Games are lessons, just less fun.

The basic question, the basic mental hurdle in thinking about class as a game is simply – what is a game?

A game is an activity that – requires at least one player, has rules and has a victory condition.

If we then compare this to a ‘lesson’ it’s hard to argue that lessons are not in fact games. This is also helpful in realising why Second Life is not a game and why simply pushing teachers and students in-world in fairly pointless and probably counter-productive.

Games are built to be increasingly complex and added difficulty,  leading the player through a story of sorts.

There’s no reason to believe schemas familiar to gamers are not also valid new taxonomies, strategies and methods for learning in the classroom.

Todays youth has far greater schemas for these than for jumping functional literacy hoops in order to satisfy the examiner lamenting the decline essay standards. Our digital world is itself a game and requires us to approach the future teaching mindful of game-design as it dominates the technological landscape. Whether the best place to learn is in the real world or in a virtualised one highlights the simple fact virtual worlds remain a mystery to most teachers and consequently unimportant. Real learning must occur inside real classrooms whilst a few brave teachers offer some middle-ground view that the read/write web will in someway be an intersection to heal the growing chasm between ‘traditional’ and ‘technological’ teaching ideology.

Firstly, games present an academic problem. Games don’t seem to be academic “enough” — therefore cannot be used to create ‘lessons’. It’s that black and white to the majority. All Web2.0 suffers this problem, games are perhaps the easiest to marginalize, and most Web2.0 gurus avoid tainting their ‘speaking gig’ by talking about games for that reason. There is of course no guarantee that traditional lessons are academic or that they will be good either – but a convenient haughty assumption used to avoid ruminating further asking questions.

Characters in good games seek wish fulfillment. This is important to consider, as it underpins motivation and engagement. The character gamers play gives them the chance to be something they aren’t in the real world. This is also significant as it relates to identity formation and self-esteem. Games should make players feel something they aren’t in the real world: powerful, smart, rich, heroic, sneeky etc., A lesson should do the same – and realise that in games an 8 year old want’s to be good at are probably games designed for 12 year olds – and nearly always achieves it with help.

This is the victory they are seeking at an early age – to fulfill the wish to be better at something that they are currently not. This I think is partly the attraction in the Web2.0 game. Teachers see ways to play new characters and to become something that their daily-life environment isn’t providing. So we play.

Watch an 8 year old – observing a 15 year old playing Halo Reach – they are learning simply by observing. Is this so weird? Isn’t this how youngster’s learned before someone somewhere decided to standardise matters and dreamed up the idea of exams?

We can look at a teacher’s lesson plan and ask “How does a lesson satisfy the wish fulfillment of the student?”

Often it doesn’t – it is the wish of the teacher, the school, the curriculum that is fulfilled and the student remains a passive conscript in someone else’s game. The ‘ever improving’ game of results – where schools compete for ‘the best results’ to prove some societal point.

Most gamers don’t actually know what they want until it is shown to them. This is often said of students and teachers. However, game designers look for things that they have created in their design that are ‘un-fun’. They simply remove as much un-fun activities as possible, leaving the ‘fun’ behind. Simple. Un-fun is a learning killer, but a worthwhile approach to evaluating the design of lessons. When playing a game – we can quit when the un-fun reaches the red-zone. In a classroom, we can’t switch off the teacher, so instead switch off our brains – as humans are great at this. Game designers seem to be better at avoiding this than any other form of media right now – yet game theory is still estranged from proper learning theory.

If a 10 year old performs better in Field Runners than a 40 year old – then should be not be finding out why? For example, why isn’t it important to use Field Runners to assess 8-12 year olds  their computational logic and critical thinking over a set of fragmented paper-based tests? What is more important – assessing this skill or their ability to format text in Word?

What are we so scared of finding out?

Part of the problem here seems to be — if teachers develop ways to use Field Runners as an assessment tool for critical thinking — chances are it’s going to disrupt everything else as we discover (and admit) than an 8 year old has the same computational logic skills as a 17 year old.


