Learning with Toys

Physics Toys

Working as a programmer for a physics outreach program, my job often involves doing non-programming things.  Today, I am sitting at the top of the stadium, surrounded by plastic tubes, ball bearings and magnets.  Today is the regional science fair, and we were recruited to bring a bunch of our physics demos to the party.  Our demos range from things we construct out of metal springs and Pringles cans to custom machined containers containing radioactive sources to toys that we buy off the shelves at Toys “R” Us.  Regardless of the materials we use, the goals are the same – to teach kids about physics and to get them excited to learn.

These demos are considerably less structured than the videogames that we spend most of our time working on.  While both are designed to teach physics through play, they take very different approaches.  Unlike our games, which are controlled and goal-oriented, these demos are free-form and open (or to use the scholarly terms, they demonstrate ludus and paidia, respectively).  They’re really more toys than games.

The connection between videogames and learning has been the subject of a lot of attention recently, especially since the publication of  James Paul Gee’s book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, though Gee was certainly not the first educator to appreciate games for their educational potential. Videogames have been used in the classroom since I was a kid playing The Oregon Trail on an old Apple IIe.  Even before that, videogames had been envisioned as tools for military training.  From the very beginning, people have been creating games to teach things in new and exciting ways.

An Anthill in SimAnt

While the game paradigm for learning is well established, some have argued a different approach.  Rob MacDougall, has made the argument for thinking of educational play in terms of toys, not games.  While the idea of creating digital “toys” may sound a bit odd, it’s not without precedent.  SimAnt, one of my favorite games of my youth was often referred to as a “software toy” by its creators.  Indeed, while there were several game modes that could be won, it also had an “experimental mode” where the player simply played around with the virtual ants, building little walls and mazes, dropping chemical trails for the ants to sniff out.  The developers’ attitude toward their “game” was also shown in how they put together the manual.  While the first few sections were about how to play the game, the majority of the book read more like a science textbook, describing various species of ants in real life and how they acted as a colony.  This highly unusual manual became one of the most read pieces of literature on my entire bookshelf.

The term “software toy” never really caught on, but the roughly synonymous term “sandbox game” is used quite often these days.  Though most games still fall on the structured ludus side of the spectrum, people are constantly surprised when the occasional paidia-style sandbox game appears and takes the world by storm.  Toys can be just as engaging as games, and often more so.  I’ve certainly spent more time playing Minecraft over the last few months than I have playing Assassin’s Creed, despite the latter offering me all kinds of rewards and achievements for doing rather menial tasks.  I have needed no such motivation in order to spend hours digging through rock, planting seeds and searching for exotic plants in Minecraft.

Why is a game with no story, no plot and no objectives so much more engaging than one with a carefully scripted story, high-definition graphics and carefully animated cutscenes?  If you’ve ever watched kids playing with Legos or dolls or action figure playsets, then you know that paidia is all about story.  But in this case, the story is supplied primarily by the players, rather than the developers.

Should all games be more like Minecraft?  Of course not.  There’s just as much room out there for ludus as there is for paidia.  We just need to remember that both of them can be fun.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to leave the stadium and go out into the snow storm that abruptly started as soon as I got here (ah, a lovely spring day in Utah).

A beautiful spring day in Utah

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