A Conversation with Greg Toppo

Greg Toppo is the national education and demographics reporter for USA Today. He has been a Fellow at Columbia University’s Journalism School and is the author of “The Game Believes in You.”

Greg will speak at Rocky Hill School on Thursday, December 8 in the Flynn Academic Center. This event is free and open to the public. Click here to reserve your seat.


Can you, for those who have not read your book, give us a synopsis of what your key takeaways are?

Greg Toppo

Greg Toppo

Greg: I wrote the book because I was curious about how young people’s relationships with media were changing. I came up to your school [Cushing Academy, about which Greg wrote in USA Today] to find out how, back then, everyone was fretting about digital distraction and kids getting their own phones, but we don’t talk about that much anymore. Once I started going down this road, I saw two opposite things happening: The kind of media that people were most freaked out about was video games. But some people were also excited about the way games could contribute to education. A lot of scholarship had been done by people like Jim Gee writing about the possibilities of games and learning. They seemed to be saying, ‘If only people would look at this more closely, interesting things will happen.’ I wondered if someone had already looked at this more closely. Are there teachers exploring the use of games, or developing games, and how do I find them? I started asking around and found that not only were there people doing this but there were more people than I could ever talk to. This world was unfolding, almost invisibly, before us. I started visiting people, talking to game developers. Almost like shooting fish in a barrel, there were so many people working on this that I couldn’t get to them all. After a year of meeting people, I picked the ones I liked best and who, to me, were most representative of the movement.

It is a superb book.  Has it had the impact you had hoped?

Greg: The people who find it really love it. I try not to be a cheerleader as much as I try to ask why this particular engine works well. What are the underlying principles? Why are games so appealing? Why are teachers so interested in this? The question is no longer an “if” question, it is a “how” question. Each subtitle of the chapters in the book looks at “how” people are getting things done.

The question is not whether this is going to emerge but what is best practice?

Greg: Exactly. As for the impact, I think it is still early. I don’t think I’m starting a new way of thinking, but when I talk to people one on one, the ideas resonate with their lives. So many people have kids who are already gamers. Parents are starting to change how they talk, from “these kids are really into gaming” to “these kids are really into learning.”  Rarely do people dismiss the field as a whole anymore.

This is a rapidly expanding field. What have you seen since the book came out? What is new since you wrote the book?

Greg: Some of the phenomena I describe in the book that were breathtaking at the time are now ordinary. Pokemon Go—two or three years ago, you would have had to work really hard to describe what it was, but people just get it now. They understand that something that looks like a useless scavenger hunt can actually bring people together and get them out of the house. It is getting people with PTSD to leave the house for the first time. It is revitalizing museums, because people are there to find these creatures. Organizations are inviting these people in. Organizations may have been very wary about this a few years ago. At the same time, there is a very big, scary debate going on now: When I talk to parent groups, they want to talk about “screen addiction.” We still are using words like “addiction” and it’s troubling.

Do you share any of these concerns? Or is it a misplaced analysis?

Greg: When we use words like “addiction,” it is not to start a conversation, but to stop it, to end any doubt about what is happening in our kids’ lives and their minds. But I say that if you are concerned, let’s try to find out more about what is going on. There is a school psychologist in Australia who has a very smart way of thinking about this. Jocelyn Brewer has a TED talk about Digital Nutrition that you should watch—one of the things she likes to say is that screens (iPads, phones, computers) are not drugs; they are syringes. They are the thing through which you get the drug. So let’s talk about what you are putting in the syringe. People always ask, what do you think about “screen time”? But if we were talking about food, we wouldn’t be talking about “plate time,” we would be talking about what is on the plate. That is a more constructive way to think about it. We rarely talk about being addicted to food, we talk about how much we like it, and perhaps how we should eat more or less of certain foods.

I like that image, that technology is a delivery vehicle. The technology has rendered ubiquitously accessible the entirety of human culture.

Greg: Yes. People also ask, “Shouldn’t kids be out playing, or having down time?” Absolutely. To use another food analogy, at no time in my life has food been better than it is now. Think about the restaurants we have access to now. The choice that we have is vastly better than what we’ve ever had. We didn’t have food trucks when I was a kid. The way to respond, even if you’re overwhelmed, is not to say, “Oh, my god, I am overwhelmed”; the thing to do is to pick and choose the things you like, consume them in moderation and teach your kids to do the same.

