We Don’t Need No Edutainment

I assume that New York Times Book Review children’s book editor Pamela Paul has learned a thing or two about education in all of her years spent reading kids’ books. As a man who does not have children, does not plan on having children, and has devoted approximately zero brainspace to their education, I’m not going to really comment on Paul’s clucking about whether or not videogames may or may not be horrible or awful. I don’t know what I’m talking about and, frankly, I don’t care. I have my opinions–my thoughts on how effective math worksheets really were (I need a calculator to do basic multiplication tables), how good my school’s reading textbooks were (My parents taking me to the library weekly is the only reason I made an effort to read), how much more effective simulations can be for some things (Classes on basic economics were so divorced from anything I understood that I learned nothing)–but it doesn’t really matter what I think. As someone without any investment in this space, I would consider my uninformed opinion to be useless. At worst, it would confuse the debate and mislead readers–especially if I had a respected platform such as the New York Times behind me. At best, I’d be seen as a well-meaning idiot whose contributions to the discussion were so much noise.

And yet Pamela Paul, in her article “Reading, Writing and Video Games [sic]” attempts to do just that. May I be honest? Her arguments–about the effectiveness of educational games in classrooms, on the gamification of learning (one must laud Paul for seemingly being the only writer to address this topic without acknowledging the existence of Jane McGonigal, whose name is almost synonymous with the concept), on the place of technology in the classroom–they may all be valid, strong arguments, but her willful ignorance about what videogames are, what they can teach, and even what their titles are like all serve as red flags: This woman does not know what she’s talking about.

Normally, when I’m writing articles like this, I need to tease out points like this. I need to look at the subtext and do deconstruction. Paul, fortunately, makes it extremely easy for us: Her opening paragraph tells us about her experience with videogames, which appears to have peaked at the arcade-and-Atari scene of the late 1970s-early 1980s. She smugly says that her learning began and ended with aspects of the games themselves–of games which were never intended to and were not sophisticated enough to be educational. She attempts to take 30-year-old examples and uses it to characterize a 40-year-old medium. Susanna Cooper’s The Grey King, which won the Newberry Medal in 1976, may be a fantastic novel and may still be valuable today, but Paul would laugh at me if I used it to make a salient point about contemporary trends in children’s literature. Night Driver was released in 1976 and it’s one of about six games that Pamela Paul knows the name of.

Nowhere does she give the sense that she’s played any of the educational games that she discusses or that she understands what a videogame is today. The horrifying examples that she parades around–one where “letters dressed as farm animals dance on a screen”, one where “Tom Sawyer fights the Brontes”, and “digital puzzle games” which are apparently valueless–seem to be the typical half-assed attempts at educational software designed by well-meaning people who either understand videogames (and are making traditional vidogames with a literary dressing) or who understand education (and are attempting to put traditional lessons into a game without an understanding of what a good game is). Tom Sawyer vs. the Brontes doesn’t seem to have any educational value to me–but I can’t make a blanket judgment because I haven’t played it. But her examples are so cherry-picked and dismissive that it doesn’t come off as a serious criticism.

Even if Paul has not played a videogame since the 1980s, as her article implies, her ignorance of the history of educational videogames is astounding. True, it’s not her purpose to give a historical overview, but just as Paul seems to never have heard of Jane McGonigal, she’s never heard of a little company called Broderbund which was arguably at its peak in the 1980s–their Munchers series, Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego–just that one company alone was responsible for what are not only considered classic educational games but what are seen as unqualified masterpieces of the era. But that doesn’t fit with Paul’s point, so she either disregards it or doesn’t bother to research that.

Paul is trapped in an extremely myopic way of thinking about education. She appears to have a very simple understanding of what kids learn. The value of education, in her article, seems to be mastery of some isolated subjects. One’s letters. The multiplication tables. Penmanship. While Paul admits that an app can assist learning, she seems to think that’s no substitution for classroom education. Perhaps she’s right–but perhaps games have value in being something a little more than an animated textbook.

In her article, SimCity is mentioned. While, yes, SimCity has words and is exciting, there is a much different lesson to be learned from it. SimCity is a simulation, a system that one can poke around in. The goals of SimCity–and I use the term “goals” loosely, for reasons that anyone who’s played the game will immediately understand–include building the biggest or the most interesting city. Even beyond the creativity that the game features at its surface–at the end of the day, most simulation games with a building element are the digital equivalent of playing with blocks–reaching whatever goals one decides is dependent on understanding and mastering the intertwined systems that make up the game. And while Paul may see no value in “learning how to play SimCity”, she must see that the ability to open up the hood and poke around is a transferrable skill. Perhaps Paul prefers to learning about living, breathing systems by simply reading about them, but Howard Gardner would have a couple words to say about her inability to find value in others’ learning styles.

But that doesn’t matter to Paul. She thinks that SimCity is a “role-playing game”. It’s not the proper time to explain what genres are, but they’re not just abstract word salad ridiculousness like, for example, “Zap the Math in Outer Space”–her conception of what an educational game sounds like and please, if there are any designers reading this, I would love to play that game. Even allowing for how blended genres have gotten in the past decade or two, they do mean something. SimCity is more properly a simulation game–I have never seen a definition of “role playing” that would include SimCity. Nowhere in the article that Paul links to calls SimCity a “role playing game”. It seems that, along with all of the other information about videogames in her article, her research consisted of half-remembered terms drunkenly scribbled on cocktail napkins. Why bother getting things right? It’s just videogames.

What about the fact that she contrasts GarageBand to a school orchestra? She’s extremely remiss in putting GarageBand under the “videogame” umbrella–but she’s also making a condescending apples-to-oranges comparison. GarageBand is many things, but it’s not exactly an instrument. It’s recording software. It includes tools to make loops and include samples–and it requires a completely different set of skills to operate. Paul doesn’t realize that someone who knows how to use GarageBand could record that school orchestra. She doesn’t realize the technical know-how which goes into audio production. She doesn’t recognize the value in learning those technical skills. I’d personally much, much rather listen to, for example, Visions by Grimes (an album the singer composed, recorded, produced, and mixed entirely in GarageBand in her apartment). But perhaps Paul finds electronic music to be too new, too much of a fad. Orchestral music is gonna come back any day now. Well–it doesn’t matter that she makes this mistake. It’s just videogames.

Children’s books and their education don’t affect my life in the slightest. I leave the discussion of them to the experts, and if I need to know something about them, I do something called research. Pamela Paul, features and children’s book editor for the New York Times, doesn’t evince any knowledge of multiple intelligences, of technology, of videogames–and she has written an article about all of them. She seems to think that videogames have only surface-level education to offer. Technology, in all of its myriad forms, is a toy, a distraction from real things. And while it’s foolish to make a blanket statement about whether videogames are Good or Bad for education, it’s foolish to attempt to make any statement without a solid understanding of what one’s talking about. Playing a videogame or two may not have taught Paul how to read or write, but it would have imparted some educational benefits–namely, it would have given her a clue about her subject.

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  1. matt w says:

    “’Zap the Math in Outer Space’–her conception of what an educational game sounds like and please, if there are any designers reading this, I would love to play that game.”

    I believe what you’re looking for is Frog Fractions.

    • Richard says:

      Oh man, now I’m imagining what the piece would have been like if the NY Times reviewedFrog Fractions along with the Tom Sawyer/Bronte (I really want to play that one) and dancing farm animal letter games. I’m trying to think it would be funnier if it covered just the first level or continued through the end, the whole time treating it like a straight educational game.

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