‘Game-based Learning’ – Attention spans

I recently read the book, “Digital Game-based Learning” by Marc Prensky.  [ Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. In: McGraw Hill. ] Although I have a critical view of some points made by Prensky, I think there are a couple items that are worth a look over the next post or two.

Presnky cites research previously mentioned by Malcom Gladwell in The Tipping Point, regarding attention span in children while watching Seasame Street.  In (a very condensed) summary, the kids were divided into 2 groups–one that had toys to play with and another group that didn’t.  The kids that had toys watched TV 47% of the time, while the other group watched TV 87% of the time.  What’s interesting is that both groups were tested  for their retention of content from the show–and there was no difference between the scores of the group.  In short, this suggests that the kids were able to successfully multitask.

How does this apply to game learners?  The theory is that kids who play games (probably lots of games) develop skills that allow them to multitask, and to successfully divide their attention between tasks. Although this characteristic has its disadvantages (Loss of ability to reflect, according to Prensky, and I think there are limits to how much we can multitask), learning activities that target this type of parallel processing could be valuable.  Although I generally agree with this idea, I disagree with Prensky that this is symptomatic of gameplay.  Rather, the fact that we live in an information age that requires that we adapt to filtering, analyzing, and using large volumes of data (think day-traders for instance) is perhaps more emblematic of why this type of cognitive processing is important.

Regardless of the cause, if multitasking (to a certain degree) is a skill that we possess, then perhaps games can make a difference in how we cultivate this skill to help people learn.  Is it possible that a reasonable amount of multitasking could lead to greater engagement, while challenging the learner to track and analyze information?

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