The future of research in games and learning?

John Stuart Mill as seen in ACTION PHILOSOPHERS vol. 3
John Stuart Mill as seen in ACTION PHILOSOPHERS vol. 3

Let me offer my sincere apologies for the unacceptable length of time between posts on this blog. Its two readers have been hounding me mercilessly to update it, but I have been very busy writing my dissertation. I also wanted to have something substantive to say in my blog, and this desire has resulted in months of neglect. As it turns out, my first bonafide blog post will be speculative. Hopefully its two readers will judge it to be substantive as well.

A few weeks ago, while many of the students in the Games+Learning+Society research initiative were out celebrating the birthday of our esteemed colleague Ryan Martinez, two other GLS students, Matt Gaydos and Kevin Harris, asked me what I considered ‘the future’ of games and learning scholarship.

Now, the up-and-coming students in the GLS Initiative are an intimidatingly smart bunch, and I have trouble thinking on my feet after more than a quarter glass of beer, so hopefully readers of this blog will be kind enough to excuse the austerity of my answer. I spluttered that something about new quantitative methodological paradigms that confronted, rather than eschewed, issues of cultural and social situativity. Well, maybe I wasn’t quite so verbose at the time, but I think that was the gist of it.

While new quantitative approaches that address issues of situativity are both badly needed – the MacArthur-funded work on assessment led by Jim Gee and Bob Mislevy is particularly exciting – in retrospect I think that my curt answer to Kevin and Matt’s very large question is fairly incomplete. A more complete answer occurred to me when I had the rare free time to re-read parts of Michael Cole’s seminal 1996 book Cultural Psychology a week later.

Psychology and the problem of ‘the dual science.’

In tracing the historical trajectory of cultural-historical psychology, Cole does the reader the favor of providing an overview of the scholarship of John Stuart Mill and Wilhelm Wundt that was foundational to the development of psychology as a discipline. In his nineteenth-century writings expanding the theory of mental associationism that interested his father, Mill made the case for psychology as a dual science. He held that elementary ‘laws’ of basic mental processes should be the focus of investigation using the experimental method. The emerging science known as psychology in Mill’s estimation should be the use of experimental inquiry and deduction into investigate elementary mental laws.

However, Mill also held that complex mental phenomena for the most part defied experimental investigation. The complex manifestation of mental processes, which Mill called character, defied deduction and experimentation and could only be studied through a more unstructured investigatory method, which Mill termed ethology. Mill thought that the research focus of the emerging social sciences should be aligned along this trajectory of investigation. This paradigm would be of tremendous use, he thought, in the creation of schools and other institutions of higher learning.

Wundt, who is often called the ‘father’ of experimental psychology, drew heavily upon Mill’s distinction between different modes of psychological investigation as he outlined his own views on the topic in the early twentieth century. Like Mill, Wundt understood experimental inquiry to be valid only for the study of elementary laws and immediate experiences in psychology. Higher psychological function, according to Wundt, was in large part a social phenomenon, extending into beyond the individual and into the realms of history and culture.

As such, Wundt argued that the future study of higher psychological function should primarily use descriptive methods from social research. He used the term Völkerpsychologie to describe this research paradigm, which became the focus of much of his scholarship. Unfortunately, this investigatory paradigm was ignored by American scholars like J.B. Watson who were only interested in the study of the mind from a strictly behavioral perspective. Instead, they drew only from Wundt’s experimental research method.

The dual science in games and learning research

As Mill and Wundt did before him, Cole considers the dual nature of psychological investigation to be amongst the most entrenched and important problems confronting the study of the mind. As it is to a large extent a psychological sub-field, I think that the same methodological problems confront the emerging field of games and learning. Work in this very unique field of study has conservatively adopted methods from the social sciences that fall into the very traditional methodological categories of descriptive/sociocultural and quantitative/experimental. If I had the chance to answer Matt and Kevin anew, I would say that the future of innovative study in the games and learning field lies in producing research that gradually encroaches on methodological divide.

Cole, of course, argues in a fairly compelling fashion that the cultural psychology of Vygotsky and Luria points the way toward overcoming the divisive problem of psychological method that Mill and Wundt articulated so long ago. At this point, however, the discussion gets a little beyond my scholarly pay-grade (if it wasn’t already). However, I think that at a basic methodological level the answer provided by Cole points in the right direction.

Historically, experimental/quantitative paradigms in psychology have problematically assumed that the understandings of cognition that are produced in laboratory experiments are universal across social contexts, cultural practices and historical periods. Moreover, it has ignored the way that cognition is shaped through social practice and culturally-rooted activity. Sylvia Scribner (1975) called this a problem of “locating the experiment” relative to ‘indigenous’ practices or naturally-occurring activities. I predict innovative experimental work in future games and learning research will use robust understandings of ‘everyday’ social life to frame the design of game-focused experimental studies.

Similarly, descriptive/sociocultural research often ignores the large role cognitive structures and processes in shaping everyday activities and social/cultural practices (Gee, 1992; Moje, in press). At times sociocultural research mistakenly understands the structures of cognitive meaning-making to be located on the surface of social practice, and self-evident in ethnographic descriptions of activity. I expect innovative future sociocultural studies in games and learning scholarship will increasingly try to better understand game-centered social action and cultural practice in terms of cognitive structures and processes. My cursory take on the budding “digital media and learning” scholarship funded by the MacArthur Foundation is that this issue will be increasingly central to this scholarship in the coming years.

Accordingly, I am betting on these two paradigms emerging in the forefront of pioneering games and learning research. One will look at how to use understandings of learning in the ‘everyday’ social world to structure experimental research. The other will seek to develop ways to better examine cognition from a sociocultural perspective. The wild card, of course, is how applied, design-oriented research will enter into conversation with these two emerging basic research paradigms.

My dissertation research attempts to build bridges between design practice and innovative sociocultural learning scholarship, eventually shaping flexible sociocultural design tools. Hopefully it will contribute meaningfully to the scholarly conversation as games and learning research confronts the problem of the dual science of psychology. I hope to soon see more games and learning research that speaks to the dual science problem as well.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gee, J. (1992). The social mind: language, ideology, and social practice. New York: Bergin & Garvey.

Moje, E. (in press). Developing disciplinary discourses and identities: What’s knowledge got
to do with it? In G. Bonilla & K. Englander (Eds.), Discourses and identities in contexts of educational change. New York: Peter Lang.

Scribner, S. (1976). Situating the experiment in cross-cultural research. In K. Riegel & J. Meacham (Eds.), The developing individual in a changing world (pp. 310-321). Chicago: Aldine.

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