Given the choice to play video games or go to school on any given day, my children would choose video games.
So as both a father and a video game designer I wonder: could schools tap into the things that make learning so addictive in the games that my kids are playing?
For many, the video games our children play are viewed as an enjoyable diversion or an emergency pacifier, or other guises that suggest they don't have much value. But what if we viewed them as offering examples of teaching and learning that share the same aims and outcomes that our schools strive for?
And I'm not specifically referring to 'educational games,' but rather the popular games they love to play. Whether it's Minecraft, FIFA, or Clash Of Clans these fun and addictive games all employ methods of teaching that encourage 'good learning'.
Games, at their most basic level, are a form of learning, modifying, and testing behaviour to achieve a goal. The best games encourage players to push themselves, think 'outside the box' and reward mastery of a skill or set of skills. Education, arguably, is about precisely the same things.
Some of the most useful and provocative work I've discovered when researching this idea come from James Paul Gee (researcher, public intellectual). After playing a game with his son and finding the experience intriguing, he began to play more widely and to write about games as a learning experience.
In his essay: Good Video Games and Good Learning, Gee asks:
Lots of young people pay lots of money to engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex. As an educator, I realized that this was just the problem our schools face: How do you get someone to learn something long, hard, and complex and yet enjoy it?
Gee outlines how learning to play a game teaches you more than simply the world of the game. The 'learning principles' behind both games and effective teaching and learning are very similar - as he says: "Challenge and learning are a large part of what makes good video games motivating and entertaining".
He identifies sixteen learning principles but I'm particularly interested in three, as they directly reflect core principles of game design:
1. Risk Taking. "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work" is a popular paraphrased Thomas Edison quote. Well-designed video games encourage taking risks, trying new things and experimenting by making failure acceptable, if not fun in itself. Good games also reduce frustration by not forcing you to repeat something that isn't challenging or engaging.
But it is precisely this aspect of learning, where failure is expected as part of the progress, that schools typically deter, discourage, and punish. In school we strive to succeed and "get it right." Anything less is seen as a negative, not a way of learning. This certainly caused myself a lot of stress as a child and I can already see the pressure on my kids starting to build.
2. Production. The principle idea here is that while you're playing a video game you are also shaping and building the experience through your actions. Games like Minecraft are incredibly successful because of this. Your experience with the product is a direct result of your personal likes and dislikes and ability to engage with the world that is presented to you, at a level that you're comfortable with.
It's no coincidence, in my opinion, that the games my 8 year old is most interested in are the ones that give him the most freedom of control. He can set the rules, he can experiment with ideas, and he can experience the results.
3. Customization. Good games offer flexibility in the way you want to interact with them. Puzzle games allow for multiple solutions to the same problem, accounting for the fact that different people approach things differently. Some games allow you to decide what difficulty level you are comfortable with while others will allow you to choose how you want your experience to change. Whether that choice is to wear a purple hat, or improve a specific skill that will allow your character to do something new, it's your choice.
How often do schools allow that type of freedom, within the structure of curriculum, for the diverse nature of every student sitting in the classroom?
So, deconstruct the way in which "good" (and what I mean by that, is the topic of the next blog post!) video games are designed, we see a set of principles that could be applied to how we teach our children in schools. Perhaps then we might find ourselves struggling to get our kids to put down their homework and spend more time playing outside.