Digital Play and Education: A Book Review

A little while ago I was given a copy of The Game Believes In You by Greg Toppo. He reached out to me after seeing a post on The Geek Spot and forwarded me a copy. I was able to finish it over the past few days (a convention and E3 coverage kind of wiped out my free time).

The quick rundown is I liked this book. I liked it a lot. And I liked it mostly because Toppo describes James Paul Gee, who is one of the first to create learning principles and theories about video games, as the “irascible uncle, [who] storms around the stage, his shaggy white eyebrows sometimes looking like they’ll swallow his eyes.” Not only is it a fantastic visualization, it explains how Gee approaches his video game discussions (through a lens that is sometimes cloudy, and you have to muddle through his work before you reach a point of clarity).

Toppo, you have made me a fan of your work.

But let’s take a step back. I’ll do my best to give a thoughtful review without picking on Gee. Toppo is USA Today’s National K-12 Educational writer/reporter. His past work has focused on video games and the use of technology in the classroom, so it’s no surprise that he would write a book that focuses on such a topic. From the first page until the last, it’s obvious that Toppo took the time to research everything. Thoroughly. A number of statements were backed up with facts, studies, and speaking to experts from developers to psychologists. Eighteen pages of the book were set aside for notes and references. That’s on par with most college text books.

The premise of the book is to introduce video games and education as two entities that can work together to promote a stronger learning system. Toppo examines digital play by reviewing its history, the evolution of games, and examines the current ideology of the U.S. educational system. For every problem that occurs, both in learning games and in education, Toppo brings up solutions that allow the factions to work together.

The biggest hurdle I have had in teaching video games and discussing anime in an academic setting is getting educators to see how incorporating these entertainment mediums will improve their students’ livelihood. Education can be fun. But simply slapping a game onto it (gamification, run away!) doesn’t promote learning or fun. Games and scholastic endeavors need to work in tandem so that both can be utilized successfully. That’s what Toppo tackles with his book by providing examples on how games can work in the classroom. It also shows the need for U.S. educators to start thinking outside of their small box. Because right now, school is not fun. It hasn’t been for decades. And it’s not the fault of cell phones and Facebook. Our test scores are pretty pitiful by comparison to other First World Nations, and it’s been like that since I remember going to school.

I’ll be honest in my assessment of the U.S. public system for scholastic endeavors: it sucks. I was never prepared for college and what it threw at me, in spite of taking AP classes throughout my high school years. My parents did a wonderful job of preparing me for life. School did nothing. I hate math. I respect science, but I can’t tell you the difference between molecules and atoms – if there is a difference? My writing style for high school was perfect for A’s, but it was horrible for everything in life that I would be using it for. If you could see how I use to write in high school, you would think that the pieces were written by two entirely different people. And a lot of my dislike for high school and middle school came from the lack of interest by my teachers. I grew up at a time where video games were out there, and used as teaching tools for memorization and typing tests. Most schools didn’t bother with them feeling they were a waste of time. Distractions in the classroom. Given the vast amount of new content out there for kids, it surprises me that more districts are not embracing the new climate that games offer. Our test scores still suck. The teaching methods of 50 years ago are still not working. Something has to change. That’s where I see Toppo’s book coming in – to provide inspiration to educators and content to the scholastic nerds like me who want to shove proof in everyone’s face.

See! It can work! Look! Toppo's examples are plentiful and varied for anyone dubious about video game's effect in the classroom.

As a researcher, there are a few things that I felt the book could have addressed, but danced over. As a whole, the primary argument of games for learning is strong. I don’t want to dismiss it. Toppo provides a very balanced, thoughtful argument. But one of my areas of concern is competition. There is a lot of research out there that supports cooperative learning. Competition and even team-based contests do not result in education gains by comparison to co-op learning. Unfortunately some of the games Toppo provides examples for in the book are centered on competing with your peers. I would argue that it doesn’t provide a stronger learning environment. While the effect of the games like Call of Duty could prove useful, studies have shown that cooperative peer work has a greater benefit overall. So more Minecraft, please.

There is also the issue of how to rate games and their data. Right now in the academic world there isn’t a set method. We have a content rating classification for entertainment purposes, but that doesn’t affects scholastic aptitude. A system needs to be developed and implemented (look to film theory as an example) before we can fully embrace games in the classroom. I didn’t expect Toppo to build one from scratch, but it should be mentioned. For our education to grow, we need to be able to track and report a student’s progress. Internal systems within the game are all well and good, but how can we see the results long-term? Will a game from 5 years ago still have the impact on a child’s education today when new models are introduced? Are the products reliable? Are the methods for scoring accurate? Is the content still being retained by the child or is it through repetition without understanding? All are key points that should be reviewed.

What captured my attention the most was how fluid Toppo’s writing is. His years as a reporter greatly assisted him with this book. I didn’t feel like I was being corralled from one point to the next. Nor was a chapter labored to the point where I wanted to just move on and ignore the rest of the text. The ebb and flow of the book kept me interested. It’s so easy with these types of texts to feel overwhelmed that you have to take a break to digest the information presented. Toppo’s mastery of the written word speaks volumes. This is one of the few thought-provoking books that I have read in a while where I could veg and read in a few days and understand the content.

For anyone who is interested in video games and education, or is looking for an alternative to the text heavy James Paul Gee, get this book. It’ll provide you with all of the insight you are looking for without the need to bang your head into the desk as you try to decipher Gee’s words.

Note: The Geek Spot was provided with a copy of the book to read in exchange for a review. Any opinions belong to The Geek Spot.