Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Nicola Whitton interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 10, 2010

Nicola Whitton is a research fellow at the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University. Here she discusses her book, Learning with Digital Games, talks a little bit about her own experience with video games, and why her current favorite game happens to be peek-a-boo. 

Nicola’s blog: Play Think Learn

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Would you mind explaining what you do for a living? 

I work as a Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University. The job is a mixture of designing and managing projects, working with people from academia and industry, and lots of reading and writing. My main focus is researching computer games for learning and I’m very lucky to have a job that is flexible and lets me explore the questions that interest me. 

How would you describe your book Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education to someone unfamiliar with it? 

It’s a guide, aimed at anyone interested in education, to how computer games – and the principles that they embody – can be used to enhance learning. It’s split into three main sections, looking at the theoretical perspective, the practical implications, and the technical aspects. 

Why did you decide to write this particular book? 

For me, one of the big problems with game-based learning is that it’s beyond the means of most educators to develop the ideal game for a given situation. While I believe that games can present amazing learning environments that engage people in creative problem-solving, exploration and discovery, this is dependent on having the right game. The book aims to address this issue by looking at ways in which educators can both exploit the benefits of games in teaching and make developing or adapting games a possibility for a novice. 

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out? 

Pretty much, although I haven’t seen any sales figures yet… I ended up writing it in six months, which meant that I really had to focus. I think that if I’d had more time I’d have liked to put more in, particularly more case studies and research literature, but then without a strict deadline it would probably never have been finished at all. 

What audience did you have in mind when writing it? 

A range of people, but essentially someone who might not have a high level of technical skill or confidence. Teachers, lecturers, learning technologists, educational developers, learning designers, students. Anyone interested in computer games and learning, really. 

Could you please explain what your own background in gaming has been like? 

Mainly as a player. My first experience with computer games was when I was around five years old and my father used to take me to play games to the computer at his work – an Apple II – at weekends. The ones I remember best were Lemonade Stand (which I still attribute to a later interest in economics) and Little Brick Out (but sadly no similar enthusiasm for knocking down walls emerged). 

When I got my own Spectrum I became much more interested in adventure games, such as The Hobbit and Knight Time, and spent a lot of time using The Quill to develop my own games. It’s really this early love of adventure games, which continues to this day, that made me think that there was potential for learning there and to decide to carry out research in this field. 

As someone who has done extensive research on gaming, do you find it difficult at times to separate gaming for pleasure and gaming for research? 

Not really, because I don’t think I do separate them. For me, playfulness is an essential approach to work as well as leisure, so I tend to try and integrate a good measure of game-playing into my research. Likewise, while I might play a game for fun I am always, at the back of my mind, considering its potential for learning. 

How would you say computer games have influenced you as a teacher? How about as a writer? 

As a teacher, in two ways. First, by instilling a sense of fun and humour, coupled with a lateral way of looking at problems, inspired by games such as the Monkey Island series (of which I am a huge fan). Secondly, by highlighting the importance of context and motivation in learning through the use of meaningful goals with real purpose within the game or narrative context. 

I’m not sure that games have influenced me directly as a writer (other than as a subject to write about). I’ve always been interested in writing (and reading) fiction, as well as playing games, and my favourite stories involve mysteries or puzzles (I love a good detective novel or a tale with a really surprising secret). So I suppose that my tastes in fiction very much mirror my tastes in games. 

Specifically, what potential do you see for using MMOs in the field of education? 

I’m not sure that I would necessarily want to use them as they exist when designed solely for entertainment, because there are issues of access, cost, and appropriateness. However, I think that there’s an awful lot that we can learn from looking at the types of collaborative and problem-solving processes that go on in multi-user gaming environments, for example in terms of group work, team roles and mentoring. 

Are you a particular fan of MMOs? What has your experience with them been like? 

I like them, in short doses. I’m essentially a solitary gamer so they aren’t something I play a great deal. When I was at university in the early 1990s I used to play the local MUD (but it was really an excuse for meeting people and going to the pub) and more recently I’ve been playing Guild Wars but I don’t really have the time to put in to get the most out of it. 

What games (not necessarily MMOs) are you currently playing? 

Nicola Whitton

Since I have a five-month-old daughter most of the games I’m currently playing are of the peek-a-boo variety. I’m also getting more into casual games, such as hidden object and strategy games, which fit in with my more time-limited lifestyle (and don’t require your brain to be on top form). 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer audience? 

Just a thank you for reading this far, and a request to get in touch or have a look at my blog if they would like to know more about my work.

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