Hook me up, I’m learning

Digital games in school

The relative virtual popularity of Dana Smith’s This is what Candy Crush does to your brain – recently posted on the Guardian’s online Notes and Theories science desk – may mean one or two things: either people are genuinely interested in the idea that it is, as Smith says, a by-design addictive game; or any article with the words ‘candy’ and ‘crush’ in its title is certain to get a degree of misdirected traffic.

Whatever the truth, there’s no doubting Candy Crush Saga’s popularity. Played 1 billion times a day by 90 million plus people, it is one of the world’s highest earning games, its apparent simplicity, intimates Smith and others, foil for a game mechanics that knowingly simulates the main addict-making push-and-pull factors found in the average slot machine: that is, a system of easy-to-get rewards; the illusion of being on top; a treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen exclusion-inclusion mechanism; and sensual aural and visual primers, in this case, sweets and the imagined effects of sweets. If you’ve never played it, then you will almost certainly have seen it, and been surprised, perhaps, by the sight of an adult playing a game that looks like it’s been designed for a three year old. Strap: Ain’t it the sweetest game ever?

Needless to say, the makers of Candy Crush disagree. Candy Crush, says King Digital Entertainment,  ‘provides highly engaging, differentiated entertainment’, an experience whereby ‘the combination of challenge and progress drives a sense of achievement.’ Its ‘free’, embeds ‘social features’ and is the result of a ‘company culture predicated on collaboration, humility and respect.’ For them, the game’s popularity rests on the fact that its users positively identify with its values, and those of the company itself.

Sounds good, but, as every player knows, there’s a caveat: five strikes and you’re locked out, the choice being that either you wait for your allotted timeout to pass or you buy yourself back in. No addict, Smith might say, waits. Choice, King will argue (back), is the inalienable right of the consumer. Them’s the rules. Wait or pay. Your choice.

It’s easy, when presented thus, to question, as Smith does, King Digital Entertainment’s motives. Certainly, Candy Crush’s recent floatation would seem to indicate a company culture based much more on the business of profit than on the virtues of ‘humility and respect.’ Creating a game, Smith might argue, that makes addicts of its users and then floating it on the open market is, at best, merely money-facing and, at worst, a work of great cynicism.

This may or may not be true. (Profit and having a social conscious aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Smith merely makes a case for the game’s addictive properties. There’s no research, as far as I know, that categorically proves its game mechanics inherently addictive). However, if we take, for the sake of argument, it to be true, that Candy Crush is indeed addictive, then the criteria by which Smith identifies it as such is arguably applicable, to a lesser or greater degree, to almost all video games. And if this be the case, then it raises important ethical questions vis-a-vis the use of such games as a means of educating young people.

A thorny and deep issue, you’d need a super-big brush to sweep this one away. Estimations are that a $67 billion industry is set become $82 billion large by 2017 – the largest segment of gamers being the 14 to 19 year old bracket, with the younger end dropping yearly. No surprise that the education sector is awash with games. Institutions like schools are as much part and parcel of the societies they serve as are the young people they educate. Technology has played an enormous part in human development. The technology of games as source, method and stimulator for learning is undisputed: they work. Children, disaffected or not, generally enjoy playing games, and games, what’s more, whose contextual expectations – thinking and physical – are often highly complex.

Which doesn’t necessarily vindicate a company like King. Compare Candy Crush to the likes of Civilisation IV. No comparison, really. Nevertheless, it’s an unfair one. Lots of educational games aren’t nearly as complex as Civilisation IV. Many, in fact, are necessarily simple, deeply repetitive, highly reward based and use similar aural and visual stimulators to those found in Candy Crush. Many even have the same lockout game mechanics, though these would result merely in being locked out of a part – the honeypot part – of the game. No doubt, following Smith’s argument, our educational games tap into exactly the same dopamine droppers as Candy Crush, though perhaps less obviously.

Meaning, and finally, a question: Does the means warrant the educational ends? If, for example, a literacy-based game designed on the same game mechanics principles as Candy Crush results in the player learning to read, does the fact that he or she has managed off the back of pumped-up parcels of neurotransmitters matter? Put this way, I’m fairly sure the majority of us will be scratching our heads for a better solution; only, however, if the game is understood either as the totality of the individual’s learning experience, or as the malingering destroyer of real-world education. For some of us, the future is here, and we’re not happy. For others, it’s here, and we’re going to do our best to accommodate it. For champions of the digital, it’s here and here to stay, so best face, please, shake hands, and let’s go solve the world’s problems.

Personally, the virtual (in education as in everywhere else) is ideally a complement to real-world teaching – in much the same way that speaking complements writing or exercise concentration. Clearly, reward-motivated behaviour structures, virtual or otherwise, are no substitute for internalised, self-motivated systems of learning, but saying no to the educational benefits of gaming on the basis of its addict making mechanics is possibly a tad idealistic and scapegoat’s the virtual for a culture already super-predicated on reward.