Good Games and Good Learning: What Games Teach About Learning

Posted: November 7, 2011 in Books, Gamer Theory
Tags: , , , ,

This was the essay I was really looking forward to getting my teeth into. It is one of the topics that really gets me fired up: what we can learn about learning from video games. Good Video Games,  the Human Mind, and Good Learning is the fourth essay in Good Video Games and Good Learning (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies). This is a long one, buckle in.
learn“Edutainment” is becoming a bigger and bigger buzzword and for good reason. A well designed game is a very good learning experience. But when some people, too many people, think about using video games as teaching tools, they simply put a digital overlay and some kind of scorekeeping on top of a learning objective. Without any consideration of how people have their best learning experiences or how good games leverage that, the very best you can hope for is a bad game.

The idea that video games provide good learning experiences makes complete sense. Video games are increasingly complex both in complexity of action and exploration of themes. They have to get all the information about how to play inside a player’s head in a way that the player will not only quickly absorb, but will pay for the privilege because it is fun. On the other hand you have the average educational experience in the public classroom, which has not changed in over a century. As teaching to the test becomes more and more common the gulf between the educational experience and what makes learning pleasurable and effective will continue to grow.

So what makes a good learning experience and how do video games leverage it? Dr. Gee has thirteen points under the general headings of Empowering Learners, Problem Solving, and Understanding. Educators reading this will find these familiar topics of discussion. Each topic has a lot of room for expanding upon as well, books have been written about these after all. But here’s the ten thousand foot view.

Empowering Learners

1. Co-Design: Good learning requires thaan individual feel like an active agent, not a passive recipient. Hands-on learning isn’t just about being able to hold the object you’re learning about in your hands, it’s about having agency and being able to have an observable, measureable say in your experience. A student who can help design his own lesson plan has buy-in and becomes an engaged participant. While god-games such as Age of Empires quite literally allow for co-design, even RPGs allow for a large degree of co-design. You can choose which side quests you pursue

2. Customize: Are you a visual or auditory learner? Do you study best at a desk or on the floor? Do you sneak through the levels of Deus Ex like a thief in the night, or do you run through with guns blazing? Allowing students a risk-free environment to explore how they best learn gives them the opportunity to discover how they learn, as well as figuring out how and why they learn.

3. Identity: Games are very good at letting us pick up a role and become invested in it. This is invaluable in a learning experience because information does not exist as hard data in an abstract vacuum. Standardized tests exist in an environment like that. Real academic areas are ways of knowing, methods for generating facts, and standards through which information is modified and defended. As important as data is the “rules of engagement” for the domain. Without this understanding there is no context for facts, and that makes learning exponentially harder.

4. Manipulation and Distributed Knowledge: Humans are tool users, through the millennia our tools have gotten smarter and extended our potential area of effectiveness. When we manipulate tools we feel empowered. Every game is a story about the player moving a tool, their avatar, and using it to manipulate the game environment. The avatar, in addition to being a smart tool, also contains distributed knowledge. It doesn’t matter if I as the player don’t know how to swing from ledge to ledge on a rope – Lara Croft does. Math is another example of a smart tool. If you give kids a pendulum and let them fool around with it for a while, they will not make the same discoveries Galileo did. Galileo had the tools first (geometry) and the distributed knowledge (generations of mathmeticians who laid out how geometry works) and was thus able to determine the laws of pendulum movement.

Universal truths

Problem Solving

5. Well Ordered Problems: Good learning experiences build on each other like blocks. Because of this, it is very important to be aware of how players (and learners) will encounter problems and solutions. This is not to say that the experience has to be linear, but that you can’t take a lassiez faire approach and just turn the players loose in a library and hope something comes of it. (Some people think fondly of Myst, I remember it as a collection of frustrations with no clear idea of where to go, or guidance in how I was expected to solve problems or why).  Without well ordered problems and well designed problem spaces, learners are likely to make spurious connections and incorrect patterns. They need someone who knows the domain to show them the way to go.

