Q&A with NYSSBA Research Analyst Gayle Simidian, Ed.D.

Gayle Simidian, NYSSBA research analyst and author of the Association’s latest research report, Game On!, recently sat down with NYSSBA Senior Writer Cathy Woodruff to discuss the project. Simidian, who joined the NYSSBA staff in 2011, holds an Ed.D. in human development and psychology from Harvard University. She earned her master’s degree in child development from Tufts University and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wellesley College.

Q: Before you began working on this report, what was the last time you played a video game and what was it?
A: If memory serves, it was the early 1980s – and my educated guess would be that it was Frogger (laughs). At that time, it was the most advanced video game, probably.

Q: Did you enjoy playing video games as a teenager?
A: Yes, they were in the repertoire. Frogger was an interactive game, and it was a social activity with others.  I also remember playing Asteroids and Circus Atari. Back then, those [video games] were considered advanced technology.

Q: So, how did you come to the idea of producing a research report about video games and their connections with learning?
A: I’m always trying to find relevant and timely issues related to learning that can help school board members gain greater understanding and awareness of concepts in education. [Video games are] what, maybe, could be called an emerging trend.
At some point, video games could be under consideration for use in the district curriculum at some level. I think it’s very possible that, within the next year or two, a school board member may have to ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on a decision related to video games, and I think it’s important to understand all the variables and the context surrounding those important decisions.

Q: How did your views about the value or applicability of video games in education evolve as you reviewed the research and spoke with educators who have incorporated games into their lessons?
A: I better understand the use of games in the curriculum as a complement to other pedagogical methods, not necessarily as a learning source, in and of itself.
One researcher in our report uses the term “ecosystem.” There’s an ecosystem of how you teach, who you’re teaching – and some of these games involve multiple players, so, it’s learning within a context.  Also, teachers are incorporating that learning within a curriculum in a way that makes sense – so, you’re not just tacking it on, but incorporating it in a way that really embeds it in what you’re trying to teach.

Q: This was new to you?
A: It wasn’t new in the sense that I have a background in learning theory and an understanding of what engages students, but I think the new part was the concept that, at this point, video games are so advanced and sophisticated that they go beyond the scope of a lot of previous assumptions about what a video game is. It’s not just “child’s play,” as we call it. These are sophisticated games that – maybe it sounds trite, but – really help students learn and engage them in that process.

Q: Would you have been able to say that about Frogger?
A: Ah, well (laughs), Frogger was fun, and I guess it taught you to look both ways before crossing the street, but no, it did not support learning on the level that we see today.

Q: In your report, you cite some academic experts and researchers who, I assume, must have been thinking and working long before video gaming came along. You found that their work was still relevant?
A: Oh, yes. The report cites the work of several learning theorists, cognitive theorists, psychologists. There’s a concept called “Flow” by (Claremont Graduate University Professor Mihaly) Csikszentmihalyi that we talk about in the report. I know that concept well. I know about the Zone of Proximal Development, a concept developed by (early 20th Century Russian psychologist) Lev Vygotsky.  

The Zone of Proximal Development is a concept in cognitive development theory – and, also, “Flow” is general psychological theory.  Those aren’t the only concepts from learning theory and educational psychology that relate to game design, but what we did in the report was highlight a few.

The Zone of Proximal Development is a term applied when you’re learning at a level that you’re challenged by, but not too challenged by, and you’re being ‘scaffolded’ – and I use that term, specifically, because that is a term out of that concept – that you are scaffolded along that learning continuum.

Scaffolding can come from someone who is slightly more skilled than you, but in game design, a lot of the scaffolding comes from feedback from the game, from visuals and tokens, etc., that the game provides. It leads you along the path, where you need to go.
Flow is sort-of analogous to being “in the zone” if you are playing sports. Whatever you are doing, there is more of an emotional connection to what you’re doing. So, it’s an engagement in the process. That can relate to many things, including video games.
Some of the terms and theories we talk about in relation to video games are new, and some of them are old. They all complement each other.

Q: Did you anticipate that these psychological and cognitive theories or ideas would turn out to be relevant to your examination of video games and education?
A: I’d say I had an inkling. I think I enjoyed learning about this topic more because, in some ways, it’s not ‘surface’ in terms of those psychological concepts and cognitive learning concepts. This is about how we think and what engages us as humans, and from that perspective, it is really well-thought-out in game design.

It relates back to how we learn, to how we enjoy what we learn and to what is important in terms of being interested and learning something that has meaning to us. We need to relate it to our own lives, and I think video games conquer that challenge, in a sense.
Sometimes, when we learn abstract concepts, theoretical concepts, it’s very hard to relate those to everyday life, what we’re engaged with, what we’re interested in – maybe it’s Jay Z or Beyonce or sports, I don’t know. The idea is that kids become engaged and they perk up when you facilitate their learning through a medium that they relate to and enjoy. Games capitalize, in a sense, on those types of concepts.

Q: I’m not quite clear on what “something that has meaning” is in this context and how it’s important. Can you talk about that a little more?
A: Well, when you look at what engages a student and what helps a student learn, rather than just, say, presenting an abstract concept on a blackboard, it’s important to connect the experience to something important to the student. That could be going out into the garden and working with the plants. That could be relating it to sports. It’s incorporating what’s meaningful to the student into the curriculum and the learning process. So, in that sense, games, in and of themselves, and also specific themes in games relate to what students are interested in.

Q:  Did you learn things that were surprising to you as you worked on the report?
A:  Instead of “surprising,” I would use the word “intriguing,” I think. These games and game design have become so sophisticated that – even though some of the theories of game design don’t necessarily surprise me – the level to which some of these games are scientific in the way they are designed, I think, is worth noting. And I hope school board members, after they read the report, will walk away with a better understanding of that.

Q: What else in the report do you think – or hope – will be of value to school board members?
A:  There are many things. School board members, I hope, will come away understanding that these aren’t the video games of yesteryear. These are very sophisticated learning tools, in a sense, yet a lot of them are less complicated in terms of incorporating them into curriculum than one might think. It does take a lot of thought and consideration of the topics I have already mentioned, but students today, on some level, are really engaged with these games.

One of the experts we quoted in the report mentioned that the games sometimes teach you things that are not readily taught on paper – negotiation, team building, empathy, etc., it really does depend on the game. It depends on what needs to be taught and how it needs to be taught, but in order to teach something, you have to get the students interested first, and I think games pique their interest.

In the report, we also talk about infrastructure issues, equity issues, building community support, cost, student engagement, student achievement – more-or-less what issues board members will have to consider – and the individuals, other administrators and teachers, they have to speak with if they are really considering adopting the use of video games in the curriculum.

Q: Your report discusses several current video games. Minecraft was one. World of Warcraft was another. Since Frogger might be a little difficult to find on the shelves these days, which of the games you learned about do you think you’d find most fun and interesting to play now?
A:  I think iCivics would be interesting, because I really like to learn tangible things, and I [think] that set of games – actually, it’s not just games, it’s more than that – teaches you about topics like the Bill of Rights and the branches of government. I would probably be drawn to something like iCivics, myself, because it’s a topic that I would enjoy. I think it’s practical.