It’s harder now for the people who aren’t the very top classical musicians in the world to make a living, because the average consumer has direct access to the top musicians on YouTube and other venues. But the positive flip side of that is precisely that even someone in the most marginalized place on the planet can have ready access to the greatest performances. 

Greg: It is not without cost. But “addiction” is the wrong way to think about it.

I started the book assuming there is a connection between gaming violence and aggressive behavior, but you make a very good argument that there is no connection. 

Greg: Going into the project, I did not think I would be paying any attention to that. Grand Theft Auto and other violent games, you can make a strong case that they do not belong in schools. But when I spoke to parents, they would hear the term “video game” and say that their children could not stop playing games like Call of Duty. They would say, “I’m afraid he is going to become violent, what should I do?” These weren’t parents who were uninvolved in their children’s’ lives, yet in this way they felt not only out of the loop but out of control; they didn’t have any control over their kids’ consumption of these games. I thought: If the book is for parents and teachers, I need to address this. And the research surprised me. When I read the Connecticut State Police report about Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old Sandy Hook shooter, I thought, “People need to read about this.” Police looked into his social habits and found that he had played one video game obsessively, every day, for 10 years. When I give a talk on this topic, I ask people if they think they can name the game, and they very rarely can.

You talk about the role of playfulness and creativity in learning – and how important that is in the 21st century, how you see gaming in a central role as an educative tool. 

Greg: I am definitely not a play scholar.  I don’t have a very deep understanding of what play does psychologically. But from the research and thinking that I have done, I feel like the importance of playfulness is that it changes the focus of what we are doing, changes it from a high-stakes endeavor to one where failure is O.K. Trying lots of approaches is O.K. What can you bring to this endeavor? One of my favorite concepts is “flow state,” which is what happens when your abilities perfectly match with the task at hand. People understand that concept and can transport themselves to a time and place where they were in that state. We rarely think about this in schools. Teachers say, “We have a certain amount of time to get this task done, and I don’t care about your state of mind.” Researchers have discovered the importance of being in the zone, of making the task match the skills, of making school work not too easy, not too hard. Dan Willingham from UVA, this is one of his big ideas. Adults forget that, for young people, doing the task is not optional. If The New York Times crossword puzzle is too hard, I can put it down and walk away. But a student in school has stakes attached to completing each task, so there is a real responsibility to make the tasks match the skill. Just to be clear: Flow is not about making everything easy; it is about matching a task to a skill that you have worked very hard developing.

There is a lot of conversation around Angela Duckworth’s book on Grit. A lot of grit is required to get to the next level of a video game. 

Greg: Even adults experience this. I recommended a game to a colleague the other day and he later told me he hadn’t gotten anything done for days, because he was trying to level up. Video games are grit machines.

Are there schools out there that are doing this in the most promising ways? In terms of the role of gaming in education, is it best leveraged educationally by a school that just does gaming or in a blended learning environment?

Greg: I’m very excited about Quest to Learn in New York. They just finished their 7th year. They started with a group of 6th  graders and just graduated the first group last spring. If you had just walked in with no introduction to it, you would see a very well-designed PBL school. Interesting but not out of the ordinary. Lots of schools do PBL. One of the exciting things was that they had brought a little gaming think tank into the building, and its task for the first several years was to talk to the teachers and ask, “What are you teaching and how can we find a game that teaches this better, or how can we develop one?” They had a few really remarkable little games, and pieces of games. There was one racing game where you had to get from point a to point b faster than your opponent on a peg board. You quickly learn that you move faster when you move on the diagonal between two holes, rather than just up-and-down and side-to-side. This was teaching the Pythagorean theorem with no prior introduction to the topic. The students were not memorizing it, they were generating it. Then, when the teacher says, “A squared plus B squared equals C squared,” it means something.

The students were independently discovering the Pythagorean theorem. 

Greg: Exactly.

Would you recommend that schools redo their curricula to teach everything, or most everything, through games?

