Game-driven learning

wall screen copyPlaying games is fun. Make them available via internet on hand-held devices. Viola! endless access to fun. A recent invasion of such endless fun entered our schools in the form of an app called Fun Run.

Fun Run didn’t have sophisticated graphics or complex levels. Racing cute, furry creatures while dodging lightning bolts was  attractive because of live competition. Student could coordinate beginning of races and play against friends for bragging rights. They found it increasingly hard to give up this game for their studies. “No Fun Run” signs sprung up in classrooms. Teachers dream of a way to engage students in lessons as deeply as games. Should that be the wave of future education?

During the slowdown in classes that occurs around exam time, I observed high school students and talked to them about the attraction of gaming. First, I noted that normally about 20 to 25 percent of the students would select electronic game playing when allowed to do anything in a class (they all had some form of internet access). Gaming was simply more noticeable due to constant whoops and boasts of “Owned you!” and “Look at this score!” Interestingly, I saw some students watching the others play, but never participating themselves. Because, I did not focus on other activities selected during “down time,” I don’t have a comprehensive list sorted by percentages. However, talking with friends appeared to be the top choice.  Others were listening to music, sharing photos, watching videos, texting, drawing and reading. Evidently, any pedagogy built around the learning structures and rewards of gaming is not going to appeal to a large percentage of the students.

During discussions with students who preferred electronic games to other forms of entertainment, I found some recurrent themes. Game playing is adrenaline producing. This is interesting because the attention required for gaming tends to reduce social interaction. According to Marti Olsen Laney (psychotherapist and researcher) extroverts have a greater enjoyment of both adrenaline rushes and lengthy social interactions than introverts. [1]

The addictive nature of electronic games may results from the fact that that they provide one source of enjoyable stimulation while isolating people from a source of stress. These students felt gaming was a safe entertainment, a low stakes activity with the opportunity to practice and fail repeatedly. The learning curve was very gentle. Most of the time they did not have to think about which direction to put efforts as the game offered limited options. Students preferred games based on anticipating and making key presses accurately to those requiring higher level thinking skills.

Students definitely found electronic games more thrilling when they could play against other live people. As one said “Winning against a machine is not really winning.” (However, access to “cheats” was a popular way to short cut the time taken to master a game.) When I asked one student what he learned playing Fun Run, he answered “Nothing really, but I did learn how to spell playing a computer game.” As a dyslexic, he had not been able to memorize phonemes as rapidly as other students. He found the additional practice he required through a game-like computer program.

This is probably the true direction learning through gaming should take. Students learn more rapidly through direct instruction and practice more enjoyably through games. However, just as simple games are fads that students constantly abandon for the next new thriller, games for education will need to keep up with the thirst for billions of slightly challenging new levels.

Early in the “Fun Run” invasion I saw a girl ask a boy if she could borrow his phone to play this game.

“Didn’t renew it, got bored with it.” he replied.

“Ah,” she moaned looking downcast.

“Just playing with you,” he responded with a sly smile handing her the phone. Obviously playing the game was not one of his major motivations.

[1] Laney, Marti Olsen, The Introvert Advantage: Making the Most of Your Inner Strengths. Workman Publishing, 2002

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