Date Archives March 2008

Why I’m interested in Games and Pedagogy

(Originally Posted at
For quite a while, I was very happy to keep my pastimes and my work separate. Bicycling, motorcycle travel, GPS geekery, and zombie survival strategy don't really intersect with my professional life, so why should computer games? So during the day (and often into the nights) I would be an instruction librarian and in my free time I'd play games and contribute to an on-line gaming community. In fact, being on the tenure track meant that my gaming had to be strictly rationed. There wasn't (and isn't) much time for play.

Still, there were intersections. Our campus recently began a lower-division program. Previously, our students were juniors, seniors, and graduate students only. Preparing for our new students included reading the research on educating the students formerly called millennials. I began to wonder if these students' reluctance to trust published materials over Web 2.0 collaborative materials had something to do with the way gamefaqs, visual walkthroughs, and gaming communities provide more accurate and more up to date information on games than published game guides do, and are free to boot. Growing up with this experience likely has some lasting effect on how students evaluate information sources. (I still think this would make a great study, if anyone wants to put together a survey and try to get something published, let me know.) Occasionally, other connections would be made. Online conversations about Bioshock with college students helped me frame my own about teaching strategies for presenting critical thinking and textual analysis to my students. Playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and then re-reading the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic and then tracking down Tarkovsky's Stalker created an interesting web of themes and settings across media and made a great case for the maturation of games as a media format and / or art.

Still, I rarely mentioned games or gaming at the reference desk or in the classroom. Then I played Portal. Then I thought about how Portal teaches players how to use the Aperture Science Hand-Held Portal Device. Then I listened to the developer's commentaries and heard game designers talking about assessment, scaffolding complex learning goals across multiple lessons, designing assignments to reinforce particular skills, and engaging students in their learning . Here was a game doing many of the things the smartest instruction librarians I know have been encouraging us to use in our information literacy instruction. A realization came: Valve is doing it better than I am. Librarians have something to learn from game designers. My guilty pleasure just may have a place in the academy.

So I've integrated my hobby into my profession. I've had a conference proposal accepted to analyze Portal for teaching techniques, and another, with a colleague, to discuss integrating techniques games use to teach players into how librarians teach patrons. Currently I'm doing a lit review and reading how my colleagues are doing great work in this area. (I'm behind the curve, but I'm catching up!) I'm using examples from my own research w/ students, mainly because saying "video games" gets the attention of 19 year olds much more effectively than saying "information literacy". I'm using the excellent example of visual walkthroughs to influence how I design handouts and class web pages.

Summing up, I've been thinking about games and libraries because I'm interested in student learning. I've realized that the core ideas behind some of the library instruction buzzwords (assessment, scaffolding, project-based learning, community learning) are being put to excellent use by game designers. I need to develop a better understand of learning theory and information literacy. Studying how games teach players seems to be an excellent way to understand how librarians can best teach our patrons.