Shall We Play A Game?

This is part of a series of posts on game-based learning in conjunction with the Games for Change Festival. See the whole series.

History Of Gaming

If the WarGames reference wasn’t clear, it is once again the week of the Games for Change Festival. So it seems like the perfect opportunity to discuss the how, why, and history of game-based learning. As you can see below digital game-based learning has a long history. Beyond the digital realm, you can look to the ancient origins of chess, Go, or Senet to see games being used for education. Play is critical for development and not just in humans. Mary Poppins realized it, and scientific studies show that play increases brain activity and awareness even in animals. If you want further examples you can play a History of Educational Gaming Breakout I created. I will say that I am old enough to have gotten hooked Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail in 1985 when they first hit the market and I still can enjoy playing them now.

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Without boring you about the long research history of games in education (see my research post), I will say that John Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Brian Sutton Smith’s Play Theory, and Roger Caillos’s Man, Play and Games will give a solid weekend of reading on the subject. BrainPOP also provides academic research on game-based learning as well, so, even if you’re already sold on using games in class, you now have valuable resources to show a reluctant administrator.

Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll.

– Shigeru Miyamoto

The reasons for using digital games are many, but here are some highlights. Digital games are:

  • Multi-Sensory – digital games are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic
  • Highly & Actively Engaging – games (at least good ones) are fun and draw your attention
  • Allow Choice & Freedom – in-game choices empowers students to take command of their learning
  • Student-Tailored Pacing – good games don’t force choices often and allows the player to dictate the pace of play and learning
  • Immediate Feedback – both the player and teacher receive regular information through systems for tracking and reporting
  • Knowledge Transfer – learn by doing rather than by hearing
  • Rewards-Based – extrinsic rewards like points transfer into intrinsic motivation like meaning
  • Redefine Failure – change I give-up moments into I’m going to score higher moments

As you can see my favorite reasons to have students play is shifting motivation from external to internal (see my diatribe on it) and the innate ability of games to increase student grit so that their threshold for failure rises. The student willingly pushes beyond struggles because the game is inherently fun, because it is meaningful to them, and because it is a safe space for failure.

For that student game over becomes try again with experience.

If you dig through the research though you’ll find some of the general skills developed through games include increased memory, perseverance, strategic planning, abstract reasoning, teamwork, leadership, creativity, and cultural knowledge.

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Digital games have often led to the biggest tech innovations, have quickly decreased the cost of technology to make it accessible, and, according to Kurzweil’s law, will only become a more powerful force for change. When you look at the HUD display in your car, medpacs, or surgical video and training technologies you can thank video games for making them possible. Sea Hero Quest and Project Evo are even games that are approved for treating Alzheimer’s and ADHD respectively while others are improving vision for people with low visual acuity.

To be effective though games should not be simple formulaic puzzles, but should allow for personalization and abstract problem-solving. Learning facts are not the same as solving problems. It is the feeling of being pleasantly frustrated, which you find in quality games, that allow information to become neurochemically embedded according to James Paul Gee. Also discussing or instructing on empathy, culture, or literature before or after a game improves the learning of that skill throughout the game according to Values at Play. These are why it’s not only important to play but to play well.

Research studies show that the building blocks of good games are the same as those for good teaching. Synthesized into a cool-teacher-acronym format, a good game will help you LEVEL-UP. A good game will include at least some of these.

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  • Legend – Great games help the player tell their story and allows the player to safely experience a full emotional range in ways that would be difficult in the real world. ex. Telltale’s The Walking Dead

  • Expertise – Great games challenge you to master simple skills in increasingly complex ways that pleasantly frustrate you. ex. Tetris or Flappy Birds

  • Venturing – A great game is an adventure where you unearth new wonderful discoveries regularly. ex. Pokémon Go

  • Evaluating – Games should provide regular feedback that a player is forced to evaluate (and a teacher can use to evaluate student progress as well). In early games, this would be the bounce and sound in Pong. Then our rumble-packs and Wii controllers vibrated. Now VR provides 360 degrees of information. ex. Diablo III

  • Liberty – Some of the best games are like open sandboxes. They are virtual Lego sets where we have the liberty to create whatever world we dream. ex. Minecraft

  • Unexpected – What’s that? A dragon in the sky? Just when we might encounter boredom a good game needs to jolt us with something unexpected. ex Skyrim

  • Partnership – Great games lead to social connections. In-game partnerships become real-world friendships and sometimes even more. ex. World of Warcraft

Educational games shouldn’t require a toll booth (learn then play) nor should they be like chocolate covered broccoli (unengaging learning packaged as fun). It’s the difference between DragonBox Numbers and MathBlasters. In DragonBox Numbers, players slice and reconnect characters in fun ways hardly realizing they are learning numeracy and arithmetic. In Math Blasters, a game I enjoyed as a child, you are essentially doing flash cards with blinking lights (chocolate-covered broccoli). The games must be integrated fully into instruction and allow for the autonomy and creativity to sustain learning. Many of the best educational games, like Minecraft or Civilization, started off as just fun game platforms where learning was innate but not forced.

This week I am also presenting a workshop at an Ed Tech Team event on gamifying school in addition to the one I just gave at the NYC Schools Tech Summit (see it on Periscope).


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