Attention as Currency and the Lessons of Gaming

Growing up, I occasionally got to play on the Atari, when my older brother wasn’t hogging it, or the Vic20 that my parents bought him for $200 when they first came out. Games on the Vic20 consisted mostly of slowly moving lines and dots, but they were fascinating. Lines and dots had never moved like that before. A little later in life, the one and only arcade in town was full of teenage boys and not a place I wanted to be, and I was never taken with the idea of watching boys play video games anyway. The girls I knew just didn’t play them. So my interest in video games, such as it is, came quite late in life and only through finding myself the mother of two sons who create Minecraft worlds with astonishing speed, program complicated games with detailed graphics in Scratch, and pull me – sometimes reluctantly – into everything from hunting Pokemon in our local park to experiencing the artful storytelling of iPad apps like Limbo. Most of what these boys do with screens is creative, social, and definitely educational and so I’ve abandoned most of my old thinking about gaming. Now I’m mostly just excited about what is possible for education when we embrace technology, including video games. Games with guns, however, are still banned in my house.

And so it was with this background that I encountered the notion of the attentional economy in the article by de Castell and Jenson. It is certainly true that teachers have always worked hard to capture the attention of their students and that it is getting more difficult; we often find ourselves competing with technology rather than embracing it. I do think that the tone of the article toward traditional education is overly negative and that they focus too much on the negative motives for trading attention (see de Castell & Jenson, 2006, p. 382). Adults of my generation and older often disparage “kids today” as having no ability to focus, lost as they are to the constant buzz of games and social media. And, yes, to some extent, I am concerned about the impact of filtering through so much constant information on students’ anxiety levels. However, I am intrigued by the alternative viewpoint presented in this article: that we are actually capable of increasing the amount of attention with which we have to work and that it is therefore not a finite resource being fractured into ever smaller pieces. Instead, technology has provided “real prospects for an enlargement of human information-processing capabilities” (de Castell & Jenson, 2006, p. 388). This potential improvement of our brain capacity is an exciting idea and one that makes some intuitive sense. Related to it, is the notion behind Lanham’s work, as well as Havelock’s, about the limitations and reductiveness of written language (de Castell & Jenson, 2006). (Ironically, I am currently struggling to reduce my own thinking on this subject to alphabetic notation, much as the thought of writing as reductionist upsets my inner English teacher). Over the last few days, I have been considering how every medium is reductionist in its own way – photography, for example, leaves out everything beyond the frame. I do find it interesting to think of how the written word still holds primacy in the education system (including at the university level) and I wonder how much this might change in the coming years. These ideas are neatly connected to the work of Lankshear and Knobel who remind us that digitization requires a reframing of epistemology and that we must consider not only the message but how the message is conveyed (de Castell & Jenson, 2006. How bright the future seems when we consider the ideas that we can rethink what it means to be intelligent, that we have a growing capacity for attention, and that digital technologies are opening up entirely new ways of communicating and creating.

And so with all this in mind, what can we learn from the world of video games that seem to so readily capture and hold students’ attention? James Gee’s article “Are Video Games Good for Learning?” lays out a set of lessons taken from gaming and gives us questions to think about in terms of how these lessons can apply to education. One example of this is his question about deep value-laden learning. In a video game, he writes, “the player gains competence through trial, error and feedback, rather than having to wade through a lot of text before being able to engage in activity” (Gee, 2007, p. 5). Not only does such a structure encourage mastery, the practical application of learning, and motivation, but Gee suggests that it also helps students to think about the value systems of different occupations. Thinking about the value systems of soldiers may seem obvious, but those of doctors or therapists or architects is less so, and yet this kind of compare and contrast thinking could be very important to young people trying to work out their own value system.

The third article we read this week was written by Paul Darvasi – a friend I met early last year in another course about technology. Darvasi is a dedicated and enthusiastically creative English teacher, as well as a Ph.D candidate at York, who has written about using Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) in the classroom. Indeed, he has applied this method in his own classroom repeatedly and to great effect. Students are immersed in experiential learning by solving a series of puzzles through an alternate world that is created for them in all kinds of digital and physical forms by their teacher(s). Growing up, when anything was boring, my mother exhorted me to “make a game out of it”. ARGs in the classroom takes that thinking to an extreme and seems to result in a fully engaging experience of deep learning for the kids lucky enough to encounter one of these amazing educators.

Readings for Week 2.

1. de Castell, S. & Jenson, J. (2006). Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning. Educational Theory, 54, 381-97.
2. Gee, J.P. (2007). Are Video Games Good for Learning? In Worlds in Play: International Perspectives on Digital Game Research. New York
3. Darvasi, P.  (2014). How to Transform The Odyssey into an Epic Game in Alternate Reality


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