Games and Learning Indaba in Cape Town

At the Shuttleworth Foundation we seek innovative ways to improve the communication and analytical thinking skills of youth in South Africa (SA). One of the ways to potentially develop these skills is through digital gaming — be it on a PC, mobile phone, platform (e.g. Sony PlayStation), handheld (e.g. Nintendo DS) or some other device.

The question we are currently asking ourselves is: What potential does digital game-based learning hold for education (formal) and learning (informal) in SA, especially in improving communication and analytical thinking skills?

To begin to answer this question, I hosted the first Games and Learning Indaba (workshop) at the Foundation in Cape Town last week. The indaba had three overall aims:

  • To explore the state of gaming amongst youth in SA;
  • To identify opportunities for using games in education and learning; and
  • To identify barriers to increased use of games in education and learning.
At the Games and Learning Indaba (CT)
At the Games and Learning Indaba

While there is interesting and relevant research about games and learning coming out of the developed world, not much research has been conducted in SA. Our context is significant: we have a particular education system with its own strengths and weaknesses; our society is multilingual and multicultural; and the access to technology for our youth is varied and vastly different to, say, that in the USA. It is therefore important to understand the opportunities, challenges and findings here.

Twenty people attended the indaba, collectively representing game designers and developers, academia, university students, the Western Cape Education Department, creators of educational content, and marketers. Sadly, no learners attended; we tried to get a few there but they had to attend school!

When asked what they were expecting to get out of the indaba, attendee responses included: to get ideas for a particular game, to join a network of practitioners and researchers in this space, to see how more game-like activities can be used in school computer labs, or simply to find out more about games and learning.

Elaine Rumboll, Director of Executive Education at the UCT Graduate School of Business, described how many corporate executives were very excited about the prospect of gaming as a way of embedding learning back in the workplace. She is currently developing a game for a corporate client and wanted to connect with a group in this space.

First off, to get to know each other the attendees did some “speed dating” — meeting a stranger in only three minutes before moving on to someone else.

Professor Alan Amory
, a well known game studies researcher from the University of Johannesburg, gave the first presentation — Social constructivism in games based learning in the South African context — on game design, development and research that he and others conducted with previously disadvantaged youth in SA. They found that the highest levels of learning were achieved when there was social dialogue between game players (learners playing a game in pairs as opposed to playing alone). Their conclusion: people learned not from the games but rather with the games as they tried to solve the game problems together.

Marion Walton, senior lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, UCT, gave a fascinating presentation titled Beyond communities of practice: Understanding informal learning in online games. As part of her PhD, she joined two guilds in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft. Much of the current game literature portrays online gaming communities — in actual games and also on forums, mailing lists, etc. where games are discussed — as close-knit places of informal learning, mentorship and inclusion (what Gee calls “affinity spaces”). While this is true for some communities, it is certainly not true for all, as Marion discovered.

The World of Warcraft guilds she tried to join were rife with prejudice, sexism, overt masculinity and profanity. These “tribes” are highly exclusionary, with wannabe members needing to jump through humiliating hoops to join, and then play along within the harsh social hierarchies of the tribe if they manage to be accepted.

Marion’s thought-provoking research thus questions the often celebratory view of online gaming communities. Her presentation highlighted a challenge for those wanting to use games for learning and education: How to allow communities to develop that do not replicate the prejudiced practices found in the offline world? This question was discussed in light of the recent xenophobia attacks in SA.

From group discussions during the indaba, some of the challenges identified for games and learning included copyright laws in SA, the cost and logistics of distributing games, lack of funding for game development and research, the need for a more active game development industry in SA, and the challenges of incorporating gaming into classrooms.

A particularly interesting perspective was this: “When it comes to the use of educational technology, we often have to find ways for learners to ‘leapfrog’ over teachers, who are less tech-savvy.”

Overall, I was very happy with the indaba as the first tentative step to critically explore the space between “moral panic” — (“games are violent, addictive and a waste of time”) — and “blind faith” — (“gaming is the only future”), concerning games and learning. The varied group generated different perspectives on the games and learning space. Certainly there was much enthusiasm, interest and a desire for more events like this. I created a Google Group to support an ongoing dialogue on this topic.

For more, see Jeremy Setzer’s blog post about the event and the full set of photos.

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