Video Games and Critical Thinking

What is critical thinking, anyway?

I am but mad north-north-west, so I won’t attempt to crystallize many decades of robust scholarship on critical thinking. I know a hawk from a handsaw. What I will offer is a pull-quote from professional critical thinker Alec Fisher’s very important Critical Thinking: An Introduction.

“… critical thinking is essentially an ‘active’ process—one in which you think things through for yourself, raise questions yourself, find relevant information yourself, etc., rather than learning in a largely passive way from someone else.” (2)

Got it. How do we turn it into identifiable learning objectives that we can put on a lesson plan? Fisher to the rescue again, with a list of “some of the fundamental critical thinking skills” (original emphasis, 8):

  • “identify the elements in a reasoned case, especially reasons and conclusions
  • identify and evaluate assumptions
  • clarify and interpret expressions and ideas
  • judge the acceptability, especially the credibility, of claims
  • evaluate arguments of different kinds
  • analyse, evaluate and produce explanations
  • analyse, evaluate and make decisions
  • draw inferences
  • produce arguments”

(original super cute Cambridge U Press “s” for authenti-s-ity, 8)

Beauty. I was going to write a section on why critical thinking is important for students + all humans, but then I decided just to remind everyone of THE 2016 ELECTION SEASON. Critical. Thinking. Clearly, we need more practise.

How do video games encourage critical thinking?

For those who want to geek out on games for learning, I humbly recommend MIT’s Education Arcade as a starting place. Holler at me for more suggestions or especially if you want to, like, go build some together.

In the meantime, take another look at Fisher’s handy list of critical thinking skills. A lot of his language focuses on arguments: evaluating them, analyzing them, producing them. In related news, among his many contributions to video game scholarship, philosopher and video game designer Ian Bogost writes about the rhetoric of video games:

“… video games are not just stages that facilitate cultural, social, or political practices; they are also media where cultural values themselves can be represented—for critique, satire, education, or commentary. When understood in this way, we can learn to read games as deliberate expressions of particular perspectives. In other words, video games make claims about the world, which players can understand, evaluate, and deliberate.” (“The Rhetoric of Video Games,” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Ed. Katie Salen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. 119.)

FYI this article is excellent and is responsible for catalyzing at least 20% of the idea matchsticks that inferno-ed into Something Wicked, and you should read all his stuff. But I digress.

So if we think about a video game as a set of rules that “make[s] claims about the world,” (Bogost), its interactivity invites players to “judge the acceptability” (Fisher) of the claims the game makes. What kind of world does this game establish? What could the avatar do? How did it have to behave in order to win? Did you, the player, feel comfortable stabbing a sleeping, angelic king so you wouldn’t lose the game? (Welcome to Macbeth’s psyche)

Now, frost that invitation to evaluate with a layer of adaptation, a process that critical theorist Linda Hutcheon says creates “an interpretive doubling, a conceptual flipping back and forth between the work we know and the work we are experiencing.” (A Theory of Adaptation, second edition. New York: Routledge, 2013. 139) As we watch/read/listen to/play/eat the adaptation, we can’t escape comparing it to the source. And embedded in that constant comparison are the critical thinking skills Fisher highlights: identifying, evaluating, judging, analyzing.

Et voilà: a double measure of critical thinking, baked right into every video game adaptation of a canonical work. Tasty.


For an extra helping of constructionist video game critical thinking catalysis, check out the sensational Playing Shakespeare project at the DARE research partnership in London. No time for clicks? In short: some extra smart folks modified a bunch of assets for the Unity video game-building engine so that a group of 13 year-olds could author their own mini-game adaptations of Macbeth. Imagine the deep learning! These kids had to decide what scenes made for a good game, what lines to keep, what the most important themes of the play were for their scene, whether their choices were “authentic” (A HA! I distance myself from that word with quotation marks) and how to turn those themes into game mechanisms like rewards, weapons, and leveling up. Such an inspired project.

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