April 15th, 2011

What Games Teach Us about Learning


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.

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.

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

7 Ways that Games Reward the Brain – Tom Chatfield discusses the appeal of games.

Gaming Can Make a BetterWorld – Jane McGonigal talks about the value of games.

Video Gaming Principles as Applied to Education – Well-known education researcher James Gee talks about his discoveries about gaming.

Spring Revival: Alternate Reality Game Breathes New Life into Old Course – Ben Betts talks about how gaming was applied to a graduate business course.