During my freshman year of college, I played a lot of video games. Of course, I wasn't alone. My roommate and I had a regular stream of guys from our dorm who stopped by to play. It was 1994 and 1995. Without a gaming console in our room, our games of choice were the popular Mac and Windows games of the time: Dune, SimCity, Civilization, X-Com, Doom, and Descent (I'm sure I'm forgetting others). Campus networks were non-existent, so most games were played single player with a small crowd poised behind the player's shoulders. A few games allowed two-player games using a "null modem" connection, which now seems almost archaic as the idea of an acoustic coupler. Look it up.
Over my time in college, I'd spend less and less time playing games. And once I got around to working on my PhD, game time practically dropped to 0. I got to the point that if I spent any time playing a game, I would feel intensely guilty about not using the time to work on my dissertation. That feeling has stuck around. Now when I play games they're generally ones I can play for 5 or 10 minutes and then put down. Anything longer than that and I start to feel antsy.
It was somewhat against my better nature, then, when I downloaded and installed SimCity BuildIt onto my iPad over Christmas break. My brother had been playing it and the thought of SimCity filled me with enough nostalgia that I decided to give it a try. After several days of plugging away at my fledgling city, I found myself spending far more than my usual 5 to 10 minutes per session. My experience mirrored what many said of the game in their reviews—that it shared little of the original SimCity ethos and was too influenced by FarmVille and similar games whose game play involves tapping, waiting, and spending real money to avoid all the tapping and waiting.
Realizing how much time I was spending on the game and how little progress I was making—since I didn't want to spend any real money—I made a decision. I deleted the game. And as I did so, I thought about the parallels between playing BuildIt and the way too many students approach education. Some of these are obvious and I don't want to belabor them, but I do want to put them on the record.
Going through the motions. Education is about learning and SimCity has always been about designing and building a city. But SimCity BuildIt essentially becomes a dance routine for your fingers. Tap—build metal; wait. Tap—build a hammer; wait. Tap—build a chair; wait. Use chair to upgrade a building. Lather, rinse, repeat. In the same way, students are prone to focus on the mechanics of what happens in education instead of on actual learning. What's your attendance policy? What do we have to read for next time? Will this be on the test? How many more points do I need in order to pass this class?
Commodification and consumerization. SimCity Buildit requires you to build a production system for more than five dozen interconnected products that you need to run your city. On top of that you still need to handle infrastructure challenges, including delivering your city enough energy, water, sewage service, police, and fire coverage in order to prevent citizens from rioting. While I have no problem with games that require strategic decision making, in this one the sheer bulk of tiny little actions that need to be completed make it almost impossible to make substantial progress.
The game appears designed to encourage you to spend real money so you can buy that fire station NOW, instead of waiting dozens of turns until you have the sim-currency you need. This effect has hit higher education in a number of ways. Most pernicious is the growing attitude that degrees are products to be purchased and to which students are entitled once the tuition check clears. Lost in this change is the fundamental connection between the work that students must put in to achieve the final goal.
Education: accommodation or transformation? The growth in the popularity of mobile devices has created a clear separation between the "serious gamer" and the "casual gamer." One kind of player hunches over their coffee table for hours on end trying to make it to the next level. The other kind slips in a round or two of Candy Crush on the city bus. Does it matter that gamers are split across these two categories? Probably not. From the point-of-view of business, the rise of casual mobile gaming has created incredible opportunities for game designers to appeal to the growing segment of nontraditional gamers.
A similar division exists in education. In all fairness, it's been there for a long time. Compared to the difference in types of gamers, though, I'm not sure this is quite as benign. I went to college at age 17 and spent four years at a residential liberal arts college. I attended college at a pivotal point in my life, the leading edge of adulthood, before I had any commitments or encumbrances in life. I took courses across a broad spectrum of disciplines. After those four years I emerged not only with a degree but with a nascent worldview and a reflective perspective on my life and world.
This model of post-secondary education is not the only one, of course. "Non-traditional" students have always found themselves in our classrooms, earning degrees years or decades after their age-mates first attended college. Some return to complete degrees they started but never finished; others enroll in college for the first time in the midst of lives well underway. The rise of hybrid and online learning has been a boon to these students, frequently unable to tear themselves away from the other demands in their lives in order to spend whole days on campus. Those who have taught non-traditional students often report them to be among the most motivated and focused students.
Nothing says that the tender late adolescent should be the normative example of a college student. There is, however, a tension between education as a life-encompassing, life-transforming force (as a good residential liberal arts education is often said to be) and an education of convenience designed to fit in the interstitial (or perhaps vestigial) spaces of our lives. A non-traditional student who designs an educational experience that works for where they are is one thing. But a variety of other forces are at work that contribute to the rise of the "casual learner:" a growing trend towards seeing a college degree as a hoop to jump through in order to get a "good" job, as well as continuing discussions about how innovations such as MOOCs can be used to dismantle traditional higher education and create the self-designed degree.
The need to gain knowledge and skills is a fundamental human trait, and sometimes those needs must be answered in the most direct and efficient way possible. I'm becoming concerned, though, that a variety of trends taken together point toward a future where education is generally robbed of its ability to challenge and transform lives—a future where an education that doesn't meet your utilitarian needs can be deleted from existence as easily as SimCity BuldIt can be removed from my iPad.