[At the Gamasutra-attended 2009 Games For Change event in New York, venerated academics Henry Jenkins and James Gee talked on how games for learning and social change' potential lies in the communities they can create and inspire.]
Games and education often stand at a wary distance from one another -- educational games tend to lack the spirit of fun that makes games what they are. For the third year in a row, the Games For Change event was held in New York City, converging educators, game designers, activists and philanthropists to discuss how to overcome barriers that stand in the way of using games for social causes.
As the current co-director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, much of media scholar Henry Jenkins' work has revolved around exploring "participatory culture" and communities. In an on-stage discussion with researcher James Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, the two talked about how games can help address the gap between education and community.
Gee said that he's started a new project, and it's made him appreciate Jenkins' "participatory culture" philosophy more than he had in the past.
"The one thing you ignore is always the most important thing," said Gee, noting that like many core gamers, he'd overlooked The Sims. But observing the game and his players has taught him just how strong a role community plays in developing enthusiasm.
"More and more, the value added for games is actually the community they create -- I think we're going to come to the day that the game is the entree to the community," said Gee.
Enticing Social Engagement Through Games
Gee told Jenkins he's been interested in the idea that deep passion -- coupled with persistence -- is needed for learning. So how do people develop passions? "The thing that gets the person passionate is often something that seems really trivial to us," he told Jenkins. Any small thing can be a gateway to a community that "entices them to take it to the next level" -- a concept that's hard to explain away by academic theory.
"Participatory culture does that," Jenkins agreed. "The community provides that welcoming and support -- often support that people don't find anywhere else. That's why you see many geeks involved in these things -- people that often feel shut out in their local schools... who you are is valued in that network."
In the context of games for change, Jenkins says, a similar argument for the power of community has emerged out of research on social engagement. Media, for example, is effective just as much as a public motivator as a public servant. "That points to some really interesting ways of thinking about games for change," said Jenkins, "this intersection of public media 2.0 and games."
Gee said that developing a game that will "change people, or change society," is a big goal, and one that no one's really yet achieved. But in observing formerly shut-in women who became heavily engaged with The Sims, he said he has learned that the community that surrounds games like that can lead people to make significant changes of identity.
A lonely grandmother, for example, can become a designer online with a significant following within the community of the game, and it changes the way she looks at herself and her place in the world.
"A lot of activist work... assumes that people are already deeply engaged," said Jenkins -- and that isn't always the case. So as Gee says, the realm that needs to be most explored as far as games for change is how games might act as that "first step" that engages and mobilizes audiences.
Refocusing On 'The Power Of Play'
Play sometimes gets drowned out in discussions on games for social change, noted Jenkins -- but this component of fun is more important than ever when considering that the "power of play" is this key entry point to passion and engagement.
For example, Jenkins said that watching the television competition Project Runway encouraged his family to develop more of an interest in fashion design, a topic in which he wouldn't have otherwise had an interest, because he and his family had fun watching it together and developed play-like rituals around their show-watching.
"It's a very powerful moment of teaching," he said. "We're invited to step back, freeze frame our TiVo, and sort of critique the stuff that we're seeing... we begin to engage in analysis ourselves, and I'm sure for kids across the country, it sparked passion."
Jenkins guessed that the Parsons School of Design, at which the Games for Change event is being held, has likely seen an increase in applicants interested in fashion programs thanks in part to the proliferation of Project Runway and other fashion game shows on TV that have encouraged audiences to create their own participation.
Games As Masters Of Dynamic Learning
Gee noted that the standards for such communities are clear -- and yet despite this, standards in schools and education remains unclear. "That's one of the fun things in community, to see the standards and try to hit them," he said -- which is why a lack of clarity on expectations can be "disastrous for the community."
Games can excel in this area because they've mastered dynamic learning -- successful games set clear standards and expectations for the player, potentially sparking that sense of excitement at success that can motivate a community toward social change.
"The idea that we can take what we need to know and turn it into something we need to do is part of what excites me at the process of games for learning," said Jenkins.
"You get to produce and not just consume," said Gee, praising community-oriented products that stress people building and sharing things.
Gee says he's been struck by the lack of age grading in successful communities -- people of all ages are participating. Another feature is the lack of distinction between the "mentor" and the "mentors," within the community. "On one day you'll teach and another day you might learn... everybody is in one role or the other all the time and there are no fixed statuses in that regard."
Peer-Based Games And Encouragement
Another trait of successful communities is that they use encouragement, rather than flaming -- community members develop peer groups whom they can trust for constructive feedback and encouragement. "Clearly these are the features that are hard to replicate in schools," said Jenkins, and Gee laughed.
The difficulty of establishing enthusiastic, egalitarian communities within the school system is part of why education alone continues to be problematic as far as inspiring, educating and motivating young people.
Social games within schools might not change this -- but what they can do is act as an entry point to creating community within education. Mentors of all different ages -- both youthful and adult experts -- seem to be needed to create a thriving and positive community, said Gee.
"[Game communities] seem so antithetical to [education]... that bringing them into the school would damage the school," said Gee. "And that's what we ought to be doing," he added defiantly, to audience applause.