April 15, 2011

What Games Teach Us about Learning

By: in Teaching with Technology

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Many teachers consider video games the antithesis of education. Boys especially are drawn in at the exclusion of all other interests (girls tend to be obsessed with social networking). But games can teach us a lot about learning. Why are games so captivating? Researchers have said that the appeal of games is that they provide two central elements: 1. achievable challenges, and 2. progressive rewards.

Consider World of Warcraft. The goal is to defeat your enemies and move up to the next level. The goal is clear, as is the path to it. Moreover, the reward is immediate. When you finish a level you move up to the next level. The game tracks your status, and so players can boast about the level that they have attained.

Teaching with Technology column

It’s important to note that the image of video gamers as socially isolated individuals playing in the lonely darkness of their bedrooms is misleading. The most popular games require players to join teams to defeat groups of foes. It is a collaborate endeavor, and if you ever watched a gamer in action, you will be struck by the level of communication between players, who coordinate their efforts by directing others or signaling their moves in short comments. Studies have suggested that this collaboration develops teamwork and leadership skills.

Even more interestingly, gaming encourages a high level of intellectual engagement. It is not unusual for kids—again, mostly boys—to adopt the “too cool for school” persona of deliberately acting ignorant in front of the class. A boy may answer a teacher’s question with an exaggerated “what” to elicit laughter from his friends at his lack of attention to the subject. The student who jumps at providing the correct answer is labeled the nerd.

But no gamer wants to profess ignorance of gaming principles in front of his fellow gamers. In fact, the social pressure is the opposite—kids will apply a remarkable level of technical sophistication to analyzing a game on gamer forums, even going so far as to apply high level mathematical formulas (learned in school) to mine out the game’s underlying principles.

What can this teach us about education? For one, teachers too often assign only a few large works during a class, and thus put off rewards for many weeks. Instead, teachers can assign continual short pieces with a narrower focus and clearer goals to achievement.

Moreover, the A through F grading system provides only a running average of the student’s performance. The student is not moving upward in this system. Teachers might instead use a game-like scoring system in which the student accumulates points towards a final grade. While this might sound hokey, it appeals to our deep seeded interest in scoring. I was highly motivated to work through self-paced math booklets in grade school because they were numbered sequentially, with the student given the next book in the sequence after correctly finishing the last one, because I wanted to see what would happen when I finished book 99, thinking that it must be the end of the line (it turns out that it went into the hundreds).

So instead of disparaging games, let’s see if we can incorporate a few gaming principles in teaching to improve motivation and outcomes.

Feedback
As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of this blog.

Resources
7 Ways that Games Reward the Brain – Tom Chatfield discusses the appeal of games.
http://www.ted.com/talks/tom_chatfield_7_ways_games_reward_the_brain.html

Gaming Can Make a BetterWorld – Jane McGonigal talks about the value of games.
http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html

Video Gaming Principles as Applied to Education – Well-known education researcher James Gee talks about his discoveries about gaming.
http://wistechnology.com/articles/243/

Spring Revival: Alternate Reality Game Breathes New Life into Old Course – Ben Betts talks about how gaming was applied to a graduate business course.
http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/617/spring-revival-alternate-reality-game-breathes-new-life-into-old-course

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Comments

Ellen Smyth | April 18, 2011

I feel like I do a decent job with breaking down tasks and making clear and achievable goals, but I am lacking in the area of rewards. One colleague said she has had success giving awards in the form of images or discussion praise. With Khan Academy, they give certificates of mastery, which works really well with the grade-schoolers. I still worry about my mostly non-traditional students perceiving awards as juvenile, but perhaps if I tie it to something already cool, it could work. I'm thinking stages of Youngling, Padawan, Jedi Knight, and Jedi Master might be cool.

jones@mathshelp | April 21, 2011

Certainly agree with ' let’s see if we can incorporate a few gaming principles in teaching to improve motivation and outcomes.'

Susan Deane | May 16, 2011

Has anyone used gaming in an online course? If so, what types? Thanks!

@Quoquoi | June 4, 2011

OVER TEN YEARS AGO, COMPULINE INTERNATIONAL, INC. WAS INVOLVED IN THE DESIGN AND DEMONSTRATION OF AN EDUCATIONAL PORTAL (AT NYC COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT 23) FOR NYC BOE, THAT WAS TO USE GAMES AND SIMULATION FOR STUDENTS, ESPECIALLY MINORITY STUDENTS IN THE SCIENCES (MATH, CHEMISTRY, PHYSICS, ETC). THIS PROJECT INVOLVED SOME MAJOR US CORPORATIONS. MAY BE THIS EDUCATIONAL PORTAL PILOT WAS NOT APPRECIATED AT FIRST BY NYC BOARD OF EDUCATION (BOE).. I HOPE THAT BY NOW, IT WILL BE SEEM AS A MAJOR EDUCATIONAL TOOLS.

Jen | June 15, 2012

One thing you didn't mention in your article is the level of cognitive activity that is actually going on when people are playing video games. There is this common misconception that playing video games was a mentally passive activity of mashing buttons on a controller. It is quite the opposite. In order to succeed, gamers need to recognize patterns and devise strategies to overcome challenges based on their analysis of the patterns in the game and the tools available to them. The "boss" in a video game is always a monster that does not behave in the same pattern as regular monsters. It therefore involves a quick analysis, often based on empirical testing (if I use this kind of attack will it work on him? Nope, have to try something else), and then the development of a strategy based on the analysis of that pattern (magical attacks do more damage than physical so I'll have to only hit him with those).

With all the buzz out these days about active learning and how it is really well suited to this generation, it makes me think about this aspect of video games. Kids these days play more video games and watch less tv. They are used to being entertained in ways where they are actively involved in that activity. There's no wonder active learning, where they are more actively engaged in the learning process, is more successful.


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