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Note: This talk was given on February 28th, 2017 as part of the Education Summit at the Game Developers Conference. Some of the language and content of this talk is tailored specifically for the audience of the event.

Why Student Autonomy Matters

Game Developers Conference. February 28th, 2017.

Watch the video (scroll to minute 41:00)

Download slides (PDF)

I want to start with a basic question: What is the purpose of education?

We don’t usually spend much time thinking about this question. It seems so broad and basic, almost silly to even consider. But to better address my topic, I’ll need to take a step back first, before we can move forward.

To John Dewey, the goal of education is “the creation of power of self-control.” By “self-control,” Dewey meant the ability to free oneself from external and, more importantly, internal control, the kind our own habits of thought impose upon us.

Speaking in 1947, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” A widely accepted view of education.

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, perhaps the most influential thinker on the topic in the late 20th century, argued for a democratic practice of education that liberates the individual from all forms of domination, a process of self-actualization that empowers them to act upon and change the world.

To bell hooks, education should develop an engaged and critical consciousness. To her, the role of teachers is “not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.”

The common thread between these examples is a focus on education as a process that nurtures critical thinking, allowing us to better understand the world and our place in it.

To say that education must foster “critical thinking” is cliché, repeated so often as to be erased of meaning. It’s a truism. We take it for granted as a self-evident truth. But when we do that, the original idea loses its original power. To remain true, it must be constantly renewed and made integral part of our practices, day after day, year after year.

When we teach games, specially at the high school and undergraduate levels, we tend to fall into this trap. I think we make one of 2 assumptions:

That it’s not our job to worry about critical thinking, we just teach games. A variation of the “it’s just games” argument.


That by learning how to make and think about games, our students will be able to, in the words of Dr. King, “think intensively and think critically” about the world and their place in it.

But it might be useful to look at what Dr. King said next.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals. (…) We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

I wanted to revisit these ideas because, for many of us, and specially for our students, this is a time of crisis, of definition. If you teach mostly marginalized students, you know this all too well. This is a good time to renew our commitments and re-examine our practices.

Instead of finding a way forward in education, our students are now stuck with a system that seems entirely uninterested in the formation of what Dr. King called “character” or what we might call “citizenship,” and treats education simply as a path to employment. Nothing more. Everything else is a distraction.

Career development is fine (people need to eat, of course) but I think when we see our work in those limited terms, we tacitly accept an impoverished role and limit our students’ imagination and constrain their possibilities.

So, if we accept a broader definition of education, how do we reconcile it with teaching an ever-evolving array of game-making skills, a job that is daunting enough by itself?

To do so, I believe we must not only look at the content of our courses but also incorporate a serious discussion of the way we practice teaching. In other words, we have to look at not only what we teach, but how we teach.

In my view, student autonomy is an essential component of a critical educational experience.

My favorite definition of autonomy is: “the inner endorsement of one’s actions.” In an autonomous classroom, the teacher treats students as equals, listens to them, learns from them, and adapts the curriculum to their backgrounds and interests, instead of delivering a static curriculum to an obedient classroom, treating students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge.

This is not an indictment of lectures, lectures have their purpose. It’s also not a manifesto for a kinder, gentler form of education. Kindness and respect are essential, but they’re not enough. I’m talking about a deeper, more fundamental re-imagining of our roles. Changing the structure we create in our classrooms and the form of power we exert.

In autonomous classroom, students are self-motivated, as opposed to externally motivated. They are engaged, not obedient. They feel challenged, not directed. Their interests are integrated into the curriculum, not ignored. And they make choices, don’t only obediently respond to requests.

There are a variety of approaches to autonomy-fostering education and how you implement it will depend on your specific context. These are some general principles I use in my classroom:

  • Encourage your students to question the curriculum.
  • Adapt it to their interests and backgrounds.
  • Help them teach each other.
  • Provide a rationale for your assignments.
  • Listen to them, learn from them.

I often teach after-school courses for at-risk teenagers. I get them when they’re tired, hungry, and have just spent the entire day in the most soul-deadening environment they know: school. (In fact, when I ask them to design a games about school, the most common theme is always “prison.”) These are often voluntary courses with no grades or attendance, they can come and go as they please.

And yet, when I teach with these principles, I don’t have to offer incentives or scold them to show up and do the work, they just do. When they “slack off” or look bored, I read it as a flaw in my teaching or a breakdown in process. The tendency is for us to tighten our grip on those situations. That’s a mistake. Excessive control may be causing the issue in the first place.

We have to remember that compliance is not the same as engagement. A quiet, obedient classroom may be doing the work, but it does not mean learning is taking place. A loud, messy classroom is nothing to be scared of. What I’m scared of is boredom.

Implementing this approach will also benefit their careers. I personally don’t think we need to justify education with these metrics, but research shows that this model is significantly more effective in developing non-cognitive skills, such as self-initiative, grit, self-control, etc., when compared to the traditional top-down model. These skills will serve them whether they go into the AAA world, decide to take the indie route, or chose to do something else entirely. Technology will change, these skills are for life.

But this work has other important consequences as well.

If students spend month after month, year after year, in environments that teach obedience and passivity and punish them when they question authority, we are implicitly teaching them to value assimilation over difference, to be afraid of dissent and look for safety in conformity.

Or they will look at us as role models and seek to emulate our one-sided authority over mutual understanding, believing that control is what guarantees success. We help create a stale, uninspired medium that struggles to become relevant in an ever-changing world.

Content is key, but so is practice. Teach an inclusive and diverse curriculum but do so in a controlling, coercive way and your students will feel it. They show it by rebelling with the only tools available to them: inattentiveness, disruptive behavior, boredom, etc. Like James Baldwin once said, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

This is specially relevant for students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds.

In an industry that is 3/4 white and still, despite recent progress, overwhelmingly male, asking our students to conform and learn “how to play the game,” to learn how to better address the needs of employers who are, again, overwhelmingly straight, white, and male, is to ask them to conform to habits and norms that were not created for them or by people who look and think like them. We are unwillingly asking our marginalized students to abandon who they are and assimilate.

Culture and background matter. Identity matters.

Instead, we have support them to arrive at their game-making practice from their own particular starting points, much like the pioneers of this industry did decades ago and many independent developers are doing today. By acting with autonomy, they’re creating a culture from the ground up.

We must create the space for them to write the rules of the “game,” not just learn how to play it. And it begins with abandoning the idea that our only job as educators is to turn students into more employable, better disciplined people.

Education is not job training. Education is much more.

Games are not just an industry. Games are much, much more.

Games and education are incredibly powerful forces in society. We shape culture and we can change minds. The only question is wether we will just obediently replicate dominant ideologies or challenge them.

It’s hard work, but I’d argue that a truly democratic education is necessary, specially in this strange and dangerous world we live in today.

Thank you.

Watsonville, California. 2017.