How Computer Games Help Children Learn – Introduction

Shaffer, D. (2006). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Foreword by James Gee sets up the purpose for the book. The world is full of increasingly complex systems, and standardized education, although noble, fails to teach the problem-solving skills students must acquire to navigate these systems. Shaffer’s solution is to motivate students to role-play authentic professions in games that go “back and forth between the virtual world and real world.” At the same time, standardized content becomes the toolkit students need to win the game.

The Introduction further develops the global competitiveness argument by detailing the standardized (even if technical) jobs that can be done anywhere and focuses on how the U.S. is falling behind in STEM curricula. The solution for Shaffer is the computer, not as a tutor but as a problem-solving tool.

Shaffer next describes his experience teaching at a school which was also a working farm and seeing students willing to work hard at chores because they saw the learning as authentic. He then details the learning and motivation that come from playing games and connects these concepts with video games.

Finally, Shaffer describes his central premise: we need to develop epistemic games, games that enable students to learn what it means to be an expert (professional) in a particular discipline, instead of merely learning the facts about the discipline. The introduction concludes with a brief overview of the book’s six chapters.

The introduction reinforced my desire to read the rest of the book. However, I’m hoping the emphasis on innovation is applicable to all disciplines, not just STEM subjects. Also, the view of computers as only providing simulations ignores the communication potential to connect with real, not simulated experts. At the same time, Shaffer’s vision of an imaginary world “where we can do things that we otherwise couldn’t do at all” is a hallmark of games and the promise of Shaffer’s role-playing authentic learning.

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