Serious Games

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is Michelle Boule, Social Sciences Librarian at the University of Houston. Michelle was one of the planners behind Five Weeks to a Social Library and she is an ALA Emerging Leader. Michelle blogs as Jane on A Wandering Eyre.

I am old enough to remember the Atari, but I was too young to own one myself. The gaming console of my generation was the Nintendo. We played Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt, Zelda, and were shocked at the end of Metroid. With the introduction of Mortal Combat we were also the first children whose parents were concerned that all that spine ripping and blood in our games would harm our sense of right and wrong. Violence was not new in media, but it was new to have that much blood marketed to a younger generation.

Today there is a new movement in gaming that, while it does often focus on a violent world, its purpose is to raise awareness, instruct a new generation of good citizens, create new business models, train military personnel, or model surgery for doctors. These games are called serious games. Many of the military and medical games use 3D technology, the same technology used to build Second Life. The games that I find the most fascinating are the ones that are designed to create an awareness about a topic. Games for Change is a nonprofit group that supports individuals and organizations which are creating games that produce public awareness.

Darfur Is Dying is a video game that was created for a contest sponsored by mtvU and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation The contest asked students, game designers, and activists to create a game that would raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur. The result, Darfur Is Dying, is an internet game in which the player becomes a villager in Darfur and then must try to forage for water while avoiding capture by the Janjuweed. When your character fails to escape, and failure is the usual outcome, statistics are displayed about the life of people in Darfur.

On a lighter note, Escape From Diab is a game that follows a healthy youth who becomes trapped in a place called Diab where everyone eats only junk food. It was designed to teach kids about healthy eating habits. Planet Green Game, produced by Starbucks, allows a player to travel through a fantasy city, finding ways to decrease the CO2 emissions, and creating an awareness of changes we can make to slow global warming.

Serious games take educational games to a new level. They go beyond Oregon Trail and strive to teach people about the world in which we live in an interesting and engaging way.

What does this have to do with libraries?

Libraries have long been agents of culture and the gateways to information. Today, most of us realize that information can be presented to people in many different ways. The idea of serious gaming can impact libraries in both small and large ways.

A game could provide models through which we could better understand how people search for information. Consider a game in which a puzzle must be solved or some knowledge must be gained. How will the player gain the knowledge? What are the options open to the player? A game that modeled information seeking behavior, like useability testing, would give us insight as to what people do when faced with particular challenges.

We could also build games that teach information literacy. If a game were to present a problem to users, sending them down the path of information gathering, various kinds of information could be presented. The player might have to choose between scholarly and popular sources, information formats, and then synthesize the information into useable answers to the problem. What would a 3D version of the information highway look like?

Building games from scratch is out of the realm of most library budgets and expertise. However, it only takes one school with some grant money and an eager student of game programming to create a game that could be modified for many different settings. We use games in Information Literacy classes already, like quiz games, that can be easily translated into online worlds. What about an information literacy quiz game that takes place in a Second Life environment? If your university has land in Second Life, does the library have space there? Information modeled in an online environment can become almost anything from a maze, to an amusement park, to a fully formed world and story.

Games can be serious. Games can change the way we think about things and they are changing the way we acquire knowledge. More libraries are beginning to offer different types of gaming environments for patrons, like equipment or space for game playing, but I think we should also consider what we can create that will foster better information skills in our patrons.

The Changing Nature Of Authority: Doctors

Medical doctors have long been considered paragons of authority and expertise in our society. Their authority derives from long, rigorous academic training and is refined through continual clinical practice. We should listen to doctors because they are the best chance we have to get a reliable diagnosis based on the best science available. Or are they?

In What’s Wrong With Doctors, Richard Horton reviews How Doctors Think, a book by Jerome Groopman. The review points out that on average 15 percent of doctors diagnoses are inaccurate (still pretty good compared to the error rate that used to be attributed to reference librarians–was it 55%? what ever happened to that by the way?).

Doctors go wrong in many ways: they misapply evidence-based medicine; their training doesn’t teach them how to learn from mistakes (actually they can’t even admit when they make a mistake); they are susceptible to bribes and misinformation from big pharma; they are prone to a host of cognitive errors that they are unaware of–attribution error, availability error, search satisfying error, confirmation bias, diagnostic momentum, commission bias; they work in a system that rewards hurrying as many patients through as possible; and finally the classic–they don’t listen to patients.

Horton points out that the authority of doctors is no longer sacred and that a better educated public with access to more information is more and more willing to question the gospel. Groopman suggests that doctors should ally themselves with patients in a partnership to guard against error.

But are patients up to the responsibility? A doctor friend of mine told me how the mother of one of his patients told him that she stopped her son’s medication months ago. Why? he asked. Because of something she read on the Internet, she said. He was surprised. What did you read? Was it a study? How was the study done? Are you sure your son’s situation is sufficiently similar to what you read? Do you know the risks associated with discontinuing the medication?

Reading as much as you can about an illness that affects you or a family member–good. Going against your doctor’s advice without consulting your doctor first–not so good.

