Shifting voices: Seeking the pedagogy of wisdom in gaming, MMO’s (massively multiplayer online games) and locative media

What do we really want from gaming as educators? As academics we strive to inculcate knowledge and wisdom into our students. However we soon discover how that wisdom is really gained not by passive transmission but by active and immersive engagement with the material and with fellow peers.

Jane McGonigal’s recent book, Reality is Broken (2011), posits that games make us happy and engaged.  By this reasoning, she asks; why not make our reality more like games?  Her research echoes that of Kurt Squire (2008) and Constance Steinkuehler (2008), who find that games can enhance and complement traditional pedagogical methods.  However, as deWinter et al. (2010) and preliminary findings by Brooks and Keyser (2011) counter, some college student audiences exposed to serious gaming initially resist viewing gaming as a pedagogical tool.  Their stance carries with it concerns about having had former addictions to gaming or knowing others who do, viewing gaming as totally escapist fare, and seeing gaming through media lenses as hyper-violent realms.

Rather than arguing for one side or the other, we propose using Shih-Ying Yang’s “process view of wisdom” (2008, p.62) to think about how keeping these different perspectives on gaming in productive tension can lead to more radically democratic approaches to thinking about the design of serious games and using games in education.  In Yang’s framework, wisdom is defined as a means of integrating and negotiating contradictory belief systems.  Wisdom is then translated into deployable action to bridge the nuances of contradictory points of view and give voice to multiple truths: not either/or, nor dialectical truths, but rather positive, additive truths—“ands” rather than “nots.”  In short, our purpose is to understand how gaming within university pedagogy can offer a means to provide multivocality and yes some measure of wisdom to student expression.

In Reality is Broken, Institute For The Future game director and researcher Jane McGonigal places much weight on being happy and happiness. As professors and researchers, we empathize with that approach but still bristle with some skepticism towards this crude labeling. I and my co-researcher Barbara Keyser keep imagining happy ignorant students leaving the university in a state of bliss having just made an epic win on a game while having missed the opportunity to stretch their minds. How do you define happiness? Perhaps the term needs some stretching to include finding wisdom. In an era where we are redefining the learning experience in post-secondary education, finding wisdom in online and other forms of gaming holds our interest.

We decided to re-adapt a model of wisdom from human development and apply it to the online and offline gaming experiences of serious role playing games whose objective is to increase awareness as well as solve real world problems. In general we are in search of more concrete frameworks to understand the tangible and intangible benefits of gaming as a tool or medium to think with (Papert, 1985) about larger problems and as a mediating artifact to cultivate and express wisdom. How can gaming experiences foster dealing with contradiction and the nuanced grey world better? We wish to develop a cultural critical perspective where acquiring wisdom and happiness through gaming develops with respect to dealing with contradiction and ambiguity as sources for humor, balance, and satisfaction.

This research is based on an ongoing study carried out by me and Barbara Keyser, co-researcher and graduate student at Cal State East Bay, on the serious gaming MMO known as Urgent Evoke. Barbara has kept me immersed in asking that key question just where is the wisdom in gaming? Thanks to Aubrie Adams, graduate student at Sacramento State and Daniel Sutko, doctoral student in North Carolina State University  for their additional review and insight at the National Communication Association-Communication And The Future  division panel on this topic in New Orleans, November 2011.

Brooks, L., & Keyser, B. (2011, research and article in progress). “Shifting Voices.” Blended Realities Gaming Project. California State University East Bay.

deWinter, J., Griffin, D., McAllister, K. S., Moeller, R. M., & Ruggill, J. E. (2010). Computer games across the curriculum: A critical review of an emerging techno-pedagogy.   Currents in Electronic Literacy. Retrieved from

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken. Penguin: NY.

Squire, K.  (2008). Open-ended video games: A model for developing learning for the interactive Age. In K. Salen (Ed.), The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning (pp. 167-198). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Steinkuehler, C. (2008). Massively multiplayer online games as an educational technology: An outline for research. Educational Technology, 48, 10-21.

Yang, S. (2008). A process view of wisdom. Journal of Adult Development, 15, 62–75.