Using a TV as a Hammer: From Entertainment to Usability

I am pursuing research in the direction of testing the pedagogical usability of popular off-the-shelf video games (that are not intended to be educational). Pedagogical usability is basically the affordances of a tool for use in learning (or as a learning environment). One question arises from this research in my mind, and I have not fully wrapped my mind around it: what business do we have assessing the use of entertainment-centered video games for their educational utility? Is this like measuring the aesthetic features of PhD candidates?

And when we use tools like blogs (intended for journaling self-reflective thoughts in a public fashion online) for educational purposes, are we misusing the tool? When we use a tool like a television to hammer in a nail, are we abusing the tool? Similarly, in my research I will need to address this important problem. Am I suggesting through my research that we should take every fun and interesting thing in the world and use it for our own purposes, against the intents of the creators of those tools? Ought we to misuse and/or purposefully thwart the true intent of a tool if we perceive our own purposes for the tool as more important to society?

Popular video games are generally not created to be educational, or to be used in education. We may learn new media skills using them, but that is typically not their purpose. What right do have to judge them for something they don’t even intend? Or to use them against their intended purposes?

Here might be one way out of this dilemma: if we view this problem from a holistic standpoint, we might be able to understand the several major elements at play in this problem, and to create a model for synthetic artifactuality to apply to these kinds of situations. First, we have creators/designers of tools, users of tools, and the tools themselves. Second, we have interactions: users interact with tools in ways that the original designer intended. But they also use them in new and unique ways not intended, sometimes with better results than what was intended with the original design. When this beneficial use occurs, we may see this merely as chance, or as a second designer in action: the user. The user comes to the tool and the way in which it is designed, sees its intended purposes, understands its affordances, and synthesizes his or her own thoughts about possible affordances of the tool with those of the original designer. This new design is then tested as the tool is used for the new purpose. We see old tools put to new uses all of the time, so this is not a new idea. The question is the beneficiality of the new use over the old use, and perhaps also the possibility of negative effects on the tool itself or its ability to fulfill its original purposes.

Are video games negatively affected by their use in educational settings? Maybe. Maybe they don’t look as cool anymore, or as enjoyable. After all, if motivation is supposed to rub off of video games onto educational content when used in an educational setting, could not negative connotations of formal schooling rub off on games as well? Is it a possibility that video games might be less entertaining if we are worrying about how they are educating? It seems like a live possibility. Might the act of assessing them against their designers’ intentions cause them to become less valued in their original state (or for us to undervalue their original intentions)? I sure hope not. Let’s hope that we don’t ruin these tools. More important still, let’s hope that we don’t ruin the learners.

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