Symposium: Complex Games Lead to Complex Thinking

Symposium: Complex Games Lead to Complex Thinking

Modern games aren’t trivial, and librarians who dismiss them as such do their patrons a disservice, presenters told some 215 attendees of the second annual ALA TechSource Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium, hosted by the American Library Association.

Held November 2–4 in Oak Brook, Illinois, the event was replete with examples of how the complexity of modern games prepares young people for their futures. The oft-mocked Pokémon series, for example, has more than 500 characters, each falling into one of 17 types that may be particularly strong or weak against other types. “There are far more Pokémon than elements in the periodic table, and players track more information about each Pokémon than scientists track about their elements,” observed Eli Neiburger of Ann Arbor (Mich.) District Library, in his “Pokémon Primer” session.

Seann M. Dikkers of the University of Wisconsin at Madison Games, Learning, and Society Group presented a session on how he used the Total War series of strategy games in after-school game clubs to engage students with history. In the game, players must fight battles, but they also must protect, build, and manage their armies and cities. He relayed one anecdote about a student who was playing on the side of Native Americans trying to fight off Columbus. That student went so far as to smuggle a history textbook into the gaming session to refer to as he tried to develop a winning strategy. “If you’re interested, then you pursue literacy,” Dikkers observed. “Once the interest is there, the academics follow.”

Christopher Harris and Brian Mayer of the Genessee Valley (N.Y.) Board of Cooperative Educational System shared their work in identifying the ways in which 50 games meet specific performance indicators in New York State education standards and in the “Standards for the 21st Century Learner” of the American Library Association’s American Association of School Librarians. At the same session, Paul Waelchli of the University of Dubuque in Iowa focused on how games can meet the “Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education” of ALA’s Association of College and Research Libraries’ Standards Committee by requiring players to evaluate information, identify gaps in the information they retrieve, create a system for organizing information, use that information to accomplish a goal, and reflect on successes and failures.

In his keynote, Lawrence Kutner of the Center for Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital observed that there’s nothing new about adults viewing youth culture as a threat, citing outcries against the “corrupting” influence of paperback novels on youth in 1886, gangster movies in the 1930s, horror comics of the 1940s and ’50s, and television violence in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

Kutner conducted a survey of 1,250 children from 12–14 years old and found no link between violence in video games and real-world violence. “Violence in schools in the past 20 years has gone down,” he said. “Media coverage of violence in schools has gone up.”

Allan M. Kleiman, former assistant director of Old Bridge (N.J.) Public Library, shared his experience introducing gaming programs to senior citizens to provide mental—and in the case of games like Wii Sports—gently physical activities. Kleiman said the programs have been successful at Old Bridge, but that it’s critical to have regularly scheduled senior gaming events, because seniors tend not to have access to gaming consoles anywhere else. “How are you going to get someone who doesn’t really know what it is to come in and game when they aren’t going to do it at home again?”

Amanda Lenhart, research specialist at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, presented results from Pew’s new “Teens, Video Games, and Civics” survey. The survey found that games that incorporate civic experiences—identified as games where players help or guide each other, think about social or moral issues, or help to organize or run a guild or community—have a correlation with higher levels of civic engagement, as does playing games with other people in the same room. The survey did not determine whether civic gaming experiences encourage real-world civic involvement or if the relationship is because teens who are more engaged in their communities simply tend to prefer games with similar elements, but Lenhart said, “We think that both are operational.”

For more details in the form of daily wrap-ups, see the AL Inside Scoop blog.

Posted on November 5, 2008; corrected on February 19, 2009. Discuss.