11 thoughts on “Games are lessons, just less fun.

  1. “When playing a game – we can bail when the un-fun reaches the red-zone. In a classroom, we can’t switch off the teacher, so instead switch off our brains – as humans are great at this. It’s a kind of manual un-fun over-ride.” – thanks – I love this comment as it summarizes beautifully the action taking place and what’s going wrong in so many of our classrooms!

  2. It seems that game play is considered in the most part a juvenile past-time. Even though, it’s obviously that ‘play to learn’ scenarios are were we learn best. Traditional learning is based on a framework which in some cases, dates back 60 years.
    If we now take that into consideration, we realize that certain classroom teaching techniques SHOULD be revisited.

    Watching child play, you realize that hard wire learning’s, which we all use through out entire life are obtained not through textural or class room methods, but through play.
    Virtual Reality eLearning (VRE) within a game play framework then becomes relevant in some (not all) academic scenarios.

  3. I really enjoyed this post! We’re attempting to gamify more of our work to include more FUN! And hopefully include more challenges! The biggest challenge will be to help teachers understand that the learning design must include the fun! And if this is disruptive, that’s OK too. It’s the assessment part that scares everyone off. What do we do with students who are performing well above the rest? Imagine if we could assess our students by putting them in front of a game and measuring how quickly they move through the levels, how well they collaborate to succeed/win, or better still…get them to design a game and have peers rank/rate their games. We might even have them demonstrate how articulate they are by deconstructing their peers’ games and analysing/ justifying why they selected one over another. (oops, this is starting to sound like hard work)

  4. I love it. There are so many skills in games. I’m a huge Final Fantasy nerd. Just being able to navigate the maps, solve problems, make choices, etc. are skills necessary for our kids. Not only that, but games can be locked into “education.” The entire concept of the archetypal hero and journey is prevalent in practically every piece of literature and video game. Besides, games call to all different parts of kids’ brains. Why not let them have fun and learn some stuff while doing it? Fun post. Thanks.

  5. I love this post Dean. Applying the principles of good game design as a pedagogy is an area I have been promoting through our MacICT Game Design project. We are also endeavouring to create a metagame to teach good game design in the next iteration of our project. These concepts are very unfamiliar to most teachers we work with, but over the last year, we have definitely seen an increase in openess and a willingness to explore this area.

    • agreed: I think the level up is to work with teachers at the creative level – helping them design ‘e-tivities’ is game-like ways – and starting to teach them more about the various levels needed to engage, motivate and develop students – rather than attempt to retro fit them onto existing Blooms based learning design. Im not sure who wrote that ‘rule’ on the tablets of edu-lore … that all future technological developments must be retro-fitted to pen and paper approaches of the 1950’s triangle … or why that triangle remains dominant in the education of pre-service teachers, and central to not only how they are told to prepare lessons – but also how to assess learning. I don’t see any reason for the monopoly.

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  7. You hieratic! How dare you challenge the traditional structure of public education in the U.S. (anywhere really). Do you, and your “smug” readers, realize that you are being labeled as a “subversive entity”, and “highly suspect” to what is BEST for students (tonal reference directed to the Nazis)? You will be marginalized in institutional learning. An outcasts that is ostracized at any given time.

    Has anyone read the book “Disrupting Class” by Clayton Christensen yet? Make no mistake about it, traditional public institutions of learning are NOT interesting in reforming. It’s all about the veneer.

    Is there an educational institution on Earth that practices a Deweyan education philosophy? Surely Dewey would have been a gamer, if given a chance.

    • Dewey was a gamer, in fact he had mates who we’re really interested in games about the same time … in fact a lot of the literature about games around the same time used his ideas as hypothesis, especially in work done at Harvard Law. Today – in games , there is a lot of Skinner inside Halo Reach. So happy to declare I’m actually very conventional – if not old school.

      Made me smile – thanks for the comment James.

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