Episode 4: What Games Can Teach

... or what you can learn from Red Dead Redemption.

Q&A with Dr. Karen (Kat) Schrier, Associate Professor/Director of Games and Emerging Media, Marist College on her book "We The Gamers.”

Schrier talked to GuardianGamer about why she thinks games like Fortnite and Red Dead Redemption can be useful teaching tools. 

Dr. Karen Schrier is an associate professor and founding director of the Games & Emerging Media program at Marist College. She is also the director of the Play Innovation Lab. For the 2018-2019 year, she worked on a project related to games, empathy, and bias reduction as a Belfer Fellow with the ADL’s Center for Technology & Society.

Before becoming a professor at Marist, she spent over a decade producing websites, apps, and games at places such as Scholastic, Nickelodeon, and BrainPOP.

Schrier has written over 40 publications, is the editor of the book series Learning, Education & Games, published by ETC Press (Carnegie Mellon), co-author of a UNESCO whitepaper on empathy and games, and co-editor of two books on games and ethics.

She has co-created digital properties such as Awesome Upstander, an anti-bullying mobile game, and the Daytime Emmy-nominated Mission US: For Crown or Colony? She holds a doctorate from Columbia University, master’s degree from MIT, and a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College.

Her new book, "We the Gamers," shows teachers and parents -- or anyone else-- how they can use video games to teach ethics and civics. The book provides lesson outlines, tips, case studies, and design toolkits.

Production notes: This episode was produced by Sarah Lai Stirland and engineered by Gabe Grabin.

  • The Joan Ganz Cooney Center Teaching with Games Video Case Studies are here.


SARAH: You’re listening to the GuardianGamer podcast. GuardianGamer is a new online service that offers kids the age of seven and up mentorship and a safe space to play video games.

I’m Sarah Lai Stirland and I'm a co-host of this podcast.

I’m talking to Kat Schrier this week. Professor Schrier — or Kat — as people call her, is Director of the Games and Emerging Media Program at Marist College in Upstate New York.

She’s also the author of “We, The Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics.”

Schrier’s thesis is that kids can actually learn valuable skills by playing video games. Like what? Oh, just the ones we’ve been talking about throughout this podcast — like communicating clearly, developing compassion and empathy, taking calculated risks, learning about history, and thinking about solving problems in multi-faceted ways. The list goes on.

The thing is, is that commercial games can’t do this on their own. You need a parent, teacher or other kind of mentor in the picture.

And this is what Schrier’s book is all about — engaging kids in important subjects in fun and thought-provoking ways. Academics such as Schrier say that well-designed video games are just a teaching tool to be used in specific contexts.

The book is aimed at teachers, but it’s also a gold-mine for parents. For example, it made me really think about some of the skills that our children need to be successful in general.

For example, Schrier talks about games that can be used to teach social emotional learning skills. I hadn’t explicitly categorized these skills in my mind, but when I read about them, her argument made total sense.

If you’re wondering what they are: They’re self management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. These are all traits that kids need to develop in life, but also when interacting with others in online games. Basically, she’s arguing that as a society, we need to train our kids to become much more emotionally intelligent.

Games of all kinds, but especially video games with their increasingly sophisticated technical, visual and storytelling capabilities offer us a unique way of engaging with our children — but only if we understand how to use the tools properly.

There’s also another, more profound reason to pay attention to what’s going on online. Some academics note that Americans aren’t bound together as much as they used to be through church and union organizations, or even through watching the evening news.

Online spaces in video games are becoming the uniting force and replacing these entities, they argue. So it’s especially important that we establish healthy norms for interaction now.

I’d like to share these statistics to bolster the point: Three out of every four, or 244 million people in the U.S. play video games, according to the market research firm the NPD Group. And some slightly older survey data from Common Sense Media report that 64 percent of tweens 8 to 12 years old play online video games.

Schrier delves into many disciplines. She brings ideas from civics, pedagogy and media studies to explain how — and in what context — we as parents and teachers can use games to teach civics, reasoning and civility. And it turns out that there seems to be a game to teach almost anything. That in of itself is worth getting this book — and no, Schrier did not pay me for that endorsement.

To be sure, she’s not saying that every child needs to play games like Fortnite to learn.

But at the same time, she urges us not to write off popular games like Fortnite, or Animal Crossing, or Red Dead Redemption. (In fact, she says in one of the last lines of her book that just as reading Chekhov makes us a fuller human, playing games such as Red Dead Redemption, Minecraft, or What Remains of Edith Finch can do that too.

