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Games teach us lots

In my earlier post, I highlighted how little actual evidence there was that games can deliver transferable learning on the own.  This post presents some of the recent work that suggest playing computer games can teach us lots, albeit as a complement to other interventions.

There are two kinds of learning one can associate with game play:

  • learning about the game
  • learning from the game

Good games are excellent examples of how activities can be structured to make us better players, that is, they balance challenge and reward to keep us motivated while we improve our skill.  Successful games are structured to improve our in-game performance with harder adversaries, fewer resources, less time and so on.  By the time we complete the game, we are experts in its rules and behaviours.  More about this another time.

The challenge for learning providers is how we learn from games.  That is, how can playing games help us learn more about subjects that we use in our day-to-day life like history, language, maths, citizenship, workplace skills, etc.


Of course quizzes, that most simple form of game, have long been used for assessment purposes and provoke a degree of learning by illustrating what we don’t know.  However it generally falls to an ‘instructor’ to use games effectively for the acquisition of knowledge and skills.  The celebrated primary school teacher, Tim Rylands, describes how he has used games very successfully in his classes for literacy.  Tim has used Myst and its sequels as a catalyst for creative writing with young children, inspiring them to create some beautiful work.  Likewise Derek Robertson and the team at the Learning and Teaching Scotland Consolarium have used the Nintendo DS as part of their lessons with impressive results.

However the wider adoption of gaming within the classroom (for general engagement as well as education) faces a number of barriers including curriculum flexibility, teacher confidence and access to technology.  The recently published conclusions from the European IMAGINE project, Digital Games for Learning (pdf), makes 15 recommendations for mainstreaming games-based learning.

Outside of the classroom, many organisations, notably the military, use simulation games to practise and improve skills.  It is arguable whether full industrial simulators are actually games at all but simplified games are common in many fields from teacher training to medical triage.  Traci Stizman and Katherine Ely in their meta-analysis of the effectiveness of simulation games (pdf) identify benefits including higher levels of declarative (+11%) and procedural knowledge (+14%) and greater retention of material (+9%) than those using traditional learning methods.  However, in a less well cited observation, they also say “trainees learned less from simulation games than comparison instructional methods when the instruction the comparison group received as a substitute for the simulation game actively engaged them in the learning experience.” In other words, there are more effective ways of learning than games.

In their recent report for Becta, Karl Royle and Scott Colfer reiterate the potential for educational games but suggest that the real benefits are yet to fully realised and are perhaps associated with information economy skills.  Henry Jenkins and his collaborators identified a set of new media literacies (pdf) in 2006.  It is not entirely surprising that game play encompasses many of these twenty-first century skills but at the moment we haven’t managed to pin down a robust way of checking these higher level abilities.

Although it remains to difficult to establish the unique and unadulterated contribution games make to ‘formal’ learning, it is obvious to anyone that has ever played, there is all sorts of skills development going on.  The greatest challenge seems to be unlocking those lessons without the scaffolding of an enthusiastic teacher.

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