winning the information game (part one)

This is an unpublished piece I wrote last spring. It clearly is out of date, but I want to finish the thought. What I'm posting here is the original fragment. Next, I'll post my continuation of this thought.

Since I occasionally write a blog about games and libraries, it stands to reason that I'm a supporter of integrating video games into our libraries and our classrooms. I am not. (Though I'd like to be.) Still,  it seems that as I analyze games and think about their application to libraries, the clearest conclusions I can reach tell me games are not applicable to libraries and instruction. More accurately, approaches to using games in library work do not seem to solve the right problems.

I'm not interested in:

  • Bringing games into my classroom. I'm sure this can be done well, but I'm just not on board with taking valuable classroom time and spending it playing video games. I'm sure someone will figure out a useful way of doing this, but that person isn't me.
  • Inventing games to teach with. Games are hard to make and there are a lot of games out there that suck. I'm simply not confident that I could create a teaching game that didn't suck without investing time and effort that could better applied elsewhere. Non-gamers should remember:our students don't love video games per se, they love excellent video games. The key is excellence, not games. We should have enough faith in our students to believe that they can learn from good instruction. Trying to trick them into learning by using "fun" pedagogy won't work unless the "fun" is done well. Believing students are stupid is a mistake. (Even when they act stupid.)

That doesn't mean that games and libraries is a dead field for me. Quite the contrary, I'm enjoying where these thoughts take me. It's just that they are taking me away from the "Games and Libraries" movement.

I am interested in:

  • Understanding how games engage & teach so as to better understand how to engage and teach a generation of gamers in information literacy, higher education, and general critical thinking and communication skills.

Of course, I've gone over all this before. What brings it back to my mind is some comments that a colleague made about my presentation and the conversations it sparked. Games, like libraries, are systems. Games and libraries must teach players how to navigate their systems in order to be successful. This connection between games and libraries breaks down at a particular point. Games are human-created systems with a fixed set of rules. Research and information gathering are organic processes that very a great deal. The comments in info-fetishist really highlight this well: games are founded on solid rules and research is not. "It is hard to design a game to teach people how to research effectively because everyones research process is different, everyones goals are different, and people’s goals shift and change even as they engage in their own research process." Games are artificial. They are constructed systems with fixed rules and pre-determined values. (The ability of MMORPGs and moddable games to transcend this with user-generated content is an area worth significant attention.)

Games require rules. I'm referring to games writ large here, not just video games. Games ARE their rules. What sets games apart from other kinds of activities is that gaming activities are bounded and defined by clear rules. The difference between artificial rule-bound systems and organic human activities is important and troubling. I have difficulty explaining this concisely, so I'll refer y'all to some folks who explain it beautifully. Umberto Eco, Jose Luis Borges, and Jean Paul Sartre.

At the climax of The Name of the Rose, the solution to the abbey's labyrinth (game) was a book that opened up the possibilities of an organic world with infinite possibilities. Labyrinth's are artificial systems with fixed rules, reality is open. Borges' short stories (including The Library of Babel, The Garden of Forking Paths, The Minataur in his Labyrinth, and Death and the Compass, The Aleph, etc.) often deal with puzzles, labyrinths, or mysteries and reflect on the difference between finite and the infinite worlds. Sartre's Nausea (La Nausée) concludes with the protagonist choosing between the fixed, finite world of memory, mathematics, and other imaginary things and the wrenchingly contingent world of freedom. These authors and stories, or at least this reader's memory of them, all deal with the disconnect that occurs between the world of games, i.e., a magical space where rules are fixed and absolute and the mundane world of infinite possibilities, shifting foundations, and contingent rules.

This is why, I think, as the conversation quoted above alludes to, librarians can't teach research like a game.  At LOEX of the West Anne-Marie and Kate gave a rich and nuanced presentation on peer-review, library instruction, and the nature of academic communication. They referred back to Kuhn and pointed out that the peer-review process works like a game (according to fixed rules) but science can work ahead of the game. Real advances in our understanding re-write the rules and may seem like cheating to devotees of the rules currently in fashion. Galileo, Copernicus, and Einstein are popular examples of this sort of happening. People who play by the rules can get peeved when someone solves a problem by re-writing the rules. It breaks the game.

Now, I'm not suggesting that successful research at the undergraduate level should require folks to stand our collective understanding on its head. I am suggesting that if we want to encourage our students to learn how to research and write in a way that transcends the report model of parroting back facts collected from approved sources, if we want them to gather the best current information and integrate it into a point of view that evolves their understanding of a particular question, then games may not be an appropriate tool. If we can accept that learning changes us and that new understanding of a particular subject changes its meaning for us we can see that we are constantly reframing and rewriting the rules for what we research. This makes it difficult to present research as a game because games rely on fixed rules.

At least I'm not able to envision a game that can deal with the Hermaneutic Cycle. (That is not to say that one cannot be invented by someone who knows more about both games and hermaneutics than I do.)At best I can imagine a game that gives more points for peer-reviewed sources than unsourced Internet material. That is a start, but I wouldn't call that information literacy. Ultimately, I want my students to write their own games, so to speak, rather than play by the rules I set for them. I want to free them to solve problems, I don't want to write innovation out of the game.

Games are artificial rules bound by rules. When the rules are broken, the game-world ceases to be coherent. I suppose the reason I'm afraid to frame information literacy as a game is that I'm sure that whatever set of rules I codified for research, one of my students would find an exception to or a way around. I want to encourage that kind of creative thinking, and the metaphor of the game doesn't allow for that kind of fluidity.

So this is why I don't want to use games to teach information literacy: because I can't imagine designing a game that would do it very well. Coming up next counterpoint: why this post is wrong and games do have a place in teaching information literacy.

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