As you may know, I’m a great believer in the potential of games to engage and stimulate users. I’m more skeptical about their ability to deliver learning entirely on their own so I was intrigued to discover this Tumblr site: Real Things Video Games Teach You. It proposes transferable skills that you can acquire by playing the games.
I’m not entirely sure that all of the suggested real world ‘lessons’ are serious but it makes for some interesting reading nevertheless.What is more, I think the list does offer some scope for using the games as a catalyst for further investigation into those topics – that is what excellent teachers do already. These games are great fun – could they be valuable in other ways too?
What do you think?
Can these games be used in isolation and still deliver learning? Or are they educationally useless even in the hands of a skilled facilitator? Could you add to the list?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This week the UK’s National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) released a study examining the latest research about game-based learning.
The main findings in the NFER report were:
As you know, I work with many organisations in developing and deploying games to help them engage and communicate with their audiences more effectively. The usefulness of games is a big deal to me. As I’ve said before, I am sceptical about the impact of many so-called educational or serious games but I do think games and game mechanics are brilliant for:
However, the one aspect that many organisations neglect is that of use context. Of one thing I am certain: the impact of games (or indeed any educational intervention) depends on the pre- and post-experiences of the learners as much as the ‘play’ itself. That’s what the most effective teachers do so brilliantly – they prime learners for the game with an air of expectation and intrigue, and then help them think about what it might mean after they’ve finished playing. Vygotsky called it ‘scaffolding,’ and there’s lots of evidence of its benefits.
There are no real shortcuts to learning but everyone, even the most disaffected, experiences a profound sense of satisfaction when they discover something new, find they can do something better or see something more clearer. Games, used well, are one way to encourage that delight.
[I work with many groups and organisations to train staff about game-based learning or design and develop games themselves; would you like me to work with you? Drop me a line using my contact form.]
I saw this interesting infographic over at Getting Smart the other day. I think it makes some thought-provoking comments about how digital tools and techniques might make learning more profound. I think the explanations are a bit little superficial (although that doesn’t mean that they are not accurate) so it would have been good to have more detail.
I wonder to what extent any extra effort improves the efficacy of learning rather than any peculiar attributes of these digital resources. Having said that, I firmly believe certain approaches suit particular learning objectives – indeed, that’s the basis for my business – making sure that organisations use the more appropriate format to achieve their aims.
“Walk into any preschool and you’ll find toddling superheroes battling imaginary monsters. We take it for granted that young children play and, especially, pretend. Why do they spend so much time in fantasy worlds?
“People have suspected that play helps children learn, but until recently there was little research that showed this or explained why it might be true. In my lab at the University of California at Berkeley, we’ve been trying to explain how very young children can learn so much so quickly, and we’ve developed a new scientific approach to children’s learning.
“Where does pretending come in? It relates to what philosophers call “counterfactual” thinking, like Einstein wondering what would happen if a train went at the speed of light.
“We found children who were better at pretending could reason better about counterfactuals—they were better at thinking about different possibilities. And thinking about possibilities plays a crucial role in the latest understanding about how children learn. The idea is that children at play are like pint-sized scientists testing theories. They imagine ways the world could work and predict the pattern of data that would follow if their theories were true, and then compare that pattern with the pattern they actually see. Even toddlers turn out to be smarter than we would have thought if we ask them the right questions in the right way.
“Play is under pressure right now, as parents and policymakers try to make preschools more like schools. But pretend play is not only important for kids; it’s a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart.”
For me, the article is summed up by the sentiment:
Play is a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart
Continuing my series on the relationship between the various learning theories and games, this post explores the idea of constructivism.
From the constructivist perspective, learning is not a stimulus-response phenomenon as described by Behaviourism, rather it requires self-regulation and the building of conceptual structures through reflection and abstraction. In constructivist theory, the learner takes an active role in constructing his own understanding rather than receiving it from someone who knows. According to constructivists, learners interpret information from the unique personal perspective of their previous experience. They learn through observation, processing and interpretation: personalising the information into knowledge,. As well as the recognising the cognitive aspects of learning, a major emphasis of constructivist theory is situated learning, that is contextual learning where material is placed in a recognised situation and takes account of the learner’s beliefs and conceptions of knowledge (Ernest, 1995).
