Letting Go of Expectations: A Man Used to Mario Kart Teaches About Video Games

— Paul Woodburne

Paul Woodburne and his son

Paul Woodburne and his son

I earned my doctorate before universities heavily emphasized accreditation and assessment. I was taught in the old chalk-and-talk style. This style works well for conveying a lot of information quickly and efficiently. I, the expert, lecture. The students, as those seeking to become experts, write it down and learn it. We who are accustomed to teaching in this manner often talk about making sure we “cover the material.” However, those of you who have been through professional development opportunities focused on constructivist teaching have probably heard, “rather than covering the material, it may be better to “uncover” the material.” This is more than a good pun/play on words. The method or approach that seems to work well for uncovering material is a constructivist approach. I try to employ constructivist methodology in classes in which I can employ experiments or activities to get the issues across. This does not work as well for me in more advanced theory-based classes.

As a devotee of the constructivist approach, I have devised many hands-on games/simulations/experiments in classes aimed at non-majors, to focus attention on the various underlying assumptions we make in economic theorizing. Generally I introduce a theoretical topic in a standard lecture. I use the experiments to reinforce and augment the lecture. I find these strategies extremely helpful in these large sections (60 plus students). In every hands-on experiment, I am trying to get students to recognize some fundamental point or implication of an assumption. For example, I want my students to become able to answer questions such as “what does a government do that the free market cannot do?”; “why do we trust (or not) labels on food?”; “why do we trust Consumer Reports?”; or “why do some women spend $445 on a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s?” In order to analyze these assumptions and implications, I have students take on roles, like that of a family or a shopkeeper, etc. Students physically act out the roles and internalize the consumer’s motivation.

In the spring term of 2016, I will face a new challenge: to engage a very small class in my first inquiry seminar, Playing the Game: The Economics of Video Games. In this discussion-based freshman course I will serve as facilitator rather than lecturer. This pedagogical model is supposed to facilitate greater student engagement and sense of belonging to an academic community, greater intellectual curiosity, and a stronger set of learning skills to carry forward in their academic career. The assessed learning skills will include information literacy, and the ability to work collaboratively.

My inquiry seminar will have students engage research from multiple sources to explore the economics of the video game industry, particularly the digital rights management (DRM) systems that video game designers/publishers put in place to maintain ownership and control, and the downloadable content (DLC) and microtransactions. Controlling the digital rights to the content makes it impossible to lend the game to a friend (as you might a book), and makes it impossible for several players to get together in one place to control their characters from one central console. Each player must purchase the expensive game. The rise of DLC encourages (or requires) players to pay real money to continue to play the game, enter new levels, or buy upgrades. The essential questions I ask are how and why consumers play the game, and/or whether those consumers are being played. Are video games “games” in the standard sense, or primarily vehicles for income generation?

35747-Super_Mario_Kart_(USA)-10A main reason that I am writing this short essay is that this new class asks me to teach in a completely new style. Oddly, in a class about games, I am having a very hard time coming up with games/experiments to use in class. I don’t think it legitimate to require students to purchase some common selection of video games (and attendant consoles?). In this inquiry-based class, I see myself as a facilitator and guide, rather than an expert purveyor of information. I expect to have few lectures prepared, and expect to have few experiments to reinforce the content. This class embodies almost everything that I am not good at, or have not learned to do. I have rubrics for how to evaluate group projects (both individual and group contributions), and information literacy. I am less comfortable with the meat and potatoes of the day-to-day class.

I am hoping to start most classes with a video blog or equivalent on a topic of interest. As my elder son acquainted me with these issues and convinced me that the topic would be of interest to freshmen, I have to rely on him (and on the students in the class itself) for these sources. The lack of a traditional textbook is good, in that it requires me to be innovative and use other sources. Yet this also scares me, in that it requires me to be innovative and use other sources. My elder son introduced me to “Extra Credits” and to Jim Sterling’s “Jimquisition” as sources of information and opinion that his generation of gamers pay attention to. There are other magazines such as Wired, written blogs and video blogs that are relevant sources of information. I don’t know these sources and am having to learn about them. A large part of the information literacy component of this class will consist in discovering how and why these are legitimate sources. I will be as much a learner as my students vis-a-vis nontraditional sources of information.

I think I will let the students determine how much weight to give the projects and class discussions. I have never given students ownership over a class. I am coming to the conclusion that I have to “let go and let God” as it were, to let go of my expectations and put my faith in the collective wisdom of myself and the students in the class. In some ways, the students will have more knowledge about some of the issues, and certainly the games themselves, than I do (I quit playing video games with Mario Kart). The class will have to be a collaboration, where I will truly learn as much as they will. And that’s a good thing.

Paul Woodburne is an associate professor of Economics at Clarion University. He challenges his students to think critically and deeply about economic issues. He has written an intermediate money and banking text that he uses in his classes. Five years ago two freshmen in the dorms heard horror stories about how difficult his classes were and got together for mutual support and study. They found they liked each other and now, having graduated and gotten good jobs, are planning to get married.


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One Response to Letting Go of Expectations: A Man Used to Mario Kart Teaches About Video Games

  1. drolivas says:

    Neat article, Paul! I almost want to sign up for your course (of course my wife might not be amused by what happens five years after hearing about your classes –the last two sentences of your bio!). I am sure it will be a fun course!!

    Liked by 1 person

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