A Debate Between Jan Cannon-Bowers and Marc Prensky

Serious Games Summit DC 2005, Day 2A Debate Between Jan Cannon-Bowers and Marc Prensky (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Do we need instructional design in serious games, or is making a good game enough? This debate is part of an ongoing turf battle within the serious games movement.

As is generally the case with conference liveblogging, these are lightly-edited notes, and shouldn’t be taken as a verbatim, authoritative transcript.

Perry McDowell gave the introduction. Developer of “Delta 3D,” an open-source games engine.

If games can train and educate without putting pedagogy into it, why waste time/money in it?

If games can’t train without instructional design, the results can be scary (“negative training effects”).

In the 80s, regarding AI, “Mouths made promises that brains couldn’t keep.” The result was “the AI winter” — money for AI research dried up as a result of dissatisfaction with early attempts.

In the 90s, the same thing happened with VR. Serious Games is providing a reprieve for VR researchers. But if we can’t show hard evidence that SG doesn’t train people better, faster, cheaper, then before long Serious Games will be five guys drinking beer remembering the old days, while, the rest of us will be at the “Hula-hoops for Education Conference.”

“We don’t want Serious Games to be on the scrapheap of history” along with the pet rock. (Hmmm?. if serious games isn’t any good, then why shouldn’t it be discarded when the next thing comes along? The argument is predicated on the assumption that serious games do work. He’s suggesting the issue is to preserve funding for serious games, not to solve the problems that most of us in this room assume serious games will solve.)

Jan Cannon-Bowers and Marc Prensky; two smart, very well-educated people who have almost diametrically opposing positions on the issue.

Contextualizing the start of the deabate, which started at another conference (sorry, I didn’t catch that detail).

Marc — teachers are basically babysitters, under certain circumstances we can get rid of teachers.

Jan — “Marc, I could almost defend you until you went off the deep end.”

The moderator helpfully contextualized the debate with Jerry Springer and Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots slides, and Dan Ackroyd’s famous Saturday Night Live retort, “Jane, you ignorant slut.”

So clearly, this debate was staged as entertainment, with the two participants ready to attack each other intellectally.

Jan Cannon-Bowers

Do we need pedagogy in educational games? Of course we do! What moron would think otherwise? Why is “pedagogy” a bad word? Gamers are afraid that pedagogy represents this noose we’re going to put around their necks and tighten it to crush out all their creative juice. She suggests that it will be an interesting mix and culture clash. Learning doesn’t have to be “fun” in order to be successful. Would you say everything you learned was fun? We can all recall cases in which we were so motivated to learn that we overcame bad instructional environments.

Should we try to make learning fun? Sure! If fun is one way to elevate motivation, then why not? Positive feelings about training — “I liked it or didn’t like it.” There’s a threshold below which no learning is happening, but does learning have to be “fun” in order to be effective? There’s a point at which, once a certain threshold of comfort has been reached, there is little correlation between comfort and learning.

Besides fun, we should also consider that training is interesting, engaging, useful, challenging, fulfilling, and otherwise motivating. If we don’t incorporate pedagogy, learning effectiveness is hit or miss (at best).

Jan would prefer that her doctor, mechanic, etc, be trained on a solid system that does its job, and she doesn’t care whether they have fun in the process.

Marc Prensky

Had difficulty getting his laptop started. Heckled from the audience — “Are you having fun?” Marc admitted that he should have tested it, and admitted “There’s probably pedagogy involved in testing.” The moderator jumped up and joked that the debate was over, Jan cried, “I won!”

To fill time, Jan fielded a question from the audience? what’s the difference between enjoyable and fun? She replied that that’s splitting hairs, but noted that people may go through an experience where they are sweating bullets, and then look back afterwards and say, “That was fun!”

When the laptop was ready, Marc sarted saying, “Sure sure sure sure.” Began with a joke definition of pedagogy — peda = “foot,” gogy = “gouge” — gagging on your foot in your mouth.

“Whenever you add an instructional designer, the first thing they do is suck the fun out.”

Showed a list of 12 activities (trying, deciding, observing. etc.). You need motivation in order to get people to do those 12 things.

Will Wright –If a learner is motivated, there’s no stopping him.

Effort for learning can feel like work, but can also feel like play. Learning feels like play when you have the engagement, motivation and passion — and that should be our number one priority. The main reason you do all these things is to get people to finish the training you’ve invested your energy in.

A good chart

Curriculum Design v Game Design

Focus: Content vs. Engagement

Mode: Presentations vs. Gameplay

Decisions: Rare vs. Frequent and Important

Negative Training — the instructional designer’s way of instilling fear. “the herpes of training”

(“Serious Games” is a subset of games for educational purposes. A term for a subset of education that focuses on enjoyment is “Fun Pedagogy.”)

Jan of game designers — “I don’t trust you!” (guffaws). When asked to clarify, she said she didn’t trust the instinct of game designers to be able to deliver the content that, for example, helps a pilot to fly a plane, without the help of instructional designers.

(Makes me think of Plato’s Ion, the dialogue with a rhapsode who says that he is qualified to act the role of a general because he knows what a general would do or say.)

When asked how a pilot in a “fun” simulation would learn the details, Marc said “RTFM.” Someone from the audience asked “Who wrote the FM?”

Marc — we need good instructional strategies. “If they were good instructional strategies, they wouldn’t suck the fun out.” We’ve learned a lot about the world of Norrath, such that if there were a real world of Norrath, it could be validated.

Jan — design is about making decisions. “I don’t think the typical gamer who’s not gotten some extensive exposure is going to make the appropriate design decisions.”

Marc — suggested that instead of starting from the beginning that instead you started in the middle, repairing an interesting thing that’s broken, rather that creating something from scratch without a sense of how it all works.

Jan notes that moving from simulation to games, you need new, modern models of instruction that can accommodate immersive environments.

Ricardo Rademacher, who was sitting behind me in the audience, pointed to the slide on which Marc had displayed “Whenever you add an instructional designer, the first thing they do is suck the fun out,” and noted that you could turn that around. “Whenever you add a game designer, they suck the learning out,” and argued that’s precisely what happened in the 90s with “edutainment software.”

In the last few minutes of the panel, amidst much laughter and zipping-up of laptop cases, when Marc tried to get the crowd to join his rallying cry of “Let’s not suck the fun out,” Ricardo and I cried, “Let’s not suck!”

In a parting shot, the moderator asked the crowd how many of them had changed their minds based on what they had seen. Predictably, nobody raised their hands.

Overall, I thought the whole premise — do we need pedagogy at all — gave Jan an uph
ill battle. Imagine, if you will, in the alternate universe, instead of “Serious Games Summit,” a “Fun Pedagogy Summit.”

What chance would a game designer have there?

Well, that’s it — time to publish this and head over to the reception. I’m driving back to Pennsylvania tonight.