The School House

Game designers are beating teachers at their own game

Flickr/Melanie Holtsman, CC BY

Why do kids prefer playing video games to doing homework?

The easy answer is - it’s more fun to play games than do homework. The real answer is much harder to stomach - game designers have become better at education than schools.

When playing games, kids show all the attributes their teachers wish were visible in the classroom. They stay on task, they are determined to achieve their objectives and persist despite failures along the way. They work cooperatively to solve problems, and praise the good efforts of others.

If these qualities are absent in their attitudes to schoolwork, then it would seem the fault is with the schoolwork rather than the kids.

What is it about gaming that can bring out the best in kids and what can teachers learn from game designers?

Games are challenging

Kids play games, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. They persist because they feel the reward of having achieved something that was a challenge. The ultimate reward is the “epic win”.

Jane McGonigal in her TED talk describes the epic win as

an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it […] when you get there you are shocked to discover what you are truly capable of

Our kids shouldn’t have to play video games to feel like winners - schools should be sites of epic wins.

Learning for a purpose

Well-designed games teach you to play whilst you are in the midst of playing.

You don’t need to spend time elsewhere building your skill sets before you are allowed to join the game. You are part of the story, the adventure, the quest from the very beginning - and that sense of purpose is hugely motivating.

Compare this to the ways we teach reading in schools.

High support

Game designers have nailed the holy grail of learning - the sweet spot between anxiety and boredom.

Game designers call it “flow”. Educators know it as the “zone of proximal development”.

It was Lev Vygotsky who described this “zone” - the space where the task is a little harder than what you can currently manage by yourself, but not so hard that you give up. It’s the space where learning happens, with a little help from others. Game designers carefully build that help into the game play.

In schools, too many students are given tasks outside their “zone”. The work is either what they can already do - take a look at the reading tasks we set our low achievers and our high achievers - or it is far beyond what they can achieve without explicit support.

Timely feedback

Games are a feast of positive reinforcement. For every action, players receive immediate feedback, targeted directly at them and focused on helping them achieve their next objective.

In games like League of Legends, players also receive feedback from their fellow online players, as games finish with a flurry of “good game” comments. You are rewarded within the game for being a support to your fellow players.

Contrast this with the top down responses and feedback lag times in schools.

Control and creativity

Most games have clear objectives, but there are many different ways to achieve them. This gives players a sense of control, as they set the agenda, and give their ideas a go.

Other games like Minecraft have no end game - they just present a virtual world to play in. Together with others you can decide to build a tunnel to see where it leads, or to work together to construct a castle.

The freedom to experiment and explore, and to see the consequences of your actions, is captivating. The pleasure is in your own achievements - the motivation is intrinsic.

In game play it is not only fine to make mistakes, it is necessary to make them because mistakes are creative attempts to reach a solution. Game designers call this a “fail positive” environment and it means you feel safe to take risks. It gives you the freedom to step outside the box, to try something different - to be creative.

Can our schools lay claim to this kind of learning environment?

Social and immersive

The massively multiplayer online role-playing games or MMORPGs are played in cooperation with others. Players set goals and priorities and then work together to achieve them.

Players are immersed in the story, playing an active role, affecting the story’s direction and outcomes. This isn’t learning being done to you, this is learning through participation. And in game play, all the senses are engaged simultaneously through sound, images and actions.

This is how we are naturally wired for learning, through all our senses and in the company of others.

Schools have become unnatural sites of learning, focused almost exclusively on the printed word to organise and assess learning. And in the final analysis our worth at school is measured by what we achieve alone.

Conditions for learning

A few years ago Prof. James Gee wrote an entire book on what educators can learn from video games. But we have understood these learning principles for decades, long before video games appeared on the scene.

In the 1980s Dr Brian Cambourne described eight conditions for learning, which correspond well with the analysis of video game play provided here. Cambourne’s conditions neatly apply to all learning endeavours, from how we learn to read and write to how we learn to make macaroons or operate our smartphones.

However, in recent years, it seems schools have forgotten these conditions for learning and it is little wonder our kids turn to video games to get their learning “kicks”.

Perhaps it is the race to standardised mediocrity, imposed upon schools by successive governments, that is to blame?