Boethel and Dimock outline six assumptions of constructivism:
Learning, according to Constructivist theory, takes place through stimulating one’s ideas and helping to reflect on them. The process encourages learners to consider how new ideas, actions they take and experiences make sense of their own mental models. The main difference between the behaviourist and constructivist approaches is that in the former, one sees the learner as a relatively passive storer of knowledge and the latter the learner is an active creator of their own knowledge. In practice, most situations seem to involve a mixture of the two.
Constructivist games provide primary sources of information, simple elements and raw data for players to experiment with and manipulate. Open-ended God-games (like Black and White or Spore) and simulations (like Age of Empires) typify the theory because every instance of the game is a unique creation by the player.
In an extension to constructivism, Seymour Papert recognised the potential of production as a means of learning in his work on constructionism, that is, “learning by making.”
Papert says “Constructionism—the N word as opposed to the V word— shares contructivism’s view of learning as “building knowledge structures” through progressive internalization of actions… It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.
Papert originally had simple computer programming in mind as the tool for production and his ideas have found substance in the non-specialist development environments such as Kodu for the XBox and others like Mission Maker and GameStar Mechanic. The ability to create games offers users the opportunity articulate their understanding in new ways and simultaneously consider how best to communicate key principles – in essence is gives lay game-developers the chance to make games “in their own words.”
 von Glasersfeld, E. , (1995), A constructivist approach to teaching, In Constructivism in education, (pp.3-16). (Eds.) Steffe, L. & Gale, J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., New Jersey
 Cooper, P. A., (1993), Paradigm shifts in designing instruction: From behaviorism to cognitivism to constructivism., Educational Technology, 33(5), 12-19
 Wilson, B. G., (1997), Reflections on constructivism and instructional design., In C. R. Dills & A. J. Romiszowski (Eds.), Instructional development paradigms (pp. 63-80). Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
 Beothel, M & Dimock, K. V. , (2000), Constructing Knowledge with Technology , Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, Austin, TX
 Papert, S. & Harel, I., (1991), Constructionsim, Ablex Publishing Corporation, Norwood, New Jersey
In this, the second part of my series on examining how learning theories relate to game play, I’m looking at the theory that suggests learning is dependent on mental capacity – cognitivism.
Cognitivism replaced Behaviourism as the dominant learning paradigm in the 1960s. Cognitive psychology proposes that learning comes from mental activity such as memory, motivation, thinking and reflection. Cognitivists believe that learning is an internal process that depends on the learner’s capacity, motivation and determination,.
Although cognitivists such as Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner have different emphases, both believe that learning is demonstrated through a change in knowledge and understanding. Cognitivists describe this change as altering a learner’s mental model. Cognitivists maintain that the mind, thinking and understanding mediate the stimulus and response described by behaviourists. That is, while learning may result in a change of behaviour, it is primarily a change in understanding.
Cognitivism focuses on the transmission of information from someone who knows (such as an ‘expert’ as opposed to facilitators) to learners who do not know. The learners receive it, take it on board, store it, relate it to existing ideas and information that they already have, index it (like a filing system) and then retrieve it, so that they can find it in their memories later when they need it. In cognitivism, learning is the process of connecting pieces of knowledge in meaningful and memorable ways.
However, working with older learners can be more difficult because in the cognitivist view, learning is more about modifying and extending ideas than adding new ones. Although more mature learners may have ‘collected’ more ideas they may be ‘fixed’ or harder to change.
Cognitivism relies heavily on Piaget’s notion of age-dependent “stages of development” to define the mental capabilities of learners. For teachers in a cognitivist environment getting the balance between the transmission and facilitation is critical for effective learning. Practitioners have to decide when to offer input (transmitted knowledge) to learners and when to facilitate a learner’s understanding of their own personal model.
In cognitivist thinking, purpose and outcomes are like a general sense of direction for a journey rather than a detailed specification of the shared, identical destination.
Cognitivism is more concerned with process than the product and is therefore demonstrated by games than improve reflexes, promote critical thinking or help people learn different patterns of association. In 2009, Alain Lieury, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Rennes comprehensively demolished claims that brain training games were any better than even the humble paper and pen for increasing brain ‘power’ but puzzles and strategy games that offer a free environment for decision-making such as Tetris, Age of Empires and Professor Layton are good examples of the cognitivist approach.
