Part of being human is the desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. Truth, meaning, and learning all fulfill the role of giving a sense of shared understanding to our minds. Being with others, physically or virtually, can also feel like a disadvantage. Think of the quote: “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone” (Written by Bobcat Goldthwaite and wrongly, though with good intentions, attributed to Robin Williams) (Goldthwaite, online). So belonging can be an ambivalent experience that leaks into a sense of being owned or even coerced by others. There’s no I in team and that doesn’t always feel so good.
Where Do We Belong and What Can AU Do for You?
At the broadest physical level gravity holds us to the planet (where we ostensibly belong), our inner flora and fauna keep our gut’s homeostasis running on time, and culture teaches us a series of checks and balances on our actions and even our thoughts. Independence and free will are often an illusion, as every young driver learns when they attempt to make a quick decision on the freeway. Streams of life are not always things we can paddle against. Likewise, flows of learning are the stuff of existence in that we must absorb and adapt even as we tread water and swim ever onward.
It’s no wonder, then, that education can seem a gateway to a more liberated version of ourselves and our sense of purpose. AU melts away groupthink and teaches us to be ourselves, rather than to be taught in some encounter group of like-minded students as can be the case in traditional educational settings. Yet, a critique of distance learning is that without a classroom we fail to develop a sense of community inherent to our human natures. So, with that in mind, let’s consider a far more hegemonic method of social interaction at a spatial distance: the video game industry.
Games and Learning: Rules of Engagement With Ideas
Much gaming involves players connected by wireless magic as each inhabits the spatial confines of their own reality. Gamers and AU students each achieve success and accomplishment in similar fashions; the walls of reality are invisible yet the rules are very real. Usually this Fly on the Wall looks askance at the gaming world; his only experience with it was during a week of chicken pox and maybe that explains a lot. On the other hand, the great unstructured outdoors has an allure for many rural denizens and, Napoleon Dynamite referentials notwithstanding, university learning from the comfort of an unpaved landscape has always seemed a natural fit. When you don’t identify as a people person, pedagogy is less about perpetual chatter than a silent immersion in solitary learning. Word processors, too, have always seemed best-fitted to typing words. What does not compute is the idea that learning must be removed from fun. But there’s no gravitating away from the reality that, for great swathes of the population, gaming is the most enjoyable leisure activity on their recreational spectrum. Sure, gamers may not feel like writing an essay about what they’ve learned but that doesn’t mean that they’re just playing without absorbing a few lessons. A spoonful of sugar was once said to be key to makin’ the medicine go down.
Say what you cynically might—I do too—about the money-making value of a degree. But economically, well, there was a time when rock bands made sure to release an album in time for the Christmas consumerism blitzkrieg. However, these days a whopping 158 Billion US dollars were spent in 2020 on games of which 91% were virtual. While Nirvana once sang that “with the lights out, it’s less dangerous” clearly electricity itself is as key to gaming as it is to distance education. Once again, our belonging and being owned (as such) by larger cultural forces becomes clear: when the power goes down, as it did in my town twice lately to correct the mistake of an unlicensed driver hitting a key power pole, we all realize just how linked in we are. Even satellites can’t save us; cell phone batteries are no Energizer bunnies, and, to my knowledge, a windup transistor radio remains far superior in terms of portable ability to get a signal.
Technology frames all our lives—be that in a context of work or play or education. And belonging is cultural as well as physical. To illustrate this I asked my brother, who works in game development, to explain the nature of video games as bonding tool for the electronic human race. Here’s an abridged summary of how the interview went:
How does gaming affect the individual in terms of personal growth?
“Community and coordination – Many games, especially MMOs (massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft) require a high degree of real-world coordination. Players take on roles (healer, damage-dealer, crowd-control) and need to execute on their roles precisely to complete the high-level challenges (usually to obtain some sort of reward/loot)…I know people who would consider ‘raid leader’ on a resume to be strongly indicative of strong leadership, both in managing people and personalities through success and failure, and also clear, precise, time-sensitive coordination” (Ben Sullivan, personal communications.)
What are some unique features of games that produce an adept sense of 21st Century life?
“Most of the skills I mentioned are largely about economics, utility, critical thinking and problem-solving. These are highly valued skills in the 21st century, and we generally consider people adept at these skills to be successful. They also de-value other things, like cultural and social traditions. In very broad terms, games emphasize skill…I’m very optimistic that games will continue to dominate popular media throughout the century, being both a reflection of our values, but also a place to practice those values, in both real and synthetic ways. It gives us a space to challenge ourselves, not just in our skills, but in our ability to take on a new role and immerse ourselves in an interactive experience we couldn’t otherwise have. A way to, in a limited way yes, see through others’ eyes and make the hard decisions they have to make, and deal with the consequences of them” (Sullivan, personal communication).
So there we go: team building and problem solving and belonging. Sounds like education to me!