Learning about an illness is one of the most concrete ways that information literacy skills can be put to use in what we often call “lifelong learning.” We get sick; we’re get scared; we want more information. Has anyone ever taught us how to go about finding information in this situation? Not really, though the more education in general one has the better off one is. Finding and making sense out of medical information has a lot of pitfalls–from filtering out noise on Internet bulletin boards to finding reliable information that’s free and available to understanding how much about medicine is really unknown and uncertain, especially how it applies to your specific situation. It takes a great deal of knowledge even to know what kind of questions to ask your doctor. And who’s got the time to do all this research?

It’s good that we realize that doctors are fallible. Yet this doesn’t imply that by doing a search on PubMed we know more than our doctors. The changing nature of authority requires new skills for both experts and non-experts. Experts (including professors and librarians) have to get used to not having a complete monopoly on information and should have an understanding of where they can and do go wrong. Non-experts need to know where to find reliable or alternative sources of information and how to put this information into context. And both need to figure out how to talk to each other so the right questions get asked and answered at the right time, so that the chances for error are reduced as much as possible, and the chances for finding the truth are increased as much as possible.

Authoritative Sources Or Question Authority?

When teaching how to evaluate information, academic librarians often rely heavily on the concept of authority. Authority for librarians is usually understood to be some kind of reviewed and reputable source. Students are to trust sources that have authority over those that lack it. Whatever authority is, we like it. Conveniently, libraries specialize in acquiring authoritative sources and providing them to users. This is all well and good.

Except what happens when sources have some of the indicators of authority but need to have their authority questioned? Isn’t this when we are most likely to be fooled? How do we know when to trust authority (we can’t be expected to independently verify everything or have the expertise to do so) and when to question it? I was thinking about these things as I read an article about a course at SUNY Stony Brook that attempts to teach students how to evaluate information in the news.

The study was completely invalid, the experts said, and yet it was published by a newspaper and read by tens of thousands of people without challenge. Why, Mr. Schneider asked. Because it confirmed what reporters, editors and readers already believed.

That is one of the hardest things to do as a news consumer,” he told the class of 30 or so students, “to stay open to information that does not conform to your views.” It was one small moment in the course on news literacy, a semester-long lesson on how to be an informed consumer of news, how to navigate with appropriate skepticism the ever more crowded — and confusing — spheres of print, broadcast and Internet journalism. The course is unusual in that it is aimed at all students, not just aspiring journalists.

A simple message here is don’t trust everything you read in the newspaper, but the deeper point is about how our own beliefs can lead us astray. Would the many checklists to evaluating information put out by libraries help students question a source like this? Or do we encourage too much trust of authority when we teach about evaluating information? Even peer-reviewed sources have errors and biases, occasionally they are even outright hoaxes. Perhaps in our desire to slam home the point that “authoritative” library resources are better than the free web we promote a bit too much trust in authority.

One of the ways that our libraries are key partners with subject experts in aiding critical thinking is for librarians to build large and diverse collections and to encourage students to use more than one source and to corroborate sources against each other. This is very simple advice yet I seldom see it recommended outright in the checklists. It’s a tricky balancing act, but in our drumbeat for students to “use authoritative sources” let’s not forget to recommend questioning authority.

Library as Place-With-Books

A member of the ILI-L discussion list pointed out an interesting article in the May issue of Harper’s that I finally got around to reading. It profiles the Prelinger Library, an idiosyncratic personal collection made public that provides its own classification system and allows for unexpected discoveries. (Here’s the non-digital link: “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Harper’s [May 2007]: 47-57.)

In passing, the author criticizes librarians’ devotion to all things technical, especially slamming the “roomy and bookless” SFPL in which “reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degreed ‘information scientists,’ stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printers to work.” Hey, they haven’t ditched the reference desk – that sounds positively old fashioned.

Anyway, the conclusion of the piece raises an issue I’d like to see discussed more by academic librarians.

The executive director of the digital-library initiative at Rice University is quoted as saying that “the library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared.” This is odd. Most people might suppose, to the contrary, that a library is exactly a space where books are held. There are many, many places on a college campus where ideas are shared: lecture halls, seminar rooms, computer clusters, dorm lounges. The library happens to be the only where ideas are shared precisely because books are held.

So here’s my question: as we pay attention to the “library as place” and try to demolish the “warehouse for books” stereotype of libraries, do we have any evidence that what’s in the library is contributing to the conversations we hope to foster? That is, as the library becomes a better place for students to do a variety of things, are they making better use of the collection itself? How well do collection development, information literacy, and “library as place” work together? What assessments have been made that can establish some causality – a better place means better learning using what libraries have to offer?

Apart, of course, from computers, comfy chairs, and good coffee.

The Only Laptop in the Room (and a Worthwhile Keynote Paper)

I’m not certain what I think it means but … I am attending this conference – The Student as Scholar: Undergraduate Research and Creative Practice – and am the only person I see with a laptop in the sessions. So different than presenting at ACRL and other recent library conferences where the blog posts about my presentations were posted to the web by attendees before I gathered my things up and left the podium. I sometimes wonder if librarians make too much of our willingness to embrace technology and use it to our advantage but then …

In any case, let me use my laptop to your advantage – take a look at the keynote – From Convocation to Capstone: Developing the Student as Scholar. Some interesting ideas and obvious connections to information literacy. I particularly think that academic librarians might benefit from becoming familiar with LEAP: Liberal Education and America’s Promise and especially the report College Learning for the New Global Century.