(While working on my NCCE presentation this morning, I decided to type out exactly what I’d like to say about games as I introduce my SimCity project. I will probably scale this back, but here’s the full, off-the-top-of-my-head version. Please leave comments and feedback on the content and organization or suggestions for resources!)
Games are play. We know the value of play (1) from all the research done that it encourages self-regulation, teaches cultural values and norms, develops creativity and real skills. One of my colleagues (@darkwolv) says that play allows you to explore ethics and morality in a pure way. There are clear rights and wrongs in a game, but you get to explore how you to handle it. For example, when little kids play doctor, they explore how they want to be treated when they are sick or hurt. When kids play multiplayer games like Call of Duty, they explore what it means to backstab a team member and the repercussions. How is play relevant to the real world? It allows us to temporarily leave reality, just as a good book or movie does. In this alternate space, we can develop real skills, such as cooperation with others, how to cope with and take responsibility, how to read and interpret data, cause and effect, etc.
Games give you a goal to work towards. (2) In soccer, it’s an obvious put-the-ball-in-the-net to score points and win. Even in an open-ended, real-time strategy game like SimCity where there is no way to beat or end the game, there are goals of growing your population and taking care of your sims. In school, the goal sometimes feels like getting the best grade or pleasing the teacher or getting the right degree to earn more money. If we are going to cultivate lifelong learners, the goal needs to lead students to learning and exploring.
Games give you, to quote Jane McGonigal (2), a sense of “heroic purpose”. If you look at American sports culture around high school sports, you see that successful high school athletes take on heroic proportion because of the emotion connected to winning. In World of Warcraft, you are logging in to save Azaroth. In this project, students got to be mayors of their city, not 7th graders. They had what I call “weightless” responsibilities. Because they are playing the role, there are no serious consequences to failure. Sometimes we give kids responsibilities that they are not ready for, like solving climate change, and instead of digging in and working on the problem, they shut down and disconnect. And we’re surprised? The weightless responsibility buoys the sense that they can succeed and makes them feel competent to succeed.
Games teach in context and allow you to learn as you go. You do not have to memorize the rules before you start. Take Angry Birds, for example. The first levels are simple and present the different types of birds one at a time. As you progress, exploding all the pigs gets harder and asks you to apply what you learned in previous levels. You wouldn’t start with the last level because each level improves your ability to play. Likewise, you do not get a guide to the types of birds and then try to use them. You discover their properties by trial and error. This is in contrast with much of how we teach. In math, for example, you are taught a formula first and then shown how to apply it to different scenarios just in case you come across something like it. How many times have you had to calculate the speed of a train going from New York to Chicago? Games, on the other hand, throw you into the fray and help you make sense of what needs to be done, and you learn how to do it by experimenting, exploring, failing, and succeeding.
The reason games are such effective teachers is in part because they are Goldilocks differentiators. They present exactly the right amount of challenge for every player that plays. For example, you can play scrabble when you are 7 or 70. The words you use will grow in complexity as your vocabulary expands and as you learn strategies for maximizing points. I love to do the New York Times crossword puzzle. Mondays are too easy but Saturday is too hard. Wednesdays are just right. A good game is designed intentionally to give you just the right amount of challenge. If it’s too hard or there are too many rules to memorize, you won’t play. By the same token, if it’s too easy, there’s no sense of accomplishment.
Games are fun! Without getting lost in all of these details, we know on a gut level that if something is called a game, it should be fun. Teachers, however, can feel that if their students are having fun, they are not learning. Playing games is seen as a frivolous, waste of time. Students should do “work” to learn. The exact opposite is true. Students learn MORE when they are having fun because they are engaged and alert. (3) With games, there is a sense of “hard fun,” where your work and effort results in success. This is what drives kids to practice free throws over and over so that when faced with a foul shot to win the game they can swish it.
Let’s take a moment to recap:
- Development of creativity and skills, self-regulation, interpersonal skills
- Exploration of morality and ethics
- Heroic purpose and weightless responsibility
- Learning in context
- Appropriate challenges
Sounds like pretty good pedagogy to me!
(1) Rieber, L.P., Smith, L., & Noah, D. (1998). The value of serious play. Educational Technology, 38(6), 29-37. http://lrieber.coe.uga.edu/valueofplay.html
(2) Jane McGonigal’s work: Ted Talk. Reality is Broken. Variety of other papers. http://janemcgonigal.com