I don’t mean to brag, but I just beat “Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”
This summer I sat down with my 9-year-old daughter and together we played the most popular Nintendo Switch game for hours, days, weeks.
And at the end of all that time, I came away victorious – something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do when I started.
There are so many buttons to learn, two joy sticks, various info screens and menus.
But when it was all over, I had cleared all four divine beasts. I got all 18 captured memories. I completed about 80 shrines. I mastered about 45 side quests. I shredded guardians, lynols and bokoblins. And, yes, I opened a major can of whoop ass on Calamity Gannon.
As the kids say, I’m jelly.
My video game skills are lit.
You can’t handle me, bro.
And so on.
But I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man.
Didn’t I have anything better to do?
Couldn’t I have found a more productive use for all that time?
Maybe. Maybe not. However, beyond the sheer fun, I did learn something from the whole experience.
As a public school teacher, I learned about my students by following in their footsteps.
That’s really why I started playing in the first place – my middle school kids this year loved that game.
I got more Zelda doodles, more Hyrule poetry, more Link fan fiction than you might at first believe.
The world of the game was really important to my children and having even a passing knowledge of that world helped me relate to them.
I even asked for a few tips after class.
One of my best students took her Switch out of her backpack and showed me a prime location to pick hot peppers so I could withstand the cold of Mount Hyrule (Don’t ask).
It was worth doing just for that – I showed my willingness to be the student and for them to be the teachers. I showed them we were all a community of learners.
At least, that’s my hope.
But now that the dog days of summer are here and my video game victory is complete, I keep thinking of the implications of my experience in Hyrule on the world of education.
Specifically, I’m thinking about education technology or Ed Tech.
I’m thinking about how we use various software packages to try to teach students and how they invariably fail at the task.
Well-meaning administrators hear about this program or that classroom management system or an assessment app and they spend beaucoup bucks on it.
We’re instructed to give up valuable instruction time so our kids can sit in front of a computer while a digital avatar attempts to do our job.
Kids listen to a cartoon person instruct them in the rudiments of grammar or literacy, play loose skills exercises and earn digital badges.
It may sound like fun to us, but they hate it.
The reason: nine times out of ten it’s little more than a standardized test given on a computer.
Sure, there are lots of bells and whistles, but the kids catch on mighty quickly. There is no student as bored as a student forced to play an educational video game.
I have real concerns with issues of student privacy and how the data being collected by these apps is used. I have real problems with how this technology facilitates dumbing down the curriculum – narrowing it to only that which can be measured on a multiple choice assessment. I take umbrage that these programs are used by some as “evidence” that human educators and brick and mortar schools are unnecessary. And I shed real tears at the massive amounts of funding being funneled to corporations that could be better spent in our own districts.
But playing this game has given me hope.
In seeing how “Zelda” succeeds with kids – because it succeeded with me – I think we can illuminate some ways ed tech goes awry.
I found five distinct lessons from the game, five areas where “Zelda” succeeds where ed tech fails.
Perhaps these could be used to improve the quality of ed tech devices to make them better at teaching students.
Or they could show why ed tech will never be as effective at teaching as flesh and blood instructors.
In any case, here is what I learned.
1) Focus on Fun
One of the biggest differences between ed tech and “Zelda” was the focus.
The games we make children play at school are designed to teach them something. That is their purpose. It is their raison d’être. The point behind the entire activity is to instruct, test and reward.
By contrast, the purpose of “Zelda” is fun.
Don’t get me wrong. “Zelda” can be very educational.
There are points where the game is actively trying to teach you how to do things usually associated with game play.
You have to learn how to make your character (Link) do what you want him to do. You have to learn how to manipulate him through the world. How to run, how to climb, how to heal, how to use weapons, how to cook and make elixirs, etc.
However, the point behind the entire game is not instructional. It’s fun – pure and simple.
If you have to learn something, it is all in service to that larger goal.
In the world of the game, learning is explicitly extrinsic. It helps you have more fun playing. Only the pursuit of winning is intrinsic or even conceptualized as being so.
In real life, this may not be the right approach to education, but it seems to be a rule of virtual experience. If it is superseded, the game becomes just another class assignment – lifeless, dead, boring.
If educational software is going to be effective in the classroom, it must find a way to bridge this divide. It must either put fun before pedagogy or trick the user into thinking it has done so.
I’m not sure this is possible or desirable. But there it is.
2) Logic and Problem Solving Work but not Curriculum
There are many aspects of “Zelda” one could consider educational.
However, when it comes to things that have importance outside of the game, the biggest would be problem solving and logic games.
A great deal of game play can be characterized under this umbrella.
The ostensible mission is to defeat the bad guy, Calamity Gannon. However, to do so you often have to solve various puzzles in order to have the strength and skills to take him down.
The most obvious of these puzzles are shrines. There are 120 special areas throughout Hyrule that Link needs to find and solve.
Each one involves a special skill and asks the gamer to decipher problems using that skill. For example, one asks you to manipulate fans so that the air flow makes windmills turn in a pattern. Another asks you to get a ball through an obstacle course.
In each case, the emphasis is on logic and critical thinking.
That has tremendous educational value. And it’s something I’ve seen done easily and well in many educational video games.
