David Williamson Shaffer begins his book with a series of dire warnings: “The news is chilling. ... The statistics are alarming. ... [W]e are facing a national crisis.” And what has plunged Shaffer into such terrible gloom? Exactly the same thing that often throws educational reformers into a panic: the perception that our schools are failing to prepare young people for a high-tech, digital world where global competitors are just a mouse click away.
But if Shaffer isn’t unusual in predicting imminent economic catastrophe for America, his idea for averting it is. Computer and video games, he says, “can help young people learn the ways of innovation they need to thrive in a complex world.”
By computer and video games, Shaffer doesn’t mean mass-marketed gorefests like Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto. He is referring to “epistemic games,” which are “fundamentally about learning to think in innovative ways.”
Shaffer, an associate professor of learning science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, describes in detail five of these games. In each, players enter a virtual world that simulates the work of a particular profession—biomedical engineers in Digital Zoo, high-powered negotiators in The Pandora Project, journalists in science.net, and so on. The goal of the games isn’t to train the players to be professionals, but to be “the kind of people who can think like professionals”—creatively, analytically, responsibly—“when they want and need to.”
The games Shaffer discusses aren’t widely available yet, though most schools would be unlikely to adopt them even if they were. As Shaffer points out, “It is hard for teachers to spare the time from getting students ready for the next standardized test, and, not surprisingly, innovation is difficult to accomplish in 40-minute chunks of time, spread from room to room and subject to subject throughout the day.”
Which is why “the next steps toward education for the digital age” may come from another direction. Shaffer wants us to think quite literally outside the box of the traditional school building. For wherever children can be reached, whether online or in community centers and summer camps, they can perhaps be educated via computer games for the challenges of the new century.
Howard Good is coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is Mis-Education in Schools: Beyond the Slogans and Double-Talk (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007).
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as How Computer Games Help Children Learn