6. Pleasantly Frustrating: Good games and good learning both involve operating on the edge of your competancy. There’s a time for running drills and practicing, but learning really takes place when you’re being challenged at something you might not get right the first time. And here is where video games can really teach schools a thing or two. Games allow you to move on when you’re ready. There is no being held back, there is no special ed. You proceed as quickly or as slowly as you need to in order to master the material.

7. Cycles of Expertise: Games alternate fruitful practice and new challenge. This allows the player to learn a new skill, and then time to make it reflex before learning the next chunk. Experts in a field routinize their skills and challenge themselves with new problems. These new problems will require new skills that then must be integrated in with the old skill set. And so the cycle of expertise continues.

8. Information “On Demand” and “Just in Time:” Humans are not especially good at dealing with abstract knowledge. We do best when there is a framework we can integrate it into. Much like the cycle of expertise above, we do best with things in chunks, getting information only as we can use it. Lectures and textbooks can be used on demand, but we need some kind of experience to integrate it in with what we know, whether it’s labwork in a chemistry class or a philosophical debate with classmates.

9. Fish Tanks: The real world is complicated. Frequently it best serves our learning purposes to deal with a simplified model that has only a few variables, much like a fish tank is a model for a pond’s ecosystem. Good games often start the player in these fish tanks. The original Deus Ex starts you with a series of training exercises in the supersoldier facility before turning you lose on the world. Letting the learner poke around in the fish tank lets them gather valid data and form hypotheses on how the variables interact.

10. Sandboxes: A sandbox is a safe place for a child that encourages learning. It feels like the real environment, anf though the risks have been severely mitigated, the accomplishments still feel real and authentic. A video game is pretty much fail-proof in the first level or two, letting you get a feel for how the rules work, what you can do in the world, and allowing the player to take some low-level risks to learn if they’ve figured out successful strategies. A bad game – and a bad learning experience – does not have this sandbox, and this is exactly what is wrong with school. The stakes are unbelievable high and it’s very risky. If you fail, even at level one, there’s no save point. You’ve got to go back and re-do the whole level. There is no incentive to do anything but stick to the tried-and-true method when innovation may mean punishing failure.

This is OUR sandbox
11. Skills as Strategies: Nobody likes drilling for the sake of drilling. We do need to repeat a skill many times for it to become second nature, that is certain, but skills are often learned best when they’re part of a package set of activities that have some kind of meaning. In Batman: Arkham City you absolutely need to get the timing down for counterattacks if you’re going to have any hope of beating big bosses. But rather than practicing the timeing of the counterattack over and over again to perfect it, you’re using it (along with several other moves) in constant combat with the low level thugs. This skill gets incoporated into a strategy in how to play the game. This is critical when you’re trying to take a learner from say, reading and decoding thoughts, into writing and encoding thoughts.


12. System Thinking: People learn best when they can see how the pieces fit together. This has been mentioned several times above, but it really is a critical piece for understanding the world. More so than ever the world is made of complex systems that interact with each other. A fact that exists outside of a learner’s picture of these systems and their relationships has no meaning. It is nothing more than an isolated data point memorized for a test and then quickly discarded. A competantly designed video game will never introduce a fact unless it has some bearing on the way the player understands the game (even easter eggs are included, giving a behind the scenes nod and wink to the player).

13. Meaning as Action Image: We don’t really think about things as a series of definitions and cold analytical facts. If I were to start talking about weddings your mind would not leap to generalities about weddings, you would imagine weddings you’ve been to or heard about. The best learning takes place, not when someone is talking at us with facts and how-twos, but when we can run through a simulation in our head. A good game can even get across philosophical concepts with simulation grounded in image and action. This is what makes bad edutainment games so frustrating when they violate this very basic principle: don’t lecture at me, allow me to experience what I’m supposed to learn. Don’t talk about how a butterfly serves the flower by carrying pollen, let me be the butterfly carrying the pollen. If all I have are dictionary-like verbal descriptions, I’ll never really understand.

Games are fun. Games are a lot of fun. Too frequently learning is considered the opposite of fun, but games show that this is wong. Games in fact trigger deep and profound learning experiences and in doing so ping one of the most primal  drives we have.


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