Learning With Games

But in acknowledging play you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter. Even in the animal world it bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by the operation of blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos.
–Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1949)

[F]or human beings at least, play serves the function of reducing the pressures of impulse and incentive and making it possible thereby for intrinsic learning to begin, for if ever there is self-reward in process it is in the sphere of “doing things for merriment”….
–Jerome Bruner, Toward A Theory Of Instruction (1966)

James Gee’s What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Language And Literacy (2nd edition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) maps out thirty-six learning principles that the best video games demonstrate. In “Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming as a Constellation of Literacy Practices,” Constance Steinkuehler “argues that forms of video game play such as those entailed in MMOGs [massively multiplayer online games] are not replacing literacy activities but rather are literacy activities” (E-Learning and Digital Media 4:3, 2007). How might games of all kinds–serious and otherwise–increase the effectiveness of teaching and learning by 2020? This is a large question, but one worth asking, given that gaming of all kinds–particularly those mediated by networked computing devices–occupies a central role in the culture of the 21st century, one whose popularity has eclipsed books, music, and movies combined.

For example:

  • Games such as Food Force http://www.un-ngls.org/orf/food-force.htm and Global Conflicts http://www.globalconflicts.eu/ can teach content AND global economic / historical / social awareness and ethical decision-making.
  • Games such as The Sims and Spore furnish highly collaborative learning environments that can motivate student engagement and problem-solving activity. See this interview with their developer, Will Wright: “The Man Behind Spore Explores Gaming as Learning.”
  • Dartmouth College’s Tiltfactor Laboratory “designs, creates, and studies games. From social activist games, where we examine empathy, to games for health where we study if players are learning about immunization, we focus on what we call ‘critical play’ that fosters human values. We also encourage the artistic and innovative place of games in culture. Given the multidisciplinary nature of our projects, the candidates will likely have interests that span several disciplines, such as psychology, gaming, and learning; or machine learning, social games, and HCI [human-computer interaction].
  • “Little Big Planet,” a game developed for the Sony Playstation 3 platform, includes tools with which users can create and share their own additional game levels. Over three millions such levels have been uploaded to the Media Molecule servers since the game was released just three years ago (Media Molecule is the company that developed the game).
  • One current game developer, Jane McGonigal, insists that “reality is broken,” and has pioneered massive multiplayer “alternate reality games … that challenge players to tackle real-world problems at a planetary-scale: hunger, poverty, climate change, or global peace, for example (see: EVOKE, World Without Oil, Superstruct).” Here is McGonigal’s TED Talk:

Gaming is a powerful engine for curiosity, exploration, and learning; it will undoubtedly increase in importance as a learning technology as this decade continues.

3 Responses to Learning With Games

  1. By coincidence, I was listening to the Educause podcast Games: The Best Way to Learn. Period. this morning, before receiving Jennifer Sparrow’s invitation to visit this site.

    When a member of the session audience pointed out the intimidating overhead of developing a game, a podcast panel member observed that learning games aren’t limited to computer games. The principles of learning games can be exercised as effectively by simple games (a classroom game based on “Jeopardy” was mentioned) as by the latest video technology.

    The discussion about learning games can proceed without the distraction of technology.

  2. Pingback: Using game-playing popularity to improve teaching and learning « providencecollege2020

  3. Paul Wittkorn says:

    The problem with using games to learn about the real world is that game worlds are artificial. You can only reach conclusions allowed for by the game designers, using methods predicted by the game designers. Whereas the real-world problems students need to learn about and work on are much more complicated than can be represented in a computer program. What students learn from games is how to manipulate the game system, not how to actually solve real problems.

    Even the most basic physical principles can’t be taught via simulation. For one thing, the students won’t truly learn the principles of the physical world by looking at a screen and memorizing the formulas, and more importantly the real world process of overcoming mundane obstacles and dealing with mistakes, bad measurements, and experimental error is probably the more important part of the learning process. Interacting with a simulation that never gives unexpected results only gives poor lessons.

    The same would be true for any simulated reality. World hunger, chemistry, personal interactions, economics, etc. Computers can do a lot of things, but improving on the real world is not one of them.

    On the flip side, turning normal software applications into games to try to encourage usage is insulting to users and wastes their time. Game mechanics represent an inefficiency in design that get in the way of using the software, and which users will recognize–if subconsciously–as an attempt to manipulate them. When precious software development time is spent trying to trick users into thinking using the software is fun, rather than making it work easily and well to perform the tasks they need efficiently, users will resent the wasted efforts, and rightly so.

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