also stress the pedagogic potential of video games.

James Paul Gee encourages the educational system to incorporate gaming in the learning process. Videogames pose interesting challenges to the mind. In my life I often found myself frustrated with studying and throwing aside the book to do something more interesting. Videogames also frustrate me, but I still find myself continuously playing them. This is because of what cognitive science refers to as: the regime of competence principle [Gee 2003]. [1] This results in a simultaneous feeling of frustration and pleasure. If the game is developed right, which the free market makes sure of (if it sucks it won’t sell), it will be hard but still doable. Good games have a perfect balance between being hard but still interesting or fun. This challenges the mind to solve problems and thus teaches us new things. Challenging the brain stimulates a state of neuroplasticity which creates new connections in the brain. (new skills). Another principle Gee talks about is: the principle of expertise [Gee 2003] . Games challenge players to master a level, attain certain skills, and then undo all that mastery in the next level in which they have to adapt to new situations and challenges. These adaptive skills are important in teaching, many of the skills taught in schools are irrelevant by graduation time. Information in games is always given just in time and within the specific context, this isn’t the case in schools. The way games teach is situational, instead of merely learning words without reference there is a experience connected with the teaching, so more connections are made in the brain. Gee also sees agency as key to a games successful learning potential. Gamers are active producers of the narrative, they form a strong connection with their virtual character and become committed to the virtual world in which they learn. Risk can be taken without dire consequences, if the character dies you just start over again, also the game can be customised to fit the players learning and playing style. All the above factors point to the learning potential of videogames in the educational system, but it seems to cling to the old systems that have bored us for centuries.

This brings me to my point, on the 2nd of September the Army Experience Center opened in Philadelphia. (take the virtual tour!). It is a pilot program offering visitors a virtual gaming experience of the many aspects of Army life. It houses a number of interactive games and simulations. Its situated near a skate park and a arcade, the entrance is free. While kids play the many interactive fun games trained recruiters walk around the facility to share stories and inform, however it is NOT a recruiting centre (?). According to the AEC it is not built to recruit, but to change perception about the army. Through marketing research the army found that the best way to change perception was to allow people to experience the army virtually. The facility is a large spectacle of games, immersive VR, and many other sophisticated technology that entices the young and teaches them about the real army. This video introduces the spectacle and illustrates the media coverage of its opening. The army is building a brand with this new centre, it is indeed changing perception. It is adapting to the way kids want to be taught, but what are they teaching?. It is a very sad thing to see schools struggling for attention while the army gets all the attention by playing the game wisely. The method (videogames) is not being criticized here, I am a active gamer myself, but the stuff being taught should be scrutinized. The content of war games has been proved to have a strong ideological charge, these games are partly developed to spread the Army brand. [Nieborg 2005]. The glorification of war in these centres which focus on the virtual and neglect the actual consequences of war is also a very dangerous thing in my opinion. Kids can go inside a virtual world, enjoy a good little war,  and then go off to eat some McDonalds afterwards. I took the virtual tour around the centre and was astonished by the cool games, however I did not see the ‘super busy hospital’ game in which medics have to treat dying soldiers from the frontline. I thought this was supposed to be the REAL Army experience?!?. I like playing games like Call of Duty, but I never confuse it with the real Army experience. I wonder if a thirteen year old has the same thought process. There are no continues in the actual army experience, just as there is no war trauma after killing in a game. The blurring boundary between the virtual and the actual is a ongoing theme within media theory and in this particular instance can be very dangerous. Maybe that’s why there have been many organized protesters surrounding this new centre. (which have not been given the same media coverage as the opening of this centre of course).

While education struggles to maintain students interested , the army uses more logical ways to teach people to be soldiers and gets kids interested in enlisting based on a virtual experience. The military has been using simulations since the 50’s and that’s a good thing, games can teach in a way that books cannot.  I don’t oppose simulators and other game environments to teach soldiers the art of war AFTER recruitment, but this centre which obviously serves as a recruitment tool and a vessel for the Army brand is teaching kids the great side of war within the virtual without stressing the not so great side within the actual. To me it’s a shame that the educational system is not adapting to new ways of teaching, which obviously work much better, while the army is generating huge interest easily by acknowledging this potential. If only the board of education was better at playing games.

[1] Gee. J.P. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy.New York, 2003

[2] Nieborg, David. “Changing the rules of engagement. Okt. 2006

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