Experiential Learning: Consumer Generated Media (CGM) in Education, Learning, and Training
by Dave Endresak
“Everyone makes choices, but in the end, our choices make us”
— Andrew Ryan, Bioshock trailer, 2007
“Gaming is expecting our kids to master more knowledge than our schools are demanding of our kids to grow as citizens and workers”
— Dr. Henry Jenkins, GameInformer magazine interview, September 2007
From the time they are born, human beings develop based on what they do, the experiences they have, and how these experiences cause their worldviews to evolve. If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps an experience is worth a million or more. After all, an experience includes not only visual elements but also aural, taste, touch, and smell. Human babies learn by interacting with the world around them, including their family members, other people around them, and other elements of their environment. They become curious about something, try out some type of activity in order to answer their curiosity, and learn as a result. They make choices, learn from the results of those choices, and grow into individuals as they repeat this process, just as the quote by the fictional character Andrew Ryan from the 2007 game Bioshock notes in the first quote at the beginning of this article.
After several years of this life, children enter school for formal education, and suddenly face a very different world. In the traditional school environment, children are taught by an adult who is often deferred to as the ultimate authority on any and every subject, standing in front of a classroom of (initially) eager minds, the ‘sage on the stage’ of education and learning. Students are assessed by completing standardized tests of their knowledge after taking a complete course or a particular unit of a course. They are taught to memorize knowledge in order to pass such tests rather than learning how to critically analyze and think about possible solutions to problems. Aside from occasional ‘Show & Tell’ periods, they are seldom able to display their own interests. Their former sense of empowerment through following their own concerns and topics of curiosity is replaced by deference to authority and power. Their active seeking of knowledge is replaced by the need to become a passive receptacle for facts and figures that they can recite upon demand.
The process that I have just described is a general overview of the traditional teacher-centered education model. It is based on the same structures that define mass production, including mass media. MIT professor Shigeru Miyagawa explains that there are three characteristic differences between mass media and his term for CGM that he dubs personal media:
- point of view (pov)
Point of view (POV) refers to how the media content is presented and whose viewpoint it is presented from. Traditional mass media is presented by whoever is telling the story, but in CGM, the POV is created by the user/audience member rather than by a film director, game designer, author, or other creator. Appropriationrefers to the seeking out and acquiring of any type of content or materials that someone might need in order to create whatever they wish. Mass media content is legally protected to prevent such activity, but CGM requires such participation and sharing. Storytelling refers to the concept that people like to tell their own stories rather than passively experiencing someone else’s. Blogs or consumer reviews of products and services are examples of CGM storytelling, but mass media storytelling is always done from a top-down, hierarchical, authoritative approach. In CGM storytelling, the audience is an active participant, but in traditional mass media, the audience members are passive receptors. The parallels between these three characteristics of mass media and the traditional teacher-centered education model are fairly clear.
Given these three concepts about CGM, what types of media are we really discussing? CGM encompasses many different types of media and has many different terms associated with it. As I said previously, blogs and public consumer reviews of products and services would be two examples. Other examples include companies such as YouTube where almost all of the content is created by users, not by company employees, as well as fanzines (‘fan magazines’), user-created game modifications (i.e., mods), fan fiction of various kinds, songs created by consumers using software tools (i.e., DTM or DeskTop Music/Media), consumers doing their own covers of songs, consumers creating their own dance videos, etc. The actual creative effort is not the only area of CGM, though. People posting comments and evaluations (e.g., likes/dislikes) about content created by others is also part of the CGM environment. Compared to traditional methods which focus on passive reception of content, CGM is participatory and active. It engages audiences and encourages innovation in a chain of co-creation.
Electronic games have been one of the most prolific areas for CGM activity. This might be because electronic games feature multiple media formats: written dialogue, music, visual art, and animation. Some games encourage other types of content directly related to the game such as race tracks for racing games or maps for first person shooter competitive games. People can create content to be used directly in the game or they can create content that is inspired by the game’s characters, settings, and events.
Any game system has rules. In many cases, the rules are quite complex with many different systems and overlapping rules forming the context of the game world. In his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, cyberspace and technology writer Steven Johnson explains the process by which game players learn the rules of their game worlds:
- The player must probe the game world and reflect on the observed results.
- S/he must propose a hypothesis about what rules might exist for causing such results of certain actions performed while probing.
- S/he probes again while keeping the new hypothesis in mind and observes the results.
- S/he accepts or rejects the hypothesis of how the rules of the game world work based on how well the new results fit the hypothesis, repeating the overall process from step 1 through 4 if the hypothesis was rejected due to a poor fit for the observed results.