For example, she argues that Fortnite engages its players in a civic way because they have to do things like strategizing about the best places to build shelters, how much wood and stone to stockpile, and they have to figure out together how to survive storms. (If you want to see an example of what she’s talking about, search for the terms “Lachlan” and “How Long Can You Survive The Final Storm In Fortnite?” and watch the YouTube video. By the way, you might want to have someone who plays Fortnight with you to translate all the jargon.) … or better yet, hire a Guardian and sit in on a gaming session.

In upcoming episodes, we’ll talk to more educators about how they’ve used commercial games to teach.

In the meantime, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop has created an interesting series of short case studies on YouTube. The videos show how many elementary school teachers are already using video games in classrooms across the country. We’ll provide a link in the show notes.

Later in this episode, you’ll hear me mention a company called BrainPOP. I just wanna clarify here that BrainPOP is an educational platform that uses animation and characters to explain complex subjects to Elementary and Middle School aged kids.

As you can see from the Cooney Center videos, the idea of using video games to connect with one another, and to teach, has been around for years.

But with the recent explosion of interest in the metaverse, or the 3-D internet as some call it, and the ongoing pandemic conditions, it seems to be a great time to dive in to understand and use games — or GuardianGamer’s services — to enhance our children’s lives.

So I went ahead, and I called Schrier to talk more about her ideas.

SARAH: So Kat, what’s the main message of your book? And why did you write it?

KAT: Sure. So the really big message is that games are civic communities, which means that people are already participating. And, you know, whether it's being engaged in communication and discourse, and perspective taking in design and creating things — they are engaged.

And, you know, those are the kinds of skills that you want in any civic community. And so I wanted to show how teachers and educators and parents can use games to teach ethics and civics, but also to see how games are already supporting civic skills and ethics skills and other social emotional learning.

SARAH: I think this is kind of a cool idea. But when I tried to explain this whole idea of teaching kids strategy, or civic engagement through video games, I just sometimes get an eye roll. How do how, how would you explain it to those skeptical parents out there?

KAT: Yeah, I mean, that's a great question. And I totally know. And I've felt those eye rolls.

And, you know, I'm a parent also. I have three kids, and I meet other parents, and when they find out that I do something related to video games, they get a little scared.

And I definitely think there's a lot of fear there. Which is really too bad. Because games are really just part of being human.

I mean, we play and we, you know, we've always played and always learn through play, you know, whether it's like hopscotch, or being out in the playground and figuring out, you know, who's going to who are the sides and kickball? And what are the rules that we're going to play by?

Those are all ways that kids learn how to negotiate, how to take on perspectives of other kids, how to think about space and resources, how to think about communication, and the best ways to know … how to be a good winner and how to be a good loser, and being a good sport.

I mean, those those are kind of like core civic skills and core social and emotional learning skills that we learn through play, and we learn through games. And I think that games help you to personally connect with a problem or an issue or a topic.

They bring you closer to a journey that someone else might have taken by perhaps taking on the role that they have and performing the kinds of choices that they would have been faced with.

And it helps us to tell stories, and it helps us to relive stories, and they help us understand systems and how different things components of a system interact.

So there's so many different ways that games are helping us learn and also helping us to connect with other people.

SARAH: Well, I know what Minecraft is. And I know a little bit about Red Dead Redemption, but I've never played Red Dead Redemption. So what am I missing?

KAT: Sure, well, I mean, Minecraft is a great example. It's basically like a sandbox, where you could build anything, and you can collect resources. And you could decide, you know, today, I want to build a building, maybe tomorrow, I want to create a fort. But you can do it with these, like, digital building blocks.

And you can share your artifacts and your creations with other people in your server.

You can create narratives, right? You can, you can use the Minecraft game as a backdrop, are almost as a theater where you can have performances, and you can livestream stories.

For example, there was a group of livestreamers, who were telling a story about a fake election, and they had all of these different characters trying to get elected to this fictional world. And playing out all of those stories in a virtual environment.

To me, that is the core of being civically engaged. You know, telling stories, sharing perspectives, building in a world and creating a world, you know, in a virtual space, so that we can better understand how to make a world in our real spaces.

