More Adventures at the Linden School: A Game is a Game

By Renee Jackson

Exploring Social Impact

Decode Global is particularly interested in the social impact of the game Get Water!  Social impact can potentially reveal itself in many forms, and can possibly even make itself known many years down the road.  The questions we had in relation to social impact going into the Linden School to look at the game with grade six girls were:

  • Does the game affect player awareness of global water shortage and the consequential effect on girls education? 
  • Do participants talk about the game with others afterwards, spreading this awareness? 
  • Are they interested in learning more about the issues?

This research project was a small-scale case study exploring these questions.

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Last blog entry we learned that it is definitely true that overall the grade six girls at the Linden School found the game to be fun.  They are aware that it is about water shortages in South Asia, and that it is often necessary for girls to walk really far to gather water for their families.  Less prominent was the understanding that girls are missing out on their education as a result of this.

Another study of the social impact of the game at a Canadian University, with adults above the age of 18, has revealed that 16/18 people from the study discussed the game with others and 8/16 attempted to learn more about the issues in the month following the initial game-play.  This doesn’t seem to have happened with the grade six students.  It could be that adults, particularly those who attend university, are less distracted by the fact that Get Water! is a game, and more interested in the content, and that children may be more prone to thinking of a game as a game, first and foremost.  In an attempt to look into the more natural response of the participants, that is, without prompting by me, I was in touch with 2/11 of the parents by email.  The idea was to allow a bit of insight into what the girls would naturally report to family, of their own accord.  These parents reported that the topic of the game came up because they had considered it fun, but the focus, again, seems to have been on the game itself more so than the underlying issues.

Girls are thought to take less of an interest in video games than boys (Glos & Goldin, 2000; Hayes, 2009; Children Now, 2001; Klawe, 2002).

Though this is just a small exploratory case study, it points in the direction of the video games and education literature, wherein the importance of the role of teachers in relation to the impact video games can have in the classroom, is stressed (Squire & Jenkins, 2003).  This particular video game can become an interesting and engaging catalyst leading into deeper exploration and discussion about the issues behind it.  Although the grade six students at The Linden School did not discuss the water related issues alluded to in the game to any great extent, some other interesting patterns are beginning to surface as I look more closely at the data.

Most of what the girls had to say related to game-play (experience of the game) and game mechanics (rule based system)

 The methods used for this case-study involved the students stepping out of their class for about 30 – 45 minutes to play the game for 15 minutes as I sat with them.  They were asked to say or ask anything that came to mind as they played (think-aloud).  After 15 minutes, they were asked to respond to the game on paper in any way they pleased, using words, drawings, poetry, questions, reflecting anything they wanted (open-response), and then they were asked to fill out an initial questionnaire, and a follow-up questionnaire a week later.  So far I have coded their “open responses”, and have discovered that by far, most of what they had to say related to game-play (experience of the game), and game mechanics (rule based system).  For example, one participant said, “(t)here were many aspects of the game that made it more complex (rather than just collecting water), such as power-ups, and having to defend yourself against peacocks…” These comments were also often in the form of feedback for improvement of the game, for example, “when the peacocks are coming, they do come a little too fast and also the boomerang can take too long to come around and hit the peacock…”  Seven of the eleven girls involved in the study gave unprovoked feedback from this perspective, often commenting on multiple aspects of game-play within their open response.

This is particularly interesting given that girls are thought to take less of an interest in video games than boys (Glos & Goldin, 2000; Hayes, 2009; Children Now, 2001; Klawe, 2002).  If girls really weren’t interested in games, it seems that game-play and game mechanics would be the last thing that they would likely care to comment about, though at this point I am speculating, as it could be true, for example, that this was the more obvious thing to write about when confronted with an open response type situation.  Further support of this interest however did come out during class discussion where several of the participants were quite eager to discuss modifications of the game, and through the initial think-alouds, where suggestions for such modifications were also made.

The literature indicates that girls are more partial to games that are grounded in real world concerns, versus imaginary fictions (Denner, Bean & Werner, 2005)

 Other points of interest based on the open-responses include 3/11 thinking critically in terms of appreciating that the main character is a girl, and that she is not Caucasian.  In addition, 3/11 of the participants appreciated the connection to a real-world issue.  The literature indicates that girls are more partial to games that are grounded in real world concerns, versus imaginary fictions (Denner, Bean & Werner, 2005).  During the think-alouds, further appreciation for real-world concerns was demonstrated when I was also asked by three of the participants whether the quotes that are included on a separate screen about water and education were “real people”, and by 5/11 of the participants stating that they liked the facts that were included about water. Though the numbers are not big in relation to these final concepts, it is interesting to see some repetition given that the responses were completely open.

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Entertainment Versus Engagement

 My thinking is that as a society we are prone to thinking of books, movies, music, and indeed video games, or “cultural artifacts”, as forms of entertainment, more so than as ways of learning and reflecting about the world.  From this perspective it makes sense to think of a game as just a game, particularly because it is also more recently that video games have taken on various different roles, including social justice.  I remember a really blatant illustration of the idea of cultural artifacts conceived merely as entertainment.  Going back about ten years, I was struck by an ad campaign for a big bookstore that filled subway cars in Toronto with signs that read “eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep, work, eat sleep work… read a book – escape reality”.  Even at the time I was disturbed because it was so blatant that reading was supposed to be about escaping the world rather than engaging with it.  Everything about our current societal configuration encourages us to think this way.  Merely experiencing things passively as “entertainment” means higher consumption quotas, whereas deeper engagement with cultural artifacts takes longer, causes us to question the things we consume and to be more selective, and also requires knowing how to engage critically, which is not necessarily something learned in mainstream schools.  We are encouraged to “escape” or sit on the surface of reality, rather than to explore depths.  We “surf” the internet after all, we don’t “swim” in it.

 The idea of cultural artifacts as merely entertainment is a big force to contend with.  At The Linden School, girls do learn to think about the world on a deeper, more critical level, but I think that within an everyday context, general consideration of our experience of cultural artifacts as vehicles through which we continue to learn about and explore the world, rather than simply being “entertained”, is a less common notion.  As an art teacher myself, I consider the role of an art teacher as particularly important in terms of developing the capacity for students to know how to really engage with and experience cultural artifacts more deeply and critically, in an active and engaged way, within the context of their everyday lives. I imagine that video games in particular, being a newer form of “entertainment”, barely have a foothold in the mainstream understanding that they can go well beyond simply this.

Renee Jackson is working on her PhD in Education at Concordia University, studying videogames and education. She has 14 years of experience in education, at all levels, and in public, private and community based contexts.

References

Children Now.  (2001). Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games.  Oakland, California: Glaubke, C. R., Miller, P., Parker, M. A., & Espejo, E.

Denner, J., Bean, S., & Werner, L. (2005). Girls Creating Games:  Challenging Existing Assumptions about Game Content.  In Proceedings from Digital Games Research Association (p. 1 – 10).

Glos, J., & Goldin, S. (2000).  An Interview with Brenda Laurel.  In J. Cassell & H. Jenkins (Ed.), From Barbie to Mortal Kombat:  Gender and Computer Games.  Massachusetts, Boston: MIT press.

Hayes, E. & King, E. (2009).  Not Just a DollHouse: What the Sims 2 Can Teach us about Women’s IT learning. On The Horizon, 17 (1), 60 – 69.

Klawe, M. (2002). Girls, Boys and Computers. SIGCSE Bulletin. 34 (2).

Squire, K. & Jenkins, H. (2003).  Harnessing the Power of Games in Education.  Insight, 3, p. 5 – 33.