As I’ve written before, gamification is increasingly a big part of my pedagogy, but I was still more than a little frightened by the CLMOOC Make Cycle #3: Games. I am not sure if I have the juice to create or hack a game for my own entertainment or purposes, but I can reflect on the important roles games have played in my life. This is actually an interesting challenge for me although no one else might be interested in my story.
I grew up in a small town in Upstate New York. During the 1970s most families had only one TV set and it received only three channels and children were shooed outside to play. I was fortunate in that I lived in town and there were a dozen kids my age within blocks of my home. We roamed in packs – sometimes coming together to play sandlot softball or kick the can or spotlight (flashlight tag). Games were an important part of my family life as well. Among my earliest memories is playing Chinese checkers with my great-grandfather who possessed an actual wooden table with the board built in and tiny drawers to keep the markers. I wonder what happened to that table… During the long winters, my family of four played board games and as we grew older we included friends and neighbors as well. We were among the first families to acquire electronic games. I can still remember how excited we were about Pong and how quickly we abandoned it for more exciting systems featuring games such as Donkey Kong and Frogger. Growing up in a small town also meant that sports played an important role in our community. Soccer was the dominant sport for our town and fans cheered on both boys and girls. Friday nights were spent on the hill above the high school soccer field clutching a thermos of chili and huddled under a blanket.
Reflecting on the role of games in my childhood I’m struck by the importance of games. As James Paul Gee notes, games introduce us to the concept of learning through and from failure. This is why I’m so drawn to gamification as a pedagogical tool, but I think it is an essential experience for children. It is just a shame that so many adults lose their fascination and love for games. I’m hopeful (although skeptical) that many adults today may hang onto this essential experience as gaming for all ages is more acceptable. I think game playing teaches us the benefits and drawbacks of risk taking and how to calculate the odds of both.
Gee also notes that games help us learn about others and other worlds, and I believe this is true, but I also think games help us learn more about ourselves as well as our playmates. Hours of playing sandlot softball and kick the can with the same kids day after day, week after week, taught me a lot about those kids as well as myself. These are important life skills.
I know some people worry about kids who hole up in their bedroom playing video games for hours, but the truth is that both board games and video games are highly interactive and collaborative activities. It is a different experience than when I was a kid and we were the only family with a video game system so all the kids were sitting on our living room rug, but now headsets and chat apps as well as online discussion boards make gaming equally interactive just in different ways.
I think we lost something when we handed games off to children. My great-grandparents and grandparents would play checkers, dominoes, chess, and cards. They would play at home with family, have regularly scheduled games with friends that were a part of their social calendar, and tables were always set up at any party or gathering. Today my family continues to play euchre at family gatherings, but that is the only game that has managed to travel forward although I still hold onto my box of dominoes waiting for a revival.
However, I think my peers are playing games more than ever and many of those games are highly social thanks to the many online forums that allow us to support and compete with our friends across time and space. I don’t like to see my Facebook feed fill with gaming notifications (thank goodness that has been largely eliminated) but I am happy to give my friends magic potions or pigs or wooden nickels as they require them. It is a little moment of pleasure to give. But largely my game playing today falls into two categories. I love word play and regularly play a number of word jumble or word search type games. I also like some puzzle games (Mahjong and Chuzzle) and who doesn’t love to kill zombies with plants? My current obsession is with Hay Day and I’m not entirely sure why, but I think I like this game and Plants Vs. Zombies because it gives me some control over my world. I can plan and execute and win in ways that real life does not allow me to do.
I think that games link us over time and space and generations in ways that I do not fully understand, but I recognize their power and importance. I love that my son plays four square at church camp just as I did when I attended church camp. A different denomination, a different state, and a different generation, but church camp is church camp apparently. Games are important life laboratories and they provide connections between and among people and ideas in ways that I do not fully understand and that’s OK with me.