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Games as a new communication medium,
This review is from: Don't Bother Me Mom--I'm Learning! (Paperback)
[this review will be published on Studies in Communication Sciences 1/2008 - [...]
Many kids and teenagers spend a large amount of time with videogames - that is a fact, and calculations indicate that by the time they are 21, average US children will have logged 5'000-10'000 hours playing computer and videogames. Add to this that videogames are impacting the entertainment market more and more as a multi-billion industry and you have plenty of good reasons to want to understand them better if you are a parent or a teacher. If you are a researcher in media, communication or education, and aim at understanding today's media use of digital natives, your work should include understanding video games, and this book can provide assistance in that area. So, are videogames good or bad? Do they enhance learning or do they make children numb and lonely?
After the hit of Digital Game-based Learning (2003), Marc Prensky comes back with a book that tries to give a new perspective to the often too polarized discussion about videogames. Prensky's voice is backed both by the insights of seasoned teacher used to talk with kids of all ages, and by the experience gained as founder and CEO of games2train.com, a company that offers "serious training in a game environment". It's a respected voice in the expanding context of the literature about education and digital games. Moreover, he is an emphatic speaker, with action movie rhythm, good arguments and sometimes claims. The book is worth reading: if you like videogames, you will understand them better; if you think they are dangerous, it will let you think about them more critically.
The book is mainly targeted to parents and teachers, but researchers can find interesting data, resources and ideas in it as well. Many claims are supported by anecdotal evidence, such as interviews with children or parents, only a few with scientifically sound data. This is both the limit and the power of this book: it is effective in showing that a different take on videogames is not only possible, but existing in the experience of many "like us", parents or teachers. The task of proving or refuting many of the claims remains for researchers and their respective methods.
The first point the author makes comes from the Socratic principle of knowledge: before knowing something, we must admit we don't know it. This holds for videogames too: much of the current discussion today comes from people who are not videogamers, and those who fear videogames often do not know even the titles of the big hits. Second, Prensky claims that today's kids are digital natives, while we, who were born in an age when digital media was not present of just surfacing, are digital immigrants. While we keep our "accent" (and for example print e-mails for reading), digital natives are "natural born" multitasking, online social kids. They consequently require, and like, new forms of learning, and videogames are clearly one of them. Because, and here is the third point, children learn a lot of things from videogames. On the one hand, current videogames are not all like Pong or Pac-Man, the trivial videogames that everybody knows. It's true, they are trivial, but games like Civilization III (a commercial game) or Carmen Sandiego (an educational game) are much more complex and engaging, and these are the game that today's kids want to play. With them, they learn to cooperate, reflect on ethics, start designing and programming (with modding, i.e., creating new games with existing games engines), and - claims Prensky - can even acquire the "seven habits of highly effective people" as identified by Steven Covey, including being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, first things first, etc. To support these claims the author relies also on the experience and work of James Paul Gee, who wrote What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (2003).
Up to here the book can look like an apology of videogames - and indeed there is some merit in bringing the discussion down to the ground and proposing and discussing real arguments. But the one more step that Prensky proposes is more challenging. Part IV is entitled "How Parents, Teachers and all Adults Can Get In The Game", which means: "Leave all universal theories aside, your problem is dealing with your kids or your students." And here it is all about method.
The author indicates some simple things that parents and teachers can do to reach one important goal: living the videogame experience together with our children, not leaving them alone with the media. It could be expressed as how you can create a relational and affective frame of meaning around videogames, so that the effort and energy spent on them is turned into positive educational agency. We know from research on the effects of television how important this is - what we didn't know was how you can actually do it with videogames. Prensky does not tell us how to do it, he first does it, and then tell us how he did it. I had the pleasure of attending a keynote speech at the Association for Educational Communications and Technologies convention in October 2007. After giving the talk, Prensky had five teenagers come on the stage and spent another hour just talking with them, asking them about their experience at school, with friends, with computers. Videogames were simply a part of their life, and he was recognized as an adult with whom you can talk about these things.
The main principles for "getting in the game" are starting to learn something about videogames, and then asking real questions and listening with real interest. The point is sharing with kids what is already part of their experience and has, indeed, positive aspects in terms of learning, even in the broader sense of education. The real issue, which emerges multiple times throughout the book, is finding a balanced style of life: blending sports, school, outdoor activity, handwork and computers in a sensible way. This is where adults can really make a difference. Videogames are bad if they become the tyrant activity of a child's life, but then they are as bad as reading 6 hours a day, or regularly watching TV for that amount of time. Additional resources about this can be found on the companion web site [...]
The book is challenging in two ways: intellectually, because it pushes to reflect on videogames from a richer base of data and experiences; and emotionally, because it prompts to take actions, as parents or teachers, in order to "get in the game" with kids and make sense of that experience. Some points raised in the book deserve a critical approach. First of all, are digital natives really different persons? Do they really learn differently? Of course, their media environment is different from the one we experienced, but it is likely there is no straight line between before and after. Also, different media environment generates different learning practices - but a new way of learning? Another issue concerns the change that videogames should bring in educational institutions. Prensky goes far and envisions - more to challenge than to propose - a completely different school system. That's more vision than reason, and while teachers can surely learn from videogames (and games), we might also ask ourselves what is the good in the current school system, and try not to throw the baby out with the water. Finally, the book brings evidence that videogames can produce positive learning effects and that they are not "evil". A good question to ask then, as with any media use, is what are children not doing in order to find time for videogames? That is, videogames can bring good things, but are they better than what is left aside?
If you are interested in videogames - and if you have any kids or teenagers around you, you should be - this book can provide not only food for thought, but also a challenge to go one step further than you would normally go, as parent, teacher, or researcher.