The problem is it doesn’t teach any particular curriculum. It doesn’t teach math, science, English or social studies – though it does help contribute to all of these pursuits.
Ed tech games are not nearly so coy. They often try to go right for the curriculum with disastrous results. Ed tech software, for instance, will have you find the grammatical error in a sentence or solve an equation in order to move on in the game.
That just doesn’t work. It feels false, extraneous and forced. It’s doesn’t seem like an organic part of the experience. It’s something contrived onto it from outside and reminds the gamer exactly why you’re playing – to learn.
3) Option to Seek Help
One of the most surprising things to me about playing “Zelda” on the Switch was how much of an on-line gaming community has formed around the whole experience.
If you get stuck in a particular area, you can find numerous sites on-line that will help you get passed it. You can even find gamer videos where YouTubers will show you exactly how they solved this or that problem. And they don’t all have the same solution. Some provide elegant, well-detailed advice, and others seem to stumble on it and offer you their videos as proof they could actually get the job done somehow.
It’s a lot different from when I was a kid playing video games. Back then (30 years ago) you had your friends but there were few other places to go for help. There were fan magazines and a few video game companies had tip hotlines. But other than that, you were on your own.
One of my favorite YouTubers this summer was Hyrule Dude. His videos were clear, informative and helpful. However, I didn’t always agree with his solutions. But they invariably helped me find things that would work for me.
It reminded me a bit of Khan Academy and other learning sites.
If kids really want to grasp something today, they have so many places they can go on-line. As educators, it’s hard to incorporate them into a classroom environment because there are certain things we want kids to find out for themselves.
For instance, as a language arts teacher, I want my students to do the assigned readings on their own. Yet I know some of them try to skip to the on-line summaries they can find and use that instead of reading the text. I have no problem if they access good summaries and analysis but I don’t want them to take the place of trying to comprehend the text on their own first.
I think there are ways to use this larger social media community to help support learning without spoiling the hard work kids need to put in on their own. But it’s something we need to think about more and find better ways to incorporate.
4) Open Ended
One of the most striking things about this new “Zelda” is how much choice the gamer has. In most games you have to complete the first board and then the second and so on until you win.
On the Switch, the world you’re thrust into is incredibly open ended. You can do pretty much what you want, when you want. Or at least you can try.
At first, your character is limited to one area of the world – a plateau. But once you complete a certain number of the challenges there, you get the paraglider which allows you to access most of the rest of the world.
It’s a huge area to explore – impossible to travel the entire length of it without spending hours of game play. And it’s entirely up to you where to go and what to do next.
The central mission of the game is to defeat Calamity Gannon in Hyrule Castle. However, that would be incredibly difficult early on. You’re advised to get the four Divine Beasts first. And you can do them in any order you want.
Moreover, I mentioned shrines earlier. When you complete four shrines, you can either increase your hearts (the amount you can be hurt without dying) or your stamina (how long your character can do something hard like climbing or swimming without having to rest). Technically, you don’t have to complete more than a few shrines, but doing so makes your character stronger and better able to get the Divine Beasts and defeat Gannon.
There are also side-quests (totally optional) that reward your character with money, items, etc.
I think this is the secret to the game’s success. It’s why game play is so immersive and addictive.
Ed tech software is exactly the opposite. You must do section A before section B before section C. It’s little more than a multiple choice test with only limited possible answers of which only one is correct.
In “Zelda” there are often multiple ways to achieve the same end. For instance, I would assume the programmers wanted me to fight my way through every room of Hyrule Castle to get to Calamity Gannon. However, I simply climbed over the walls and swan through the moats – a much quicker and efficient method.
If we could recreate this freedom of movement and multifarious solutions within educational software, we might really be onto something. But, frankly, it’s something that even traditional video games have difficulty being able to recreate.
5) Choice to Play or Not
And speaking of choice, there is the choice whether to play or not.
Video games are one of the things kids choose for leisure. When we force kids to play them in school, that choice is gone.
They become a task, a trial, an assignment.
Moreover, not every child enjoys video games.
We can’t mandate kids learn from games – even the best of ed tech games. At best, they should be an option. They could be one tool in the toolbox.
In summary, I think the goal of the ed tech industry is deeply flawed.
Ed tech will never adequately replace brick-and-mortar schools and flesh and blood teachers.
At best, it could provide a tool to help kids learn.
To do so, games would have to primarily be focused on fun – not learning. They would have to be organized around critical thinking and logic – not curriculum. They would need to utilize the on-line community for help but not cheating. They would need to be open ended worlds and not simply repackaged standardized testing. And finally, students would need the choice whether to play them or not.
Unfortunately, I am skeptical that the ed tech industry would even attempt to incorporate these ideas in its products.
They are market driven and not student driven. The corporate creatures behind these products don’t care how well they work. They only want to increase profitability and boost market share.
Cheaper commodities are better – especially when the consumer isn’t the student forced to play the game but the politician or administrator in charge of school policy.
Ed tech’s potential as a positive tool in a school’s toolbox has been smothered by the needs of business and industry. Until we recognize the harm corporations do in the school, we will be doomed to dehumanizing students, devaluing teachers and wasting our limited resources on already wealthy big business.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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