My father’s dream of flying and the vision of James Paul Gee
Because my experience with electronic games is limited to the handful of floppy disks that lived next to my family’s Apple IIe computer, I have found myself taking journeys into my childhood, trying to remember what those games were (other than Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, which I’ve discussed already) Aided by various Google searches for “80s computer games” I came across a title that, for me. was laced with a sense of nostalgic portent and gravitas. The title is: Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Simulator (which has been changed, after a lawsuit by Microsoft, to Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer.)
(Video demo can be found here).
It was a game I attempted only once, yet it conjures poignant memories. This is because it was the one and only computer game that my father ever played. And so begins a personal story that may or may not fit the guidelines of this assignment.
My father has never been a computer guy. He appears, to outsiders, quite a cosmopolite, and most, I think, would be surprised to learn that he is one of the few stalwarts of the modern era who have yet to acquire a computer (my memories of him playing were on the family computer, prior to his post-divorce, computer-free bachelorhood). He has never used the internet, and doesn’t plan to. Devices in general are a source of anxiety, and I remember that efforts to take a family photo usually went something like this: “Ready? Okay, one, two,… wait. Hold on a minute, this thing’s not going off.”
The anatomy of appeal
So, in retrospect, the choice of a gadget-laden flight simulation game seems decidedly out of character. Yet I remember it clearly: the vision, captured during late night trips to the bathroom, of my father’s intent face, lit by the greenish glow of the screen before him as he fiddled with the joystick and muttered celebratory grunts and frustrated epithets under his breath. It seems to me that this choice is a true testament to the powers of attractive appearance as well as fantasy, to hold sway over even the most unlikely would-be gamers.
I too, was initially taken in by the game’s attractive appearance. I was amazed and - oddly enough - simultaneously proud and humbled to be living in an era when human beings had developed technology that caused the picture on the computer screen to respond to the movements of my joystick in a way that made it seem that I was really flying (a claim that today’s youngest generation of gamers would no doubt find utterly laughable).
At the age of eleven, I had lots of fantasies (starring in the Ice Capades, walking the streets of Calcutta with Mother Theresa, becoming a Rockette or an Olympic swimmer, and living in a donut-shaped, self contained, artificial environment that orbited around the earth combating the epidemic of overpopulation). Piloting an airplane was not among these. In fact, the proposition of getting on a plane, period, seemed downright terrifying. So, for me, the visual attraction alone was not enough to motivate me to play. I attempted to use the game once, and, facing the frustration that inevitably comes from learning to negotiate a virtual airplane over a virtual landscape without crashing into trees and buildings, I quickly aborted the mission, never to return.
For my dad, however, the fantasy element must have had more powerful sway. He persisted in his pursuit of a successful flight for a brief but intense period. It may have been a month, possibly three months; it may have been a year. He played with intensity and dedication, for many nights on end.
What dreams may die
Eventually, he stopped. For him, it was a private battle; he gave no verbal indication of his success or failure then, and for some reason, even now, I feel a little funny asking him to relive it. Because I know that what my father values most is an environment that he can control, and I also know that what a pilot must do, in order to succeed, is to surrender his faculties to a trust in the plane’s control panel, and this is something that I struggle to picture my father doing even in the comfort of his family’s empty living room in the dark, wee hours of the morning. I suspect that, in the end, the challenge was one that he perceived to be too great, too insurmountable, to warrant his continued effort. I wonder if there was a sort of epiphany, a moment in which he realized the futility of his efforts. I suspect that the reality was much less momentous. More than likely he played with vigor in the beginning, and felt his interest waning, over time, as fantasies of success continued to elude him. I imagine that it waned and waned until, one night, he simply didn’t play, and like the proverbial Puff the Magic Dragon, the game remained where it would for the rest of my family’s time in the house where we grew up – unplayed and gathering dust, until there came a time when floppy disks (the kind that really were floppy) were no more. Sometimes, the challenge is simply too great.
To have lasting appeal, a game must successfully walk the line between challenge and reward. Though I have no doubt that Advanced Flight Simulator Trainer did this for many players; for my father and I, the losses ultimately outweighed the gains.
The stakes have changed
When I think of simulations, I think of Chuck Yeager and I think of my father. I also, thanks to a recent video interview shared by Sue (here is a link to her Nov 17 post), think of James Paul Gee. In it, Gee discusses the important role of games and simulations in the learning environments of the future. Games and simulations provide continual, immediate assessment, they challenge the learner to learn and grasp new concepts on an as-needed basis, they require creative problem solving, and they are best experienced in a collaborative environment. Such ingredients are vital in order prepare students to develop the mental capacities that will be most necessary for competing and thriving in the future, according to Gee.
Change the current paradigm of education? Move the focus from a skill and drill, pen and paper test model to a dynamic, interactive, collaborative learning environment, where attraction, self-actualization, and reward are seamlessly interwoven with challenge, skill-building and assessment? Talk about a fantasy. Talk about a challenge. But, oh! – What a vision. How different it is from the way many of us have looked at education or games.
My father’s experiment in simulation was a product of a different era. It was a matter of fantasy, and when the frustration of virtually living the fantasy outweighed the perceived reward, the experiment could be easily abandoned.
James Paul Gee’s vision may sound like a fantasy, yet it is one that, I think, cannot be abandoned so lightly, however challenging it may be. We need to develop learners who will not be easily daunted by the challenge of an unfamiliar environment, because the reality is, as has been mentioned over and over again in various circles of would-be proactive educators, we are preparing them for environments that do not exist yet.
My father’s experiment with flying, via simulation, was the result of a fantasy that was so tangential to his actual life that it was never discussed, and when the experiment was abandoned it was only evident to those family members who had once observed him playing in the living room. He couldn’t learn, as a successful pilot must, how to trust the controls, how to give his senses over to the technology of the strange new environment. Ultimately, for him, it was not only too strange; it didn’t matter enough in “real” life. He could live his life as he had, with more or less the same degree of success, regardless of his ability to master virtual flight.
For our schools and our students, experiments in simulation might also be a matter of fantasy, as all worthwhile learning endeavors should be. In a good simulation, play is intimately laced with the thrill of making sense of a new environment. As Gee aptly notes, gameplay is an ongoing assessment. You make decisions and your success or failure is directly affected be the decisions you make. For our students, however, learning to negotiate unfamiliar environments is, and will continue to be essential. Gone are the days when such pursuits were largely tangential to real-life success. For our schools, success will require what Gee calls a “total paradigm shift”. Thus undoubtedly will be frustrating and unnerving, especially for educators, who typically value most that which is already known and can be easily controlled (that is: drilled, tested, graded, “covered” – in familiar, manageable, isolated parcels that have nothing to do with life as it is lived by any sentient being, and everything to do with what is wrong with the fundamental design of traditional educational systems).
Nobody likes to surrender control. It is inevitably fraught with problems, laced with expletives, and requires a trust in forces that have yet to be mastered. We don’t trust the controls; we haven’t developed the necessary coordination. Initial attempts to fly inevitably crash and burn. But for us, as educators, the fantasy is not tangential to real life. The game, as Gee notes (and I am one of the most unlikely people to come around to believing this) can and should be recognized as a viable tool for preparation of today’s students: to have real-life success in unknown (and unknowable) environments. Maintenance of such a fantasy is critical for educators. Its preservation may be the only factor that keeps us from abandoning the game during the late-night hours when the challenges of play appear to outweigh the potential gain. The potential gain is always a fantasy, and for educators it is far from tangential; it is a matter of life and death for our primary currency, the development of ability: the abilities of people, ideas, and environments, to change.