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Why Study Rome When You Can Build It?

John Seely Brown, the media innovator who helped make XeroxPARC such a center for creative thinking in the 1990s, has interesting things to say about games, narrative, and education in an interview conducted at the Smithsonian Institute and recently posted…
April 23, 2004

John Seely Brown, the media innovator who helped make XeroxPARC such a center for creative thinking in the 1990s, has interesting things to say about games, narrative, and education in an interview conducted at the Smithsonian Institute and recently posted on his site. Brown has become involved in the new Institute for Media Literacy at the University of Southern California. Here are some highlights of his remarks:

“Lets take a look at online games, such as Lineage, which are a much larger phenomenon than most people are aware. This particular game holds the record for having the most people online at once, probably hundreds of thousands. It is immensely popular in Korea. Or, in this country, consider Sims Online or EverQuest. If you take into account not only the game itself but also all of the peripheral activities (activities happening around the edge of the game such as the support sites, the chat rooms, and so on) you find a rich social ecology constantly unfolding. But just focus on the game itself which involves all the players building and evolving a complex world, and you see a new kind of nonlinear, multi-authored narrative being constructed.”

“Yesterday I heard an amazing comment from a 16 year old named Colin. Colin said: ‘I don’t want to study Rome in high school. Hell, I build Rome every day in my online game.(Caesar III ).’ And in so doing he is continually building a new narrative space that goes on evolving. Of course, we could dismiss this narrative construction as not really being a meaningful learning experience but a bit later he and his dad were engaged in a discussion about the meaningfulness of class distinctions lower, middle, etc and his dad stopped and asks him what class actually means to him. Colin responds:’Well, its how close you are to the Senate.’ Where did you learn that, Colin? He said, ‘The closer you are physically to the Senate building, to the plazas, gardens, Triumphal Arch raises desirability of the land, and makes you upper class and produces plebians. Its based on simple rules of location to physical objects in the games (Caesar III).’ Then, he added, ‘I know that in the real world the answer is more likely how close you are to the senators, themselves that defines class. But its kinda the same.’”

“In the past, I had tended to think of narratives as being basically linear and but they arent necessarily. As Steve Denning has pointed out part of the power of a narrative is its rhetorical structure that brings listeners into an active participation with the narrative, either explicitly or by getting them to pose certain questions to themselves.”

“In fact, stories have always been a kind of dialectic or conversation between the storyteller and the listeners. Thus the meaning of the literary classics and the related narrative space has steadily evolved over time. So the evolution of the narrative space per se isn’t new. But what is new in the online games is the scale and pace of the change. First, there are many more people actively involved in shaping the story as many as tens of thousands at a time, rather than just a handful with the literary canon. Second, the technology enables the participation to be radically more active than before, not simply the odd comment that might or might not be listened to. Third, the participants are geographically scattered all over the globe, rather than concentrated in one place or country. Fourth, the changes are happening at an incredible pace, that is, in minutes and hours, not in decades or even centuries. The dimensions are so different that the evolution of the narrative space really becomes something new.”

Brown’s renewed interests in the educational potential of games is simply one of the more recent signs that the discussion of “serious games” is starting to take hold not only among gamers but among a broader range of movers and shakers who think deeply about new media and educational reform.

In many ways, he echoes points already raised by University of Wisconsin-Madison Education professor James Gee, whose recent book, What Games Can Teach Us About Literacy and Learning, argues that all games are educational in so far as they teach players what they need to know to play them without the use of instructional manuals. Gee argues that educators need to learn more about the sequencing of tasks in game design if they want to develop curricular models which will work for the next generation of learners.

Advocates of “serious games” push further calling for a fuller exploration of what games can do other than entertain us. At the Game Developer’s Conference this spring, several hundred people attended a two day session focused on games for education, activism, corporate and military training, therapy, journalism, and policy simulation.

The Education Arcade will be hosting another two day session at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the major trade show of the games industry, designed to focus interest on the educational potentials of computer and video games. We certainly welcome Brown as an ally in our struggle to get the public to think more seriously about the kinds of learning that takes place in the game realm.

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