Meet Benjamin, ah aspiring Game Designer. If he works hard to accumulate the required skills in the game design industry, his career path will move steadily and predictably from Beta Tester to Hacker and finally to Game Designer. If he is not satisfied with that achievement, Benjamin can keep working and move up to Venture Capitalist, opening his own company, or ultimately to Information Overlord, entirely monopolizing the regional media. No glass ceiling will bar his ascent; no workload increases will tax his resolve; no layoffs will frustrate the steady pace of his advance. Regardless of age, race, class, or gender, with a little hard work and ingenuity, Benjamin can achieve any career he wants.
If this career vector seems too good to be true, it is because it is not true. Benjamin is a simulated character--a sim--inhabiting the virtual space of the popular video game The Sims. McKenzie Wark, author of the book Gamer Theory, created Benjamin as an example of how games are not so much simulations of reality, but ideal models that embody hegemonic ideology (20-22). In this case, Benjamin's easy prosperity reveals how the algorithm governing economic life in The Sims is based on an "American Dream" in which an ideal combination of meritocracy, full employment, equal opportunity, and upward mobility is perceived to be the norm. Wark purposely contrasts his virtual Benjamin, who lives in this free-market ideal of capitalism, to the real Benjamin, a game designer struggling to survive in today's harsh economic landscape. After losing his job at a small game-design firm that went belly-up, the real Benjamin moved to a larger firm--Electronic Arts, owners of The Sims. In an online forum, Benjamin's wife exposed how her husband was required to work twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week without increases in pay or promotion (43-44). The contrast between "simulation" and reality is striking. Whereas the simulated Benjamin steadily rises up the social ladder, the real Benjamin struggles to break even in an economy where hard work is rewarded with longer hours and shrinking wages.
The example of The Sims demonstrates that games, like other cultural artifacts, reify hegemonic assumptions about the world, especially in the deep structure of their rules and mechanics. In this essay, I will argue that this feature allows games to be used either as a technology of social critique or social reproduction. I will show how the emerging field of games-and-learning studies threatens to do the latter by pitching game-based learning as a solution to the crises plaguing the U.S. economy. Scholars in the field make the case that traditional schooling no longer meets the labor needs of a post-industrial capitalist economy, bur game-based learning can. However, if the goal of game-based learning is to train better workers, then games will likely continue the function of social reproduction that scholars have linked to traditional schooling, with the result that the educational system will further amplify social inequalities. I will articulate an alternative gaming praxis that intersects game-based learning with critical pedagogy to promote critical thinking rather than job training. I call this new pedagogical style "critical gaming pedagogy" and will discuss one classroom application using a modified version of the popular board game Monopoly to false consciousness about how class inequality affects social mobility.
Has it ever occurred to you that a game might actually be playing the player? For instance, to attract new recruits the U.S. Army now runs an online first-person shooter called America's Army and operates an arcade-style recruitment center in a major urban mall featuring sophisticated combat simulators in which players tackle global terrorism. (1) While the gamer is immersed in the thrill of play, the game is busy imparting basic military training and the ideology of benevolent imperialism. The successful player thus masters the game, but not before adopting its intrinsic values, attitudes, and beliefs.
Games have an uncanny ability to deliver content by producing high levels of engagement. K-16 educators have capitalized on this feature by using "edutainment" games--games commercially marketed for educational purposes--to teach everything from English to engineering. (2) Recently, however, proponents of game-based learning have criticized the edutainment industry for being little more than graphic-enhanced extensions of ineffective traditional skills-and-drills pedagogies and standardized testing regimes. Their alternative is to imitate the properties of popular video games. Far from being a source of moral corruption as media pundits suggest, (3) proponents of game-based learning argue that popular video games embody valuable learning principles that can revolutionize the way we teach. (4) For instance, the rich interactivity offered by games naturally reroutes learning away from the traditional "banking model" of education that reduces students to passive recipients of institutionalized, rote knowledge, which is itself preparation for docility and servitude in a top-down workforce. Additionally, popular video games are problem-solving adventures that foster engagement, inquiry, and critical thinking. And the low-stakes "failing forward" design of most games allows students to learn from their mistakes and grow. Put simply, games are hard, just like education. But the difference is that popular video games are engaging, whereas education usually is not.
Unfortunately, proponents of game-based learning uncritically propagate what I call a "gaming-to-work" rhetoric to promote their agenda. As the argument goes, traditional schooling and its edutainment equivalent have failed to produce workers who can compete in today's high-tech global economy, but game-based learning can deliver this need. A prime example of gaming-to-work rhetoric can be found in the introduction to David W. Shaffer's How Computer Games Help Children Learn. (5) The book begins by reciting the findings of a 2007 report by the National Academies of Science and Engineering (in conjunction with the Institute of Medicine), which suggests that the steady economic decline in the United States since the 1970s is due to a failure in math and science education that has left the nation unable to compete in the global economy. (6) Shaffer takes the report's conclusion as a mandate to revolutionize a failing education system by switching to digital game-based learning. He argues that traditional schooling is "not preparing children to be innovators at the highest technical levels that will pay off most in a high-tech, global economy" (3), and that games should be used to better "educate children for life in a high-tech, global, digital, postindustrial world" (15).
Other scholars have relied on similar gaming-to-work rhetoric to promote game-based learning. Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire corroborate the claim that technical skills are the solution to current economic woes by documenting five experiments in which games prove their ability to "enhance science and engineering education for K-16 students" ("Harnessing the Power of Games in Education" 5). In "Game Theory," Jenkins compares the current economic crisis to the political crisis of the Cold War, arguing that just like television technologies helped the United States to win the space race by promoting math and science education, so too can videogame-based learning help improve the U.S. economy. (7) Squire argues that game-based learning, as opposed to the "factory model" of standardization, better simulates "how workers are asked to learn in the new economy" ("Changing the Game" 5). Similarly, James Paul Gee, the acknowledged guru of game-based learning, writes, "The theory of learning in good video games fits better with the modern, high-tech, global world today's children and teenagers live in than do the theories (and practices) of learning that they sometimes see in school" (What Video Games Have to Teach Us 5). Marc Prensky, who has published extensively on game-based learning, has taken the next step and manages a "games-to-train" business. (8)
The problem with gaming-to-work rhetoric is that it blames the educational system rather than the political-economic system for the very real economic problems afflicting the United States. This error is corroborated by trendy mainstream sources like Time Magazine whose expose on the future of work forecasts a "more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure work world," and
concludes that high-tech skills will best prepare U.S. workers for tomorrow's top jobs. (9) This may be the case. However, if current employment trends in the United States tell us anything, the future of work for the majority of Americans will consist mainly of low-waged, low-skilled jobs and chronic unemployment rather than high-powered professional careers in emerging industries. (10) In short, the critique of economic crisis implicit in gaming-to-work rhetoric overplays the role of education and technical training while minimizing or ignoring the role of neoliberal economic policies that have outsourced jobs, destroyed local industries, busted unions, raised unemployment, depressed wages, privatized resources, bankrupted state budgets, and generally redistributed wealth from the bottom to the top. The truth is that anti-labor policies, more than educational shortfalls or technological advances, are responsible for the grim future of work.
Furthermore, if the purpose of game-based learning is to produce better workers for the new economy, then it will merely retool education without challenging its embedded mission of social reproduction. Educational scholars have identified a strong historical "correspondence between school structure and job structure" in the United States, and this correspondence has...