And then even thinking about a game like Red Dead Redemption. So in that series, you might think, Oh, this is like, made by the creators of Grand Theft Auto, and there's a lot of violence in it. And, you know, how is this educational at all?

And I could understand why on the surface, we might think that this game is just another violent game. But on the contrary, this is a game where you are taking on the perspective of a cowboy.

You're reliving a moment in American history, when there was a Frontier. You are entering into the wild, wild west, and you are in that game, you know, it sounds like oh, well, you're a cowboy, you’re doing bad things are evading the law, you know, how is that educational?

Well, you know, also, you're taking care of the horse, and you're taking care of a community of people, and you're making sure that they have what they need to live.

You're also experiencing very different perspectives on what it means to be free.

Does freedom come from, you know, being out in the Frontier and being off the grid and, you know, creating your own community? Or is freedom through upholding the law and following the rules, and being part of a civilized society?

And the game Red Dead Redemption really brings that out, and very imaginative and immersive way, it helped me to become part of a moment in history that I would never have had access to.
And it helped me to understand the tension between you know, being free and independent versus following rules and, you know, following the law, and how that informs American government, and how we think about government today.

So it really was a very powerful and complex game, that to me … You know, is it right for every single audience? No, it's a mature game, but it had also some really mature and complex understandings of what it means to be living in a society.

SARAH: So it kind of gets to your point that on their own, these games can be great. But you also need a teacher, or a parent, or a guide of some sort to help.

Just like any other text, or movie or film or something, you need someone that help you think about these things will guide the conversation.

KAT: Yeah, absolutely. So just like you said, any, just like any activity, or you know, in the classroom, or at home, having a parent or a guardian, or a mentor, who can help get to the player get the most out of their experience, to make connection between the game and the real world, the real issues that are happening.

I mean, for me, you know, this is something I'm studying. So it was really powerful, how, you know, when I was playing Red Dead Redemption, to see how these themes were playing out in terms of like, the idea of the Frontier, and the American spirit, and also like law and order and how those tensions really still exist today.

But that's something that I was thinking about, right? So would every player get that out of it? Probably not. Right? So that's where you have people that you can discuss these issues with, you can connect it to whether it's, you know, if someone's trying to learn more about American government, or topics that were happening in, you know, their every day … if we're talking about, you know … anything, it could be like connections to literature, like, what was the literature like in the Frontier, right?

You know, looking at literature that might connect with Red Dead Redemption, having someone who can guide you to those sources and resources outside of the game, to get you excited about the kinds of things that were happening in the game.

And that's like, any good teacher would could do, you know, that's the kind of thing that an educator does.

SARAH: So if your parents playing any of these games, you could, you could try and look up some books related to the American West and start a conversation.

Or if you're playing Minecraft, you kind of have to have an agenda beforehand and engage with your kid.

KAT: Yeah, I mean, I think that's, you know, that's part of parenting, right? So sometimes, you see what your kids doing, and you engage them in what they are interested in. And then you build conversation topics that that travel from there.

So for example, I might see my daughter playing a game like Miitopia, and then we talk about, you know, why is it called Miitopia, and we talk about Utopia, and we talk about, you know, different ways to create a society.

And, you know, why is it that they let you customize your avatars? And what are the ways you can customize your avatar in that game? And what are the ways you can't customize it?

And, you know, we, so we will have conversations that pick up on the specifics of the game, through the ways that we engage, you know, through the way she's engaging, really.

I mean, a lot of the conversation starts with my daughter. She will show me what she's playing, she'll show me, you know, like, look at my avatar or relate, for example, we were both playing Animal Crossing New Horizons, she wanted to show off her house, right? How did how did she design it? And she created a whole aquarium.

And then, you know, now like, if we're outside and she sees a butterfly, she'll be like: “Oh, that's so and so butterfly,” because she knows because she played, you know, Animal Crossing, and she, she remembers the names of the critters now.

So she's like, connecting, you know, things in the natural world with, you know, what was happening in the game. And, you know, we'll talk about like, oh, you know, she'll ask me: "What’s the biggest fish that exists?” or, or “How deep does the ocean go?”

You know, because now I'm, like, interested because she's been like fishing in the game. So then we'll like talk about where you Where's the deepest part of the ocean? And then how high is the sky? You know, what are the levels of the atmosphere, and then the conversation will just continue to evolve.

And it came really from the game, you know, it started with the game, but now it's like turn into, like, different, you know, distance from here to the moon. So it's, you know, it's starting with the game, but it's evolving in so many directions, depending on the interest of the child.