Greg: No. Schools leveraging the power of games as the only approach, I would frown on that. There is no reason to make games the only thing you do. They should be used to serve the things you need to do. If a game is not the best tool, then use something else. If a cheese grater is a better tool, use the cheese grater.

So you’re not hoping that gaming will be the “next big thing”?

Greg: No. I actually hope gaming is not the “next big thing,” because those always crash and burn. I hope it is the “next small thing,” where it develops in a natural way. I hope that it is not on the cover of a magazine somewhere. And since the book came out, I have to say that smart people have been thinking about this in very different ways than I had imagined. Young developers at Breakout EDU took the concept of escape rooms, where you get together with your friends and you have an hour to get out of a room by following the clues in the room. They are big, embodied, live-action puzzles and they are difficult; the success rate on a lot of them is 30%. But people are not intimidated by the fact that they have failed. They keep trying, even though they have paid good money to fail. A teacher took his class to one, and the kids loved it. The kids were working together, thinking critically, focused on the goal, and the teacher thought, “How can I get this into the school building?” He decided to invert the whole thing. “Let’s try to get into a box and use all the same tools we did in order to get out of the room.” So you can purchase this thing; it is a wooden box that is locked six ways to Sunday and you have to figure out how to crack all of these locks. Teachers are developing curriculum around the box. They say, “Learning about this concept helps you solve this puzzle to get into the box.” And they have been really democratizing this. Breakout EDU realized the potential to make this a big company, but they also realized that the market is teachers. So they said, “You can buy it for $99, but if you can’t afford that, here is the list of ingredients to make it yourself, with supplies from Home Depot or your local hardware store.” Teachers have written their own lesson plans and posted them online for free. It is all open source. Breakout EDU allows the teachers to sell their lesson plans, but all of the teachers have chosen to give them away for free.

Is there anything else you would like to add and what are you working on these days?

Greg: I’m talking to people about the book. I did a book group with a bunch of moms in Annapolis, Maryland. I brought my iPad and a projector, and we played a couple of games with the group and their kids. That was great fun, and it proved a key point I wanted to make with the book: The kids were having fun doing math and solving puzzles together, in a social setting. I want to get people to think and have different conversations around this topic. When it comes to gaming, digital media, we think we know what we are talking about, but my feeling is that, as parents, we almost always come to it from a sense of moral panic. If there is anything I want to get across to people, it is that you have to identify that and understand it. Nick Yee at Stanford says we should close our eyes and imagine a game played in an alternate world, a piece of real estate that is set aside for just this purpose—it has its own rules and fierce competition, and people get together once a week to compete; of course, this is football. But when something goes wrong, someone gets hurt or someone dies, we don’t turn to the moral panic conversation, we try to figure out what happened and why. We don’t say, “Oh, everyone is addicted to football!” That is a shift we need to make.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI

2 thoughts on “A Conversation with Greg Toppo

  1. Steve Aveson

    Great conversation that got me thinking Jim

    Passed this along to friends and faculty members at WHEELOCK College

  2. Hunter Gallant

    This is a very interesting interview! It reminds me of teaching Minecraft Camp over this summer at RHS. Since Minecraft is an open-world game, the kids were able to build whatever came into their imaginations. With a little bit of guidance, they made some truly awesome buildings.

    I think the potential for game-based learning is essentially limitless. Maybe it’s just because I’m a teenager who likes video games, but I do strongly feel that games have great potential for learning. For instance, I’ve learned quite a bit about architecture and landscaping from building in Minecraft, as well as some basic computer code from certain mechanics in the game. There’s a fantastic game called Portal that uses kinematics and portals to teach kids physics so they can escape from an evil AI computer.

    There are so many other games out there that teach these things in such great ways. I think gaming should be integrated into the classroom, certainly not as the main tool for teaching but rather as an additional accessory to amplify the subjects being taught. It’s one thing to learn about history, but when you can build the Colosseum or meet with Napoleon, it takes on a whole new meaning. Science becomes important when it’ll help you escape from zombies, and English class is vital when a murder mystery needs to be solved.

    I’m starting to ramble now, but the point is that I strongly agree with the fact that games can be a great way to amplify learning. Just thought you might want a student’s perspective on this topic!

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