Critical Gaming Pedagogy
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Critical Gaming Pedagogy
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Introduction

Meet Benjamin, an aspiring Game Designer. If he works hard to accumulate the required skills in the game design industry, his career path will move steadily and predictably from Beta Tester to Hacker and finally to Game Designer. If he is not satisfied with that achievement, Benjamin can keep working and move up to Venture Capitalist, opening his own company, or ultimately to Information Overlord, entirely monopolizing the regional media. No glass ceiling will bar his ascent; no workload increases will tax his resolve; no layoffs will frustrate the steady pace of his advance. Regardless of age, race, class, or gender, with a little hard work and ingenuity, Benjamin can achieve any career he wants.

If this career vector seems too good to be true, it is because it is not true. Benjamin is a simulated character—a sim—inhabiting the virtual space of the popular video game The Sims. McKenzie Wark, author of the book Gamer Theory, created Benjamin as an example of how games are not so much simulations of reality, but ideal models that embody hegemonic ideology (20-22). In this case, Benjamin's easy prosperity reveals how the algorithm governing economic life in The Sims is based on an "American Dream" in which an ideal combination of meritocracy, full employment, equal opportunity, and upward mobility is perceived to be the norm. Wark purposely contrasts his virtual Benjamin, who lives in this free-market ideal of capitalism, to the real Benjamin, a game designer struggling to survive in today's harsh economic landscape. After losing his job at a small game-design firm that went belly-up, the real Benjamin moved to a larger firm—Electronic Arts, owners of The Sims. In [End Page 26] an online forum, Benjamin's wife exposed how her husband was required to work twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week without increases in pay or promotion (43-44). The contrast between "simulation" and reality is striking. Whereas the simulated Benjamin steadily rises up the social ladder, the real Benjamin struggles to break even in an economy where hard work is rewarded with longer hours and shrinking wages.

The example of The Sims demonstrates that games, like other cultural artifacts, reify hegemonic assumptions about the world, especially in the deep structure of their rules and mechanics. In this essay, I will argue that this feature allows games to be used either as a technology of social critique or social reproduction. I will show how the emerging field of games-and-learning studies threatens to do the latter by pitching game-based learning as a solution to the crises plaguing the U.S. economy. Scholars in the field make the case that traditional schooling no longer meets the labor needs of a post-industrial capitalist economy, but game-based learning can. However, if the goal of game-based learning is to train better workers, then games will likely continue the function of social reproduction that scholars have linked to traditional schooling, with the result that the educational system will further amplify social inequalities. I will articulate an alternative gaming praxis that intersects game-based learning with critical pedagogy to promote critical thinking rather than job training. I call this new pedagogical style "critical gaming pedagogy" and will discuss one classroom application using a modified version of the popular board game Monopoly to raise consciousness about how class inequality affects social mobility.

Gaming-to-Work

Has it ever occurred to you that a game might actually be playing the player? For instance, to attract new recruits the U.S. Army now runs an online first-person shooter called America's Army and operates an arcade-style recruitment center in a major urban mall featuring sophisticated combat simulators in which players tackle global terrorism. 1 While the gamer is immersed in the thrill of play, the game is busy imparting basic military training and the ideology of benevolent imperialism. The successful player thus masters the game, but not before adopting its intrinsic values, attitudes, and beliefs.

Games have an uncanny ability to deliver content by producing high levels of engagement. K...


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