Book Review – David Hutchinson’s Playing to Learn: Vide Games in the Classroom

In his book Playing to Learn: Video Games in the Classroom, David Hutchinson sets off to equip teachers from all levels and of all subjects with “pedagogically sound” ways of integrating video games into their classrooms. Even though at first glance the book seems like a formidable resource for teachers, it falls short in several aspects. The first thing that jumps out like a sore thumb is the organization of the book. A clever way to organize these lessons would have been by course. Having a section for each of the content areas and then sort the activities by grade, or vice versa, would have given the book a more solid organization than sorting the activities alphabetically. Furthermore, the activities often seem to be aimed at students who will deal with video game design or research in the future.

Although some of the activities do have merit and are worth carrying out in classrooms, these are often activities that have been used traditionally in classrooms. Furthermore, some activities seem to force the presence of video games in a manner that’s almost ridiculous, and some activities don’t even have anything to do with video games. In the Alternate History activity, for example, Hutchinson suggests that students could write an alternate version of history focusing on a landmark historical event. He provides the example of the Soviet Union wining the Cold War. This activity is one that has often been carried out in History classrooms, and has nothing whatsoever to do with video games. Hitchinson, however, insists that this is related to video games because the game Freedom Fighters, set in an alternate New York, provides a perfect example for the activity.

 An activity that would be useful in certain classrooms is the Arcade versus Video Games activity, where students compare the experience of playing in arcades as a social activity versus playing video games at home as a social activity. The main drawback of this activity is that many of today’s children have not had the experience of playing socially at an arcade, as the arcade business all but died in America in the early 1990’s. Although there are still some arcades in malls and movie theaters, these are not there for kids to socialize, but as a way to pass time before a movie you have tickets to starts.

Most of his visual arts activities revolve around the notion of analyzing a video game screenshot in one way or another. In some students would make a commentary on how the digital location and the real location are similar or different, and in others students would make an abstract version of the real locations using an artistic style similar to the one used by the video game picture. These activities could be carried out just as well with any abstract painting of a real place.

His “review the video game” activities seem to have a purpose of training students to be game critics, while his “design a certain aspect of the game” activities seem to want to make students into game designers or game developers. Furthermore, most of his activities dealing with geography, such as the “plot a route from point A to point B” activity, could be done in the classroom without any video game influence. Furthermore, other activities, such as “Superhero Design”, in which the student would design their own superhero ‘for use in a game’, or the Fan Fiction activity, are things that students do on a daily basis. Yet the biggest flaws of the book are that the few activities that actually do incorporate video games in the lesson presuppose that students have access to video games and the book’s lack of actual integration of video games into the curriculum.

While the author is to be commended on some activities, such as the suggested analysis of racial representations in video games and the “make a survey about attitudes” activity, these are things that would be more suited to an audience who is looking forward to engage with scholarly analysis of video games for extended periods of time than to school classrooms.

In the end, this book is only one of the first baby steps in part of the discipline of Education towards an incorporation of video games in the curriculum. While the book is well-written, it is ill-organized, and although the book may sway and woo people who are not well versed in education or video games, someone who has achieved literacy in either will find the book at best as a noble effort.

In the introduction Hutchinson states that he aspires to nothing as enormous as having a game console in every student’s desk. While it is certainly an exaggeration to have a gaming console for each student, it would not be exaggerated to say that each school could have a video game lab where teachers could go with the students once a week and actually integrate games into the class. This book deals with the integration of video games in different classrooms; however, only when English teachers discuss elements of literature with Lost Odyssey, history teachers discuss history after a session of Civilization, and math teachers let students compete with each other in Brain Age will we be able to say that video games have truly been integrated into the classroom.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on February 15, 2010, in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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