Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thinking Critically: A Link to the Past

Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my de-facto response to the assertion that video games are a waste of time was that gaming improved the player’s hand-eye coordination. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how hand-eye coordination was going to help kids aside from making them better at Nintendo games, which in turn would help them build their hand-eye coordination even more. But generally, the hand-eye thing made naysayers shut up, so I was more than happy to just leave things at that.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I began searching for response that would not only quiet the scowling adults in my life, but something that would satisfy ME as well. With the advent of 3D graphics, CD quality sound and a more informed and critical society, the whole hand-eye coordination ruse was becoming stale. Thanks to new iterations of my old favorites like Final Fantasy and Castlevania, as well as fresh intellectual properties like Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid, I was able to put together cohesive, accurate and compelling pro-gaming arguments that could be backed up by evidence found in the “texts.” English teachers had been drilling into my head for years that this is how one puts together a strong, viable argument, and I finally had something beyond “gaming help players utilize their hands better.”

But most of the benefits I’ve noted over the years have applied almost exclusively to titles from the late ‘90s through the current crop of PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii titles. I still had little with which to defend the Nintendo games of my youth other than the tired hand-eye coordination spiel.

Enter Nintendo Power, the one-time undisputed king of gaming magazines. Nintendo Power had rescued me plenty of times in the past with tips and strategies for games like Blaster Master, Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3, and it was about to give me a final, important tip.

Having succumbed to my latest bout of nostalgia about two weeks ago, I found myself thumbing through the March/April 1989 issue of Nintendo Power, the one with Ninja Gaiden on the cover (the real one, not that Xbox thing). When I was younger, I used to skip the “mailbox” section of the magazine and dive right into the information on the new and future NES games I would soon be conning out of my parents. What kid wouldn’t?

But in my old age, I’ve come to appreciate things like thoughtful discourse and opinions beyond “this game rules” or “this game stinks.” Now one of the first things I do when I pick up an old issue of Nintendo Power is to read the letters. At the very end of the section in this particular issue was a letter from Steve Gibbs, a parent from Benicia, CA.

“I’m a high school English teacher [and] a newspaper columnist,” began the letter (p. 6).

Wait a minute! I’m a certified English teacher and I wrote for newspapers for five years. Mr. Gibbs had earned my attention.

“As an educator, I’m concerned with video saturation,” wrote Gibbs. “I’ve always been mildly approving of video games as long as the cash and time involvement was not too great.

“However, I want my son to develop more than hand-eye coordination.”

Gah! The eight-year-old inside me reeled from the titanic blow. Without hand-eye coordination to hide behind, I was nearly defenseless against my elementary school teachers, my dismissive relatives and the disapproving store clerks who reluctantly sold my parents overpriced Nintendo software! What I had left was the argument about games increasing reading skills, but the only games that didn’t butcher the English language at the time were Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, and only the smart kids played those games anyway.

Emperor Mario was naked.

But lo! Just when things were looking bleak for young Matt, Gibbs pointed out something that has been so inherent in my way of life for so many years that I had failed to even think about it.

“I believe your company offers great potential for being accepted by parents as well as children because several of your game cartridges require so much more than simply quick reflexes,” he said. “I’m referring specifically to The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II – The Adventure of Link. The level of critical thinking and problem-solving required make these games an acceptable challenge for the son of a school teacher, and I whole-heartedly defend [Nintendo] against the critics among my peers.”

Gibbs goes on to suggest that “critical thinking is a hot issue in the educational world” and, therefore, Nintendo should create more “thinking games.”

Eureka! That was it, the argument I should have been using for years! Indeed, many Nintendo games force the player to think logically and critically, and to solve problems in ways beyond using brute force. The Zelda series is a good example, but so are games like Maniac Mansion, The Adventures of Lolo series, Solomon’s Key, Tetris, StarTropics* – the list goes on.

Of course, many "mindless" Nintendo games are about shooting your way though endless waves of alien spaceships or dudes punching out hundreds of ninjas to save the president. But before I get into that, let’s look at Gibbs’ parting statement: “Teachers and parents are stressing children’s deeper involvement in problem solving, strategic planning and inductive and deductive logic. This could be one of Nintendo’s trends for the future.”

Not only was Gibbs an English teacher and a newspaper man, but apparently he was a clairvoyant as well, because he predicted one of the most important trends in gaming history. Almost as if following his suggestion, Nintendo added more and more puzzle-solving and critial thinking aspects to their games as time went on. Other companies caught on too, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find a current generation title that doesn’t involve strategic elements in some form. Those “mindless” games I referred to earlier are almost a thing of the past.

In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003), educational theorist James Gee calls this aspect of gaming “one very important type of active learning” (p. 127). Gee outlines the steps of this kind of learning using the 2001 game Return to Castle Wolfenstein as a base, but his diagnosis can be applied to all video games that require critical thinking strategy, both past and present.

Gee’s observations, paraphrased:
1. The learner realizes the routine strategy will not work and stops using it.
2. The learner transfers skills and strategies from previous experiences by seeing the similarities between those experiences and the current problem.
3. Unlike school, where problems are obviously set up to transfer earlier solutions to later problems, the learner must adapt and transform earlier experiences to new problems “through creativity and innovation” (p. 127).
4. The learner also uses what he or she discovers, sometimes by accident, as soon as possible. This transforms the player’s strategy once again, producing a fluid, ever-changing problem solving approach.

On-the-spot problem solving influenced by old and new experiences: That sounds a lot like what one has to do to master driving, to succeed in his or her career, and to effectively communicate with other human beings. So, according to Gee’s active learning model, while I was searching for new warp zones in Super Mario Bros., finding more efficient ways to climb the girders in Donkey Kong, and discovering my enemies’ weaknesses and immunities to different weapons in Mega Man, I was also refining my critical thinking skills and opening my mind to new ways to solve problems.

Forget hand-eye coordination; critical thinking is where it’s at!

Though he’ll probably never know it, I’m very thankful to Mr. Gibbs for grabbing his pen or typewriter more than 20 years ago and writing into the then-fledgling Nintendo Power magazine with something he thought was important. It WAS important, Mr. Gibbs, because you and James Gee just helped me fill in an intellectual gap that’s been cheesing me off for the past two decades. And now that I’ve shared it with the people reading this, armed with my newfound knowledge, I’m going to look up my fourth grade reading teacher in the phone book (it should be easy because, for some reason, my hands always go where my eyes are looking) and tell her why she was wrong when she said that video games will rot your brain.

*Note: The first StarTropics title contains one of the most diabolical puzzles in gaming history. The game was packaged with a letter to the player from one of the game’s characters, Dr. Jones. Near the end of the game, the player receives a message from Dr. Jones that reads, “Evil aliens from a distant planet... Tell Mike to dip my letter in water...” Most players thought this was referring to an in-game object and spent hours searching for it, but to no avail. However, as you might have guessed, if the player dunked the letter he or she received with the game underwater, the information needed to proceed – written in invisable ink – was revealed.

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