I have a confession to make. After years of looking askance at people who play games on Facebook and send pleading invites out to give them a watering can or find their lost sheep; last week I rashly clicked a link and started a game of CityVille. CityVille is the latest creation of Zynga, building on their success with games like Farmville. CityVIlle is a sim game, and it immediately reminded me of Theme Hospital, a game I played a lot back in the late 1990s, where you had to design and operate a hospital. The game involves placing houses and business in a field, connecting them with roads, growing crops to supply the business and then investing in community buildings to keep your population happy and increase the amount of people you can have living in your town.
Once you get underway, the game is addictive and you start to set your own goals (get to 1000 in the bank, build a mini housing estate of 3 houses) as well as responding to the goals set by the game itself. The game is powerful for a number of reasons. Firstly it brought home to me the fact that Facebook is evolving into a Gaming platform. Facebook is no longer somewhere where you go to add a random status update, join some group or other, and see photos of your friends out having more fun than you are, it’s also somewhere you go to play games. And Zynga have been very clever in weaving the genetic code of Facebook, namely the desire to add more friends, into the very fabric of the game. For the newby CityVille player soon comes up against barriers, mostly created by a lack of cash which is needed to unlock activities which lead to higher levels of gameplay. Game cash can be bought with real cash (for the desperate), it can be earned by doing online surveys or purchasing from affiliated retailers, or you can invite your friends to fulfil roles in your city. You can also visit your friends’ cities and help them out for mutual rewards. This is a fascinating part of the game as you see art first hand how other people organise their cities. Some of my friends have taken their lead from Soviet style centralised planning with row upon row of regulation housing designed to maximise population density. Others have created ad hoc style townships with factories next to schools and shops and little in the way of a grand plan. My sister who is an expert player, has no farms at all, she obviously buys all of her goods in (you can trade with other players via the train and sea). She has evolved a city very close to a modern city, where an agricultural hinterland is needed to support high population density. With some tweaking, and the input of some supporting material from education experts (call them teachers), you could use CityVille to model the industrial revolution. But one where students could get their hands on the levers of the machine and experience at first hand the push and pull forces driving how cities evolve. Crucially the ability to create, share and co create in teams, would allow students to access the so called zone of proximal development, where someone helps them achieve more than they can do alone. This core theory of Vygotsky demonstrates that some of the best learning happens when learners are engaged in a task, but have another person there to support and challenge them to achieve more. It seems to me that these online gaming platforms are creating rich affordances in this vein and these could be harnessed for educational ends.
Viewed one way CityVille is harmless fun for bored people with computers. Viewed another way it’s a dangerous addiction in a world where information overload threatens our sanity. Viewed another way still, it’s a fantastic learning opportunity, The game is all about strategy and it provides the rich kind of flow and absorption in a task which characterises authentic learning. The Games Based Learning community has long been arguing for the educational benefits of games, and it seems to me that with the right kind of scaffolding and support the game could support learning effectively.
Ultimately these games will keep on getting better and better. The programmers will add more and more parameters, edging the games nearer and nearer to reality, in the same way as calculus was able to perform seemingly impossible mathematical feats by breaking them into ever smaller pieces. And the collaborative aspect of these games, whilst crude at the moment, will also develop. The questions which arise from this are largely ones of policy. How will education systems take advantage of these opportunities? Will it be possible for the competing goals of commercial gain and educational aspiration to be yoked together in a mutually productive way?. And finally when will politicians, who appear stuck in a golden age of learning from yesteryears, wake up and see how schools need to change radically to take account of radical changes in the way we learn.