Eduvation Blog

What to make of “the Gamer Generation”

Ken Steele’s reflections on the book, Gamers go to College, by Craig Westman and Penny Bouman. (Washington DC: AACRAO, 2006). $70 US.

Gamers

In a nutshell: I bought the book, and I wanted to buy the argument, but after reading it, I just can’t.

Gamers Go to College is written by three administrators at Michigan’s Ferris State University, and published by AACRAO, the world’s leading association of strategic enrolment management professionals. The book promises to explain to universities and colleges the changes in student services, recruitment, and pedagogy required to reach “a remarkably different generation” that “stands at their portals.” The authors insist, “from a simple fiscal point of view, to overlook Gamers and the technical skills they bring is to commit enrollment suicide.” Wow. As a 40-something who grew up on PacMan and Space Invaders, bought a PlayStation this year, and even set up a Second Life avatar, I needed to read this book.

Gamers, we are told, are a generation with “hypertext minds,” with unprecedented “representational competence,” “multi-dimensional visual-spatial skills,” “inductive discovery,” and unique “attentional deployment.” The authors quote liberally from a 2004 book by John Beck and Mitchell Wade, Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever, published by Harvard Business School Press. The idea appears to have an impressive pedigree. I was particularly persuaded by this quote from Danielle Sacks in Fast Company: “Immersion in PCs, video games, e-mail, the Internet, and cell phones for most of their lives has changed their thought patterns and may also have actually changed how their brains develop physiologically.” I’d be prepared to believe this, but sadly the authors offer no evidence to prove the case.

Reading this book, I quite often find myself thinking that the “Gamer Generation” is not all that distinct from what others have called “Digital Natives” or “Millennials.” Gamers are technically savvy, profoundly comfortable with technology, and able to adapt to change rapidly. But then the authors undermine their argument significantly, by claiming that the Gamer Generation is not in fact a generation at all: it is a “trans-generational” group spanning Boomers, Gen X and Millennials who grew up loving video games, and even middle-aged housewives who came to gaming late in life. Though this allows them to claim “90 million” in the Gamer Generation, it reduces Gaming to a lifestyle, not a demographic.

The authors seem to credit the Gamer Generation with the rise of the “Experience Economy” (described admirably by Pine & Gilmore in their 1999 book of that title, from Harvard Business School Press) – from Walt Disney World in the 1950s to more recent theme restaurants like Chuck E. Cheese. Certainly there is an affinity between the shared experience of families playing video games together, and attending theme parks together. But the authors are terribly unpersuasive when they argue that universities should strive to be more like theme parks in order to attract the Gamer Generation and their parents.

Much of the book seems to be an extended apologia for gaming, emphasizing the positive skills gamers learn, such as “creativity, community, self-esteem, problem-solving.” Extensive sections of the book are devoted to quantifying the $9 billion annual sales of videogames in America, and documenting the fact that 92% of US kids aged 2-17 have regular access to gaming platforms like GameBoy, PlayStation, or Xbox at home. It is enlightening to learn that the top 10 video games seem to be sports or Star Wars related, and are most popular with males, while the top 10 computer games (for playing on standalone PCs or over the internet) are much more complex and subtle social role-playing games like “World of Warcraft”, “Age of Empire”, and of course “the Sims,” and have greater appeal for females. While it’s tough not to laugh when the authors claim that “Gamers are inherently more successful at business” because gaming develops interpersonal skills, other points do seem valid and thought-provoking for academic administrators and marketers.

Gamers expect to customize: Used to “modding” games to create their own versions, Gamers expect interactivity in their relationship with your institution, and the opportunity to personalize their degree and their career. “They’ll treat the world as a place for creation, not consumption.”

Gamers want to socialize electronically: Institutions should provide facilities and opportunities for LAN parties, and expect incoming students to be more comfortable interacting electronically than in a face-to-face interview. Ideally, institutions should offer 24/7 online admissions forms, track prospective applicants with CRM databases, offer 24/7 virtual advisors, longer office hours via Instant Messaging, and blogs or chats for international students. The authors assure us that Gamers value teamwork and are very loyal, and are accustomed to sharing experiences with their parents, particularly co-purchasing decisions.

Gamers don’t hesitate to act: They’re trained in making rapid decisions, changing their minds or starting over if they fail. They’re not afraid of trial and error – in fact, that’s how they live their lives. Perhaps to their detriment, “Gamers want to be heroes,” sometimes taking big risks to shoot for the moon. Sometimes their confidence that they can do anything, eventually, is perceived as insubordination.

Gamers like hands-on experience: This observation is interesting, although the authors have not proven their case that “Enrollment at institutions that offer an applied learning approach will grow.” Certainly in most regions of Canada, we’re seeing growing university enrolment at the expense of college and applied programs. We’re also seeing universities introducing more and more applied programming, of course, and some innovative programs like the “humanities course of the future” launched by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt. (http://www.academicagroup.com/node/433 )

Gamers like irreverent humour: The authors observe that many games incorporate wry, sardonic, irrevent humour, and encourage more colleges to follow the models of Franklin & Marshall College, or William Woods College. “An institution that does not take itself seriously is an engaging institution,” they say. How many institutions are populated with faculty or administrators who will accept that, though?

Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster Pennsylvania, appears to be one such institution. Although the main College website is quite traditional (http://www.fandm.edu/ ), F&M also runs a radically different site for potential students called http://www.benjohn.org/. That site features amusing cut-paper animations (à la South Park) of Benjamin Franklin and John Marshall, in which Marshall is often striving ineffectually to rival Franklin’s fame and appeal. In addition to three episodes and a blooper reel, the microsite features viral functions to pass along the site to a friend.

William Woods University, in Fulton Missouri, also has a traditional institutional website, but a fun microsite for student recruitment, http://www.gotduck.com/, featuring a laid-back talking duck, who conducts a campus tour, talks about his business major, and of course, hangs out by the pool.

For Gamers, college admissions is just another game: This may well be the nugget that sold the book to its publisher. “The academic mazes of application, admission, registration, housing, bill payment, etc… are just various trial-and-error learning experiences that the Gamer must endure to win the education game and earn a degree.” Helicopter parents are simply “playing interference.” “Web registration is nothing more than a Massive Multiplayer Online Game… in which the student competes against the entire student body to craft the best possible schedule.” Perhaps this also explains why students are so willing to accept “short-cuts” to scoring on their SAT exams.

Decades ago when I was an undergraduate, I discovered Homo Ludens, a 1938 book by Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. The book, whose title can be loosely translated as “Man the Player,” is one of the cornerstones of classic Game Theory, and offers a powerful perspective on philosophy and cultural anthropology. Ultimately, most human endeavours can be seen as game-playing, wherever you have a playing field, rules, competitors and a goal. The rise of PlayStation and Xbox really haven’t created anything all that new.  As I recall, Huizinga explicitly mentions football, the stock market, entrepreneurship, and of course – academe.

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