In other words, game players constantly perform scientific experiments on their game world environments in order to learn the rules of the game world and all of its content, including other characters. They do this by practical application of the traditional scientific method, and they learn this method without even thinking about it because they are required to do so in order to attempt to play the game. Scholars such as Henry Jenkins have made similar observations, as the quote from Jenkins at the beginning of this article shows.
Jenkins has suggested that technological literacy, particularly media literacy, requires participation and interaction. For example, when we learn to ride a bicycle, do we read about it in order to understand it or do we attempt to do it, often failing repeatedly until we learn how to do it? It’s safe to say that the latter approach is most often the case, and most people would probably agree that it is the most effective. Electronic games and simulations offer the same type of experiential learning approach but in safer environments. Visual and aural feedback for electronic environments have been common for many years, but today’s technology allows more detail than ever before and adds the sense of touch through touch screens or tactile feedback via haptic simulations. The senses of smell and taste may be available in the future. Perhaps most importantly, electronic games include multiple forms of media, so media literacy via such environments covers several areas simultaneously rather than focusing only on one.
Opponents of digital environments may point out that traditional books require readers to exercise their imagination. However, this type of exercise also occurs in the rich environments of electronic games. We see this through fan fiction, background stories created for player characters in role playing games, and other avenues such as discussions of the game world that occur between the players of a particular game. The latter form of discussion is called the metagame and refers to both the actual game content as well as the various contexts, strategy discussions, issues, and other elements that occur outside of the electronic environment (i.e., adding to game play without actually modifying game mechanics or content). If CGM is supported via game mods, the result is often beyond the original development company’s imagination. This has occurred for very successful franchises such as The Elder Scrolls from Bethesda Softworks and Sid Meier’s Civilization from Firaxis.
Johnson suggests that critics of electronic games simply suffer from their own subjective perspectives and preferences, and that an analogous criticism of books and libraries may have occurred if electronic gaming had been developed first. He offers criticisms such as books and libraries being largely solitary pursuits rather than the frequently social activities of games, lack of interaction due to reading printed text rather than interacting directly via virtual environments and characters, and a lack of stimulation for the senses due to the simple text on white paper versus the rich, colorful, visual, and aural feedback available in electronic environments. It’s reasonable to consider this type of viewpoint reversal in order to consider any possible bias that may be involved when criticism is offered for a particular topic, so he may have a valid point with his examples.
The pedagogical value of electronic games and simulations has been recognized by many individuals and organization, including support in announcements by President Obama. The U.S. Department of Education recently announced that award winners for grants from its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) competition included more games and game-related projects than ever before. There are numerous academic studies that document the value of using electronic games as pedagogical tools. However, there are also disagreements about how to interpret the results of various studies or possible bias within methodologies or other elements of specific research efforts.
This article introduced its subject by focusing on the transition of children from home life to school life. However, it’s important to realize that the key elements of CGM and digital gaming such as participation, engagement, interaction, and empowerment are important for products and services intended for adults as well as those that are targeted for children. Learning is a lifelong process, after all, and so are the elements that encourage it.
In a world that is fairly stable and unchanging over a human lifespan, the traditional model might function sufficiently well that few people would question it. However, since the late twentieth century, we no longer live in such a world. On the contrary, the world of the past few decades has typically been described with terms such as ‘constantly changing’, ‘rapidly evolving’, ‘unstable’, ‘uncertain’, and many similar descriptors. The status quo of today will be outdated tomorrow. In such a world, it is essential that people hone their creative and innovative abilities, but this can not happen in the traditional education setting. As Miyagawa points out, people can appropriate physical items in order to engage in active and experiential learning, but today’s digital technologies allow us to do this far faster and easier via electronic tools and virtual items, as well as exchanging and sharing what we create or think of someone else’s creation with others. The learning process is a chain of co-creativity and co-innovation that everyone needs to be part of in equal measure.
Please refer to the sources below for additional information about the ideas discussed in this article.
DeLoura, M., & Metz, E. (2013, May 10). Games win big in education grants competition. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/05/10/games-win-big-education-g…
Jenkins, H. (2007, September 4). If You Found This Blog Through Game Informer…. Confessions of an Aca-Fan. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2007/09/if_you_found_this_blog_through.html
MIT. (2008, February 14). Lec 1 | MIT CMS.930 Media, education and the marketplace. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7bkHu27P5o
MIT. (2008, February 14). Lec 6 | MIT CMS.930 Media, education and the marketplace. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDKIsplqGmY
Weigel, M. (2013, May 20). Outcomes of game-based learning: Research roundup. Journalist’s Resource. Retrieved from http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/education/outcomes-o…
About the author
Dave Endresak is currently a doctoral fellow at Eastern Michigan University pursuing his Ph.D. in Technology with a concentration in technology studies. His teaching and research interests include human-computer interaction and feminine motifs in electronic media, particularly Japanese games and animation. Dave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org