Gaming Out InequalityJan 10th, 2012 | By Zachary Trout
Radical Teacher. 2011.
In August 2011, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania organized a conference of scholars, executives, and policymakers to discuss online gaming as a tool for education, business, and government. Francesco Crocco reflects on the popularization of game-based learning that the conference represents in his article “Critical Gaming Pedagogy” and expresses reservations about using this new technology in public education systems.
Crocco is concerned that game-based learning portrays an unrealistic version of life in American society. In The Sims, for example, “an ideal combination of meritocracy, full employment, equal opportunity, and upward mobility” shape every player’s experience. For students who will one day take a position in a rapidly changing workforce, these experiences gloss over the many inequalities they will face.
Crocco’s perspective diverges from the predominant view that games can move education from a “factory-model” to one that creates opportunities in a post-industrial world. According to Crocco, the merit of online games and other simulation-based learning experiences lies in their ability to promote critical thinking about popular culture. In the absence of critical thinking, games may improve technical skills but will likely perpetuate existing social stratification.
Taking his argument to an urban community college, Crocco invites a class of students to join him in a game of Monopoly, a game that–in his view–propagates assumptions about upward mobility similar to those found in online games. To challenge these assumptions, Crocco changes the parameters of play to reflect inequalities. He allots players different amounts of money, imposes varying penalties based on class association, and reassigns outcomes of chance so they benefit those in positions of power.
The short experiment highlights that codification, defamiliarization, and alienation, all artistic techniques promoting experiences of separateness, are incredibly important to the gaming model. Students playing Monopoly in this way understand themselves not as passive recipients of larger myths, but as active critics of how media alters reality. By exposing other simulated realities as false, teachers can use games to teach both the skills required for a high-tech work environment and the attitudes needed to sustain social justice movements.
As for policymakers and administrators, this experiment makes clear that the pedagogical approaches employed by teachers when presenting online games can affect their success as learning tools for the future.