SARAH: Right. Okay, I know, we have a relatively short time. So, you know, when I was reading this book, I was wondering, how do you how did you get into this field? I mean, how did you land in a space where you have so many ideas about the role games can play in education and teaching ethics and civics?

KAT: I mean, that's part of why I love games so much is that they are so multifaceted, and they touch upon so many different disciplines. Like I get to think about art, and I get to think about science and technology. But then I also get to be creative. And, you know, think about audiences, and how do I engage them. I mean, there's so many different ways that games can connect with our world. And I think what excited me about it, obviously, I love playing games as a as a child.

And I, you know, I grew up with the, you know, Nintendo and Super Nintendo and I even had an Atari 2600. But when I got to grad school, at MIT, that was really the start of interest, and games and learning and using games to teach and to enhance skills and help us practice skills, and also to inspire and to help us transform in different ways. And so I've continued, you know, in that area for now, almost 20 years. And it's just been a very exciting, always changing, always novel area. And I love that.

SARAH: Is playing games, and many of the ideas that you mentioned a common thing in American schools?

KAT: You know, I think it really depends. But I think that teachers are starting to use games more, especially with a pandemic happening and people being socially distant and having to be online.

People are more more accepting of games as a way to learn and as a way to connect, when we can't always have act in person.

SARAH: When do you think it's useful to use something like BrainPOP, the format of BrainPOP versus playing a game?

KAT: Yeah, I mean, that's a great question. So you'll, first of all, BrainPOP does have a lot of games, they have a whole suite of games on there.

And I think they, you know, I think their animations are great. But, you know, I think that one thing that people sometimes misunderstand about games is that they're one of many things, many tools that you could kind of pull from your toolbox.

There's another way of learning, but they're not the best way always and they're not the only way, right?

So I would say having lots of different ways that you can engage with content is great.

You know, sometimes it might be good to have an overview of a topic and have the ability to you know, see a visual and have you know, Moby the robot talk about it, talk through it. And that would be useful in terms of seeing an animation.

And then there's other times when you want people to be able to actually interact with a problem and maybe directly make choices, seek out goals, do different tasks related to meeting a goal, or even, you know, push and pull on different levers of a system.

And through that, perhaps the game might be a better way to learn. And I always say that the best thing to do is to really think deeply about the audience, to think deeply about the goals, and about the context of learning, and then to try to match that to a solution.

So the solution could be an animation, it could be a video, it could be instruction, it could be a field trip, or it could be a game!

SARAH: You know, what's the best way for teachers or anyone who wants to use games to teach to implement it in their lives? What’s the best way for a teacher to learn how to use these tools?

KAT: Well, I mean, I think the first thing is for teachers to understand that it's okay to make mistakes, that doesn't need to be perfect.

And that, you know, just like any game, you know, we always are trying out things, and sometimes we fail. And the best thing to do is to learn from that.

You know, we, with whatever intervention you're designing, whether it be a game or something else, you know, sometimes it doesn't work. You know, sometimes the audience doesn't click with it, you know, sometimes it's just not the right solution, for whatever reason.

And I think that the best thing to do for anybody is to listen to really listen to the students to really listen to yourself, right? And to really understand, you know, what is it that we need to change?

And, you know, does that require training or outside experts, for some people that might, you know, sometimes that helps some people. But I think for the majority of people, I think, just like letting go of the assumption that it has to be perfect, is the first step.

And then just being able to experiment, just being able to see what happens and improvise. And if it doesn't work out, then you learn from it. And then you try it again, and you make changes. And you see how that works.
And I think that you know, to keep iterating and to keep revising and to keep being open and challenging your own assumptions, and being transparent about your assumptions. All of these things are important.

I did make a list of things that for teachers to think about, obviously, there's a lot of logistical things to consider when playing games, you know, do you have the right equipment, you have the right network? needs, you know, do you have a table that you need for the game? Sure, there’s a lot of practical considerations.

But I think the ultimate thing is to try, and not be afraid to fail.

SARAH: Right. Okay. Well, thanks, Kat, thank you very much for your time. I know you have to go. We’re two minutes over. And we've got two copies of your book. So everyone's reading it.

KAT: Thank you so much. I really appreciative of the fact that you're reading my book and engaging with it. And I just it means so much to me. ###

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