I went to a very small college, and so hanging around a school the size of the University of Minnesota leaves me in a continual state of shock. Mostly, I get freaked at how hard it is to find out what’s going on around here. Turns out, as my more worldly-wise friends tell me, the trick to surviving in a large university is to get onto the right listservs. Case in point: just when I was despairing that there seemed to be no one studying video games, I stumbled across the GRAVEL mailing list, and before I knew it, I was spending an afternoon attending a talk on “Video Games as Tools for Educators.”

The talk was given by Brock Dubbels, and gave a broad overview of the ways in which games can be (and are being) used to teach. Most of the talk revolved around the way in which games act as a tool to mediate between the subject (student) and the object (the thing being learned about); by using tools that are complex, interactive, adaptive, and emotionally engaging, students can build and demonstrate expertise, which builds a sense of self-efficacy.

One phrase that jumped out at me was “an aesthetic of problem-solving:” the desire to not only master a situation, but to find more elegant or pleasing solutions. It’s the urge that leads players to set a high score on Pac-Man, or make up freestyle DDR routines, or make videos of a perfect Ikaruga play-through. The desire to improve on your work is something I think we could all afford to build up.

My only complaint about the talk was that as a 10,000-foot overview, it was short on concrete methods or in-depth discussion of some of the recent and ongoing projects to use games in the classroom. Many of the projects Dubbels mentioned — a Neverwinter Nights mod to be used in a journalism class, or a middle-school class recreating local neighborhoods in SimCity — sounded fascinating, but were only mentioned in passing.

What was most rewarding for me personally, though, was the opportunity to see games discussed in a new context, not only topically, but socially. Nearly all the people I regularly hang out with — both in real life and online — are either into video games or are at least reasonably tolerant of them. That was not the case at this talk, where it was a more-or-less 50/50 split between people who had and hadn’t ever played a game. After hearing about how much educational potential America’s Army and The Sims have, one attendee seemed to have had enough, and wondered out loud why she would want to expose children to titles that glorify the military or disallow same-sex marriage: “I want to protect my kids from this shit.” Indeed, the propogation of values (and in the current gaming landscape, those values are overwhelmingly and terrifyingly conservative) is one of the fundamental teaching operations of any mass medium.

The response from Dubbels was basically that games can also provide a springboard for critical discussion (e.g., examining a simulation like The Political Machine and deciding whether the model is valid or complete), but that answer sort of contradicts the rest of the talk: the educational value of games should ideally come from playing them, not talking about them. This gets me wondering (and I’m totally going off on a tangent now): what would a liberal/progressive video game look like? Are there games out there now that fit the description?