The Big Five: Five Reasons Why Educational Games Work

16 Jul

Before we can begin research on topics in games for learning, we must discuss what we already know about why games can be used for serious or educational purposes.

1)      Video games are designed to convey complex ideas and practice these concepts repeatedly – these abilities can be used for serious purposes.

It’s an old game design adage that players don’t read the instruction book; game designers must account for the large majority that doesn’t want to read a book before experiencing play. A game should be easy enough to comprehend right from the game’s opening screen that the engaged player can understand controls and objectives from the start. Unfortunately there is a similar problem with today’s educational system; there are those that do not want to “read the booklet” or simply study theory when practicing these ideas and concepts is far more engaging, even in some cases entertaining.

Educational games are designed to play free of the “instruction book—” games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail take concepts like geography and history and make them an intrinsic part of gameplay. And through gameplay players gradually learn educational concepts like the distance between different countries in Europe or the historical diet of settlers moving out West in the 1800’s. James Paul Gee posits that this kind of “active learning” is more effective than reading the same kind of concepts in a textbook and testing them on the subject. While games don’t necessarily guarantee active learning, a well-designed game has a better chance of engaging the player/learner than any one text can possibly accomplish.

Intelligent, committed and creative teachers can engage the student and produce an active learning environment, but that kind of experience is only possible in smaller-sized classrooms and with students who are all roughly at the same level in the material. Today’s schools are facing budget cuts upon budget cuts and classrooms are expanding every year. The active learning environment is becoming a distant dream in many cases. Even if access to a computer is limited, giving students a short time with a cheap tablet and truly engaging educational programs can help to improve the educational experience even if it cannot fix the whole of what has gone wrong with the public school system.

2)      The concept of “flow” means that the players of games can work on repetitive concepts over and over without fatigue; we can use this phenomenon to have students work on difficult or undesirable subjects repeatedly.

Flow is a philosophical concept; we owe Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for this concept. The idea of flow is that the experience of enjoyment comes from when one balances their experience perfectly between frustration and boredom. As long as the activity continuously becomes more difficult as the player’s abilities improve, then the experience of enjoyment and the sense of flow will continue for the participant. Games are designed specifically to keep flow going as long as humanly possible. That’s why games have become wrapped in the language of addiction; with perfect flow stopping the activity can be undesirable, even unthinkable. While game addiction is a real thing, flow can also be used to create positive, productive effects.

Flow can be used for education. With perfect flow comes perfect engagement, which as discussed earlier creates an active learning environment. In an ideal world all educational experiences would utilize perfect flow. Every student would be engaged at that perfect level between frustrating subjects above their level and simplistic concepts they’ve long mastered.  However today’s large classroom sizes and strict grade leveling means that only a small minority of students feel flow when in the classroom. Most are already far ahead of the classmates for far behind, and in either case school becomes an unpleasant experience, either frustrating or boring.

Video games are designed to keep the player experience in perfect flow. Traditional game design elements like levels and difficulty settings allow every player to find their flow. Education should ideally allow each student to do the same thing. With the use of educational video games students can find their level of flow, whether they need to conquer simple arithmetic, fractions, or algebra. With adaptable, intelligently designed games students at multiple levels can approach the same educational concepts at the perfect level for flow, allowing them to get more engaged and active than a broad lecture or a stressful test.

3)      Video game avatars do affect the way players interact, in both positive and negative ways. The proper utilization of avatars can reduce barriers like a lack of self-confidence.

Nick Yee calls this the “Proteus effect.” The Proteus effect refers to the idea that “an individual’s behavior conforms to their self-representation independent of how others perceive them.”  In one study Yee found that young people with an aesthetically pleasing avatar with more intimate with their peers in the game than those with less attractive avatars. In another one of his studies, those with taller avatars behaved more confidently than those with shorter avatars, matching studies of how taller and shorter people behave in a real-world experiment. Avatars can be harnessed for a more confident, active learning environment in a virtual landscape.

Educational games are designed to teach subjects like science and mathematics, but schools also teach students more abstract concepts, like how to collaborate on projects and how to respect diversity and social boundaries. As with disciplines, some students have an easier time with the social aspects of schools than others.  Shy or insecure students, who would improve with the one-on-one guidance and encouragement, are increasingly getting lost in a classroom that demands teachers drill large classes in how to pass a standardized test rather than provide a nurturing environment for growth.

A virtual world can hardly be expected to replace traditional classrooms, but with the use of avatars those students who suffer from low self-esteem or those that don’t feel comfortable being themselves can, however briefly, explore a world with a completely different form. If Yee’s Proteus Effect is real then teachers can use customizable avatars to help introverted students confidently approach problems in a free virtual environment. Games like MinecraftEDU are already exploring the idea of letting kids enter a virtual world with custom avatars, letting the teacher dictate what concepts the students learn in this environment, providing only the tools to create an entertaining interactive experience.

4)      Well-drawn video games can create passionate affinity groups. Kids should be that excited and passionate about science.

Affinity groups are what differentiate a good video game and a great, truly engaging video game. Affinity groups are defined by James Paul Gee as “a group that is bonded primarily through shared endeavors, goals and practices.” In his writing, he uses affinity groups to describe game players who go beyond simply playing the game and reach out to other players, those with the similar experiences playing through a game who might have questions, opinions or even ideas on how to enhance and improve play. In the age of the Internet affinity groups can form around even the most obscure of subjects, and the passion of group members leads to a myriad of creative expression.

Affinity groups don’t exclusively come out of video games, but games are a popular source for affinity groups to band together in, especially in online games where players directly interact and create bonds that can expand offline. World of Warcraft in particular is treated as the gold standard example for affinity groups, as players not only discuss the game on online forums and produce fan works to supplement game play, they build “mods” or modifications to enhance the gameplay experience for all, whether to make play easier for some players, provide a more complex experience with more detailed information or change the experience of play with simple aesthetic tweaks. The Sims series is another industry leader in affinity groups; player-created clothes, Sims, houses, and mods have been embraced by parent company EA, enough to design easy ways to connect the single-player experience with an online profile and easy access to a community of designers and enthusiasts.

If learning could be crafted to create such affinity groups, the students’ own passions and interests could fuel them to tackle difficult concepts and engage in their own educations.

5)      Video games allow players to fail with impunity and without consequence. Particularly in the sciences, students should have the same freedom.

I’ve written about this concept previously for the SIIA. It’s a concept James Paul Gee calls the “psychosocial moratorium principle;” the idea that in a virtual world learners can take more risks in a consequence-free environment, which allows them a greater freedom to experiment and try new things. In the current classroom environment students can only experiment to a point; the larger class sizes get and the more budget cuts affect lesson plans the less active experimentation can be achieved and the more textbook-based memorization occurs. Even in a well-funded, small classroom, there are limits; no chemistry class would allow a students to play with potentially hazardous chemicals just to see what they can do, or send more than a classroom or a grade on more than a few field trips.

This is where virtual learning easily benefits the student. In a real-world chemistry lab every experiment must be done under strict guidelines; a virtual chemistry class lets students experiment with a myriad of combinations and techniques. Virtual explosions, after all, do not cost anything for the classroom or for the student. Educational video games can also transport students into situations a school cannot easily replicate; they can explore medieval ruins through a simulation as they study a historical subject, even get closer to a famous work of art than they might be allowed to in a museum or preservation site.

With the freedom to follow their own interests and passions without fear of consequences, students have a much greater chance of finding an aspect that engages them and interests them about a subject.

These are my “Big Five” – real reasons why games for learning are important tools for educators. Educational games can work. Next we’ll discuss the Five Questions – the things about educational games that still need to be approached with academic research.

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