Could video games inform education policy?

Games' fundamental principles -- such as rewarding success, removing the sting from failure -- could

How do you mime ringing a doorbell? Go on, it's not a trick (although I'll let you off if you're reading this on public transport). Did you -- as I and every adult I know did -- reach out your index finger in the hope of eliciting an imaginary ding-dong? It seems as natural as men wearing trousers, or cooking a steak before eating it. But ask a child and he or she might reach out for that phantom button . . . with a thumb. Years of texting, or playing handheld game consoles, you see.

That rather unscientific example shows once again that many of the things we regard as "natural" and immutable are, in reality, culturally contingent. It also demonstrates how easily our brains react to a change in stimulus, effortlessly adapting to a changing world. It's what has made humans so successful.

Which brings me to computer games. Read the popular press and you might think that they're frying children's brains, rendering them drooling imbeciles bent on murderous destruction. That's tosh. For a start, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, only 5 per cent of games released last year had a "mature" rating (for sex, drugs or violence). And does it matter that western children spend so much time in front of screens? Are we afraid it will leave them ill-equipped for their future lives as hunter-gatherers, chimney sweeps or nomadic goatherds?

Once we've got over the idea that games are a menace to society, perhaps we can have a proper conversation about how to make them work for us. One of the current buzzwords in nerdy circles is "gamification", where games' fundamental principles -- such as rewarding success, removing the sting from failure -- are applied to other pastimes. Yes, there is a dark side to such incentivisation: who hasn't bought two of a product they rarely use just because it was on special offer? But that's no reason not to harness these ideas for good: for example, in education policy.

Thumbs up

What would a "gameful" school look like? No need to imagine, because one exists already. It's called Quest to Learn, it's in New York and it caters for pupils aged 11 to 18 (its website is at q2l.org). Instead of taking tests that brand them a success or failure based on a single performance, its students continually "level-up" by accruing points. They are also encouraged to tackle tasks as a group, sharing out roles such as explorer, historian and writer.

Peter Hyman, a No 10-strategist-turned-teacher, wrote in this magazine this year that we are "educating children for the middle of the 20th century, not the start of the 21st". It's true -- who needs to learn dates by rote, when they're just a google away? Who needs to slave away on their cursive script, when touch-typing is a far more useful skill? And why do we assume that fun and learning must be mutually exclusive?

Like it or not, most children find their Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable or mobile phone an irresistible draw. So, instead of regarding games as a distraction from more serious fare, how about trying to combine the two? Even if you can't give your child a gameful education, you can at least encourage them to play educational games. And it'll put those hyper-developed thumbs to good use.

Five educational games:

1. BBC Schools -- a range of game, searchable by age range and category.

2. The map game -- think you know where Azerbaijan is? This drag and drop puzzle will show up the gaps in your geography knowledge.

3. Food Force -- billed as the "first humanitarian videogame", it's a simulator from the World Food Programme.

4. Selene -- a NASA-funded game to teach you about the moon.

5. Global Conflicts -- an award-winning game about war, designed for use by teachers (£).

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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