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Digital Games and Learning

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Several years ago, I attended a conference in Shanghai that brought together leading American and Chinese thinkers about games and learning. The event’s organizers asked us to share what we saw as best practices from our respective countries. The Chinese game designers proudly displayed games that included historically accurate and precisely realized recreations of historical villages and cities from pre-twentieth-century China. They have filled these historical recreations with artefacts replicated from cultural museums or used them as settings to re-enact cultural rituals, such as wedding ceremonies. Many of the games were based on classical Chinese literature, especially Three Kingdoms. When asked about what players did in those games, they shrugged. The player was an observer, not a participant. The games were elaborate field trips.

By contrast, the games Americans shared were much more stylized, either because they consciously embraced strategies of abstraction or because they lacked the budget available to industrial titles or the government funding of our Chinese counterparts. The American games, on the other hand, emphasized the learning process as shaped far more by the game mechanics than by what was represented on the screen. Americans were embracing play as experimentation and improvisation: students learn by doing.

As someone who has been part of the push for games and learning from early on, through the work that I did with Kurt Squire, Eric Klopfer, Alex Chisholm and others on MIT’s Game to Teach and Education Arcade initiatives, this conference was transformative for me. Early on, we were doing thought experiments, mocking up demos, modding existing games, doing anything we could to try to demonstrate to funding sources that games could be used to enable learning.
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