Reframing Learning and Mobile


Why learning? For games, it is especially important to talk about learning — if only to understand the game itself. Even within the commercial industry, game companies are increasingly seeking to increase profits by studying how players learn to play (Isbister & Schaffer, 2008). Beyond teaching players the rules, the satisfaction of most games depends on giving players a fair chance to feel successful and get better at the challenges presented. In other words, behind games’ rhetoric of escapist fun, there is a hidden alignment with the science of learning (for example, see Gee, 2003; Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, & Gee, 2005; Salen, 2008; Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008).

Which learning? Just because learning is naturally present with games does not mean that the content is worthwhile, let alone civic.  Such debates are longstanding, and resolution often depends on the analyst’s cultural framing of what constitutes learning, and their assumptions about the cultural value of games (for an excellent overview, see Squire, 2002).

Mobile learning?  Too often, mobile learning is approached as nothing new — simply desktop learning on a small screen, with a game component to add “entertainment” (Klopfer, 2008). Mobile designs that take these incremental steps only obscure the domain’s potential. (Hint: we are not very interested in mobile games to help memorize facts about a social issue.) This report demands more. We must insist on those aspects of games and mobile that are distinctive; only then can we understand which forms of learning are most appropriate and powerful. In other words, we must beware the temptation to “add mobile games and stir” — such games work like chocolate-covered broccoli: not actually very tasty, and with uncertain learning.

Good games, by contrast, focus on experiential learning rather than content. For example, they can help players develop intuition for the systems of physics — but may be worse than textbooks at memorizing physics formulas. Another example: games can offer role-play with deep insights into the perspectives and identities of oppressed peoples — but games are often worse than Wikipedia for delivering biographical facts. In other words, games are particular kinds of learning systems, not a panacea for engaging learners.

A good rule of thumb is that good learning in games happens at the level of mechanics — i.e., the moving parts of the game that make the experience both challenging and fun. For example, the game Hide and Seek features mechanics of concealing, looking, and group timing. It is by aligning with such mechanics that games foster learning that is central to the fun, where improving at the game implicitly builds target skills and dispositions.

For mobile games, the mechanics are particularly distinctive. It can be tempting to celebrate mobile for being “anytime, anywhere” since the Internet becomes just a pocket away. But as a game mechanic these two capabilities are relatively uninteresting, since they hardly point to new moving parts. Ironically, the more interesting mechanics may be about “specific places, the right people, and timing.” Mobile allows for games mechanics that introduce us to unfamiliar neighborhoods, or help strangers discover common interests. Mobile devices even have their own distinctive sensors, allowing for games that monitor pollution levels using everyday cell cameras, or detect proximity with Bluetooth, or guess at our activities based on internal motion detectors. Games are only just beginning to use such distinctive mobile affordances as mechanics, and the opportunities and pitfalls are just beginning to be explored. This report seeks such frontiers.

Civic learning? Of course, learning is necessary to prepare for effective participation in public life, just as learning is necessary for all human development. Learning needs for civic life are incredibly diverse – ranging from making better political evaluations, to how to organize volunteers online, to the skills of advocacy for social justice. Compared to past decades, it may be increasingly necessary to approach “civic learning” as a lifelong endeavor, as the tools of activism and organizing continue to shift and become more prominent online.

Consider the breadth of civic learning in terms of its goals: some organizations insist on systematic social change and teach activism, while others exclusively desire civic engagement and seek to foster dutiful responsibility (Bennett, Wells, & Rank, 2009). The rise of videogames parallels a general expansion of the activities that are considered civic — from political consumerism, to fan protest (Study on the State of Young People and Youth Policy in Europe, 2001). When we fail to acknowledge that multiple models for civic learning exist, teaching goals are often mischaracterized (for a nice discussion of this pitfall, see Westheimer & Kahne, 2004); unclear models undermine design and evaluation.

I define civic learning as: learning that develops the skills, knowledge and dispositions for contributing to civic life. The following diagram can help compare projects by defining some of the scope of civic learning. Specifically, it illustrates civic learning in terms of two critical dimensions: (1) whether the goal is social change or engagement, and (2) whether the learning is informal or in formal organizations.

This report provides additional detail on learning in two specific contexts, focusing on specific case studies. They are:

This ends the overview page on Learning. For the other two dimensions in the civic tripod of mobile and pervasive games, see the discussions on civic performance/art and social change.

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  • Bennett, W. L., Wells, C., & Rank, A. (2009). Young citizens and civic learning: two paradigms of citizenship in the digital age. Citizenship Studies, 13(2), 105-120.
  • Isbister, K., & Schaffer, N. (2008). Game Usability: Advancing the Player Experience. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.
  • Klopfer, E. (2008). Augmented learning: Research and design of mobile educational games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Salen, K. (Ed.). (2008). The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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  • Study on the State of Young People and Youth Policy in Europe. (2001). For the European Commission D.G. for Education and Culture. Milano: IARD – Istituto di Ricerca S.c.r.l. Retrieved from summaries_en.pdf
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