Book review: How Computer Games Help Children Learn
David Williamson Shaffer
Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
In today’s world it’s not enough if education is only about giving kids basic skills. Basic skills jobs no longer exist. We have to prepare children for the challenge of innovative work. In his new book, How Computer Games Help Children Learn, UW-Madison’s David Williamson Shaffer explains how ‘epistemic games’ provide that challenge.
The virtual worlds of the digital age require thinking about learning in new ways, Shaffer argues. More than just being complex and challenging, computer and video games are significant because they make it possible to create virtual worlds and to think and learn by inhabiting those worlds.
The book looks at five epistemic games, each of which shows the importance of one of the elements of what Shaffer calls an epistemic frame: epistemology, knowledge, skills, values, and identity. He takes this approach after examining the work of creative professionals who organize their work around these epistemic frames: the collections of skills, knowledge, identities, values, and epistemology that professionals use to think in innovative ways. What makes epistemic games special is that they are based on what we already know about how people learn to be innovative thinkers, and on how that kind of thinking is used to solve real problems in the world outside of the game, Shaffer says.
Shaffer mentions SimCity as an example of a “great” educational game, a commercial game, designed primarily for entertainment. But it’s not epistemic. The game “Urban Science,” by contrast, is epistemic. It’s designed to re-create an urban planning practicum. Urban Science develops the epistemic frame of the profession of urban planning, where collaboration and accountability are part of the work.
Epistemic games are based on the idea that, over time, the professions have evolved sophisticated techniques for helping novices take on the epistemic frame of a profession. The point of epistemic games is NOT that they can do the same things that schools do, only better, or that they can do the same thing that commercial games do only with more math, science, and social studies in them. The point IS that they are a fundamentally different way of thinking about learning, based on a fundamentally different way of thinking about thinking.
So the question in education is no longer: How can we make sure every student learns math or science or history? Rather, Shaffer says, we need to ask, Which epistemic frame should students develop to become fully actualized and empowered citizens in a postindustrial society?