When are video games mimetic?
My son plays on Massively Minecraft, a wonderful Minecraft server for kids. And recently they banned TNT. I’m relieved. Minecraft is a great constructionist learning environment, and I’m happy to let him play it. But his fascination with blowing stuff up was getting a bit too intense. They disabled TNT on the server because someone (not my son) blew up someone else’s creation. My son would never do anything like that. But I still would rather see him building a castle than piling up explosives to see how big a hole he can make.
People often ask the question “Are video games mimetic?” I was at a conference on games at Georgia Tech a few years ago, and one of the speakers at one moment was waxing poetic about what kids can learn from games. They’re having fun, and look at all the things they can learn! And then moments later, the same speaker dismissed claims that violent games can make kids violent, because kids don’t transfer things from games to the real world–they know it’s just a game! My friend Liz Losh and I had to hold our breath to avoid laughing out loud, the speaker’s self contradiction was so comic. She whispered in my ear, “Either video games are mimetic, or they’re not. He can’t have it both ways!”
I’ve read a bunch of studies on this topic that have contradictory findings. I’d love to see a good literature review or definitive large-scale study. But I would rephrase the question somewhat. We shouldn’t ask whether games are mimetic, but under what conditions. Can kids learn things from games? Of course! Do they magically absorb all that great content? Nah, not most of it. Do kids become serial killers after playing violent video games? Of course not! But could they sometimes internalize some degree of insensitivity to violence through playing violent games? I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t true. So the question for the research community is: What specific design features of a game or aspects of the context in which it is played lead to more or less transfer to the real beliefs and behaviors? How can we deliberately engineer games to support more transfer of learning content, and less of things like violence and obsessive consumerism that pervade many games?
There’s a lot of important research to do in this area. But in the meantime, I’m glad my son plays Minecraft. And I’m glad the kids’ server disabled TNT.