“It turns out video games are just a Trojan horse for studying interest-driven learning” – Constance Steinkeuhler
Jesse Schell lead the development of an educational game called Lexicawith the goal of developing life-long habits of reading in children. Lexicais set up as an action game, and in order to progress in the video game the players must read classic works of literature. They are not directly learning literature through the game, but are able to enhance the video games characters by having knowledge of the classics gained by reading the actual books in their own time. This tactic is called a metagame, reading is the game outside the game.
What is interesting about Lexicais that Jesse is trying to instill in children a certain mindset and habit, not an explicit lesson. If successful these mindsets and habits will be carried by the child for the rest of his life, creating a positive feedback loop. This short article is my interpretation on the importance of Lexica, and a call for more instructional games to follow suit with similar educationl goals.
Developing a Winner’s Mindset
In an older article I explained the Stanford research by Carol Dweck and Lisa Trei on the effects of mindsets. In short, it explains that we can hold one of two core beliefs about ourselves: Some people believe their intelligence is set at birth and there is not much they can do about this, this is called a fixed mindset. Others believe that intelligence to a large degree depends on how hard we work to improve it, this is called a growth mindset.
These different mindsets create different personalities in people. Cognitive psychologist Ian Robertson mentions Carol Dweck’s research in his book The Winner Effect, and has some interesting interpretations:
- People with a growth mindset are called by Ian mastery oriented. When they are solving a problem they focus on learning (which makes the activity fun). They naturally enjoy challenges, and do not get discouraged by setbacks. When something does not work out at first, they do not see themselves as inadequate but blame their strategy or not having worked hard enough and try again. They do not see themselves as failures but as winners progressing towards a goal through trial and error.
- People with a fixed mindset are called by Ian helpless. When they are solving a problem they focus on looking smart, not learning. They do not have any fun with challenges since working hard does not make them look smart. With any setback they blame themselves and self-perceived personal inadequacies. They become shy and submissive and develop a self-defeating view of themselves.
These different mindsets create different personalities, but they also change the biochemistry and wiring of the brains. People with growth mindset have their brains wired in such a way that learning is enhanced and they store information like a sponge, fixed mindset people on the other hand develop a learning disability. These brain changes have nothing to do with genetics, but arose by picked up beliefs about themselves.
The narrative in Lexicais aimed at developing a growth mindset. In it, an evil empire believes that society is too stupid to even read books. The characters of literature come to life, walk out of the books and invite the students to join them and fight back by reading (and advancing in the action game), since if no one reads the works of literature the characters will die. Reading becomes both a subversive and empowering act. In the narrative reading will make you smarter, which makes you powerful and allows you to defeat the evil empire and save the lives of the literary characters you now empathize with. Bloody brilliant.
Fiction and Strategy
“Of all men now alive you [Odysseus] are the best in plots and storytelling.” Homer, Odyssey
There is a strong historical connection between strategic skills and reading and writing stories. Great leaders from Jeff Bezos to Mao Tse-Tung have claimed that they learn more from fiction than non-fiction. Contemporary military strategist Edward Luttwak explains that you will learn more about strategy by reading the Iliad by Homer than non-fiction works like Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Yale University has develop a course called “Grand Strategies” were they train future diplomates by studying the humanities… The list goes on.
Different fields of study, from politics, military, anthropology, cognitive psychology, knowledge management, etc, have stressed the real-world benefits of being exposed to stories. To a very large degree our brains have evolved to understand complex information through narratives.
I have said it before: Anthropologist define “play” as stories, games and art and their evolutionary purpose is implicit learning. With literature, your brain is subconsciously picking up social complexities. Read the books The Origins of Storiesby Brian Boyd and Grand Strategiesby Charles Hill for some superb insights on this subject.
Professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto Keith Oatley has done an amazing job in researching the cognitive effects fiction has on our brains. In one paperKeith Oatley writers:
“This is why I liken fiction to a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. And it is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
Charles Hill calls literature “pre-diciplinary” while explaining that in literature you come to implicitly understand the connections between economy, war, political, sociology, biology, leaders psychology, medicine, technology, etc. This changes your brain, and allows you to understand real interconnections in the real-world, which is the only way you will be able to develop strategic insights. Becoming a “generalist” has its benefits, and one way for achieving this is through literature. As Machiavelli advised: In order to develop sound judgement you need to experience the real-world and enhance these experiences through reading literature and history.
It is no secret that reading long forms of literature is on decline. The ironic part is that the cognitive benefits of reading these books is more important than ever. The world is more complex and interrelated than any previous period in the past. We need deep and complex thinkers that can navigate this world…
Lexica is an interesting concept. It is not teaching students an explicit lesson they can memorize and fill in a bubble sheet to be scored on, but is attempting to develop a life-long love for learning and a particular way of thinking. If Jesse can create a generation with a growth mindset and a love for reading literature, he will literally be developing a generation of winners.