Bandura’s later theory of Social Learning attempts to bridge the gap between behaviourist and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory, and motivation.
 Ormrod, J.E. , (1999), Human learning (3rd ed), Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey
 Craik, F. I. M. & Lockhart, R. S., (1972), Levels of processing: A framework for memory research., Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684
 Craik, F. I. M. & Tulving, E, (1975), Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294
 Piaget, J., (1962), Play, dreams and imitation in childhood, W. W. Norton & Company, New York
 Bruner, J. S., (1966), Toward a theory of instruction, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press
 Bandura, A. , (1977), Social Learning Theory, General Learning Press, New York
This will be my last post of the year: I’m looking forward to spending a few work-free days with my family over Christmas. I hope that you will be having a break too.
Play with Learning is one year old and I am delighted with how things have turned out over the last twelve months. I’ve enjoyed some really interesting and varied work – it’s precisely the mix that I’d hoped for when I set the company up – a combination of theory and practice, research and production.
This year I’ve been happily working with:
It’s been a blissfully busy time! I’ve made lots of new friends and contacts. I’ve played a lot and I’ve learnt a great deal.
I’m excited about the opportunities in 2012. I know that some of the production pieces will launch in the next couple of months and there are lots of exciting projects in the pipeline. Having said that, I’m always interested in new opportunities so maybe, just maybe there’s something that you and I could collaborate on?
maybe there’s something that you and I could collaborate on?
In the meantime, let me wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
In spite of my criticisms of many educational games, I believe passionately in the potential of games to inspire learning. I don’t think that games are a panacea but they do have many characteristics that can make a profoundly positive impact on our lives. The real educational value for gaming lies in four key areas:
For many years we have adopted game mechanics to make ordinary activities more engaging. Recently that process has gained a higher profile and more glamour through the term “gamification.”
The most common form of educational game is the quiz. A quiz is simply, a glorified, gamified, test. I’m not being disparaging, on the contrary: there is no doubt that ‘treating’ assessment in this way makes it more engaging without diminishing any of its quantification value. Quizzes make the process of testing knowledge more enjoyable but you still need to identify the right answer to progress.
Although mainly used to check knowledge, this same approach can help raise awareness and change behaviour. It’s a technique deployed for loyalty reward points such as Air Miles, travelling (Foursquare and Gowalla) and environmentally-friendly driving behaviour (Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf, etc.)
There are many circumstances where we want to practice before being exposed to a real situation. Those circumstances might be technical, financial or social but where getting it wrong in reality might cause real problems. Games provide the perfect environment to practice, to experiment, to fail softly.
It goes without saying that we’d prefer our airline pilots to train using simulators before taking the controls of a real jumbo jet. Games can also provide a proving ground for social interactions, leadership skills, teamwork. Although the fidelity of the game is unlikely to present an entirely true mapping with reality, the experience of playing within a recognisable environment helps develop important, transferable, understanding. I suspect the translation to reality will always need some additional contextualisation and the scaffolding but it does at least prepare the ground, and even if the game and reality are radically different it can help the player feel more confident.
Where games have proved to be enormously valuable is when the experience has been scaffolded or supported by an enthusiastic teacher who can use the game play as a stimulus for other activity. Good teachers (formal or informal) can draw out of the game transferable lessons such as urban planning from SimCity, rotational geometry from Tetris, creative writing from Myst or social etiquette from the Sims.
In these circumstances, the accuracy of the game is less important than its ability to engage:
Jonny Ball famously said “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good joke.”
Games are excellent in their ability to bring a subject to life, encourage exploration and provoke further thought. Even if a game is not strictly true in its representation of objects or events those inaccuracies can form a powerful stimulus for further investigation and discussion. From my own experience, I know that the flaws in games can prove powerful provocations for debate and that that can generate profound learning.
The combined problem-solving activity of the gaming world is racking up some astonishing figures – people have played World of Warcraft for an incredible 6 million years of combined effort since its launch in 2004. The biggest growth area in gaming is multiplayer games with millions of players around the globe regularly engaged. And the activity is predominantly team-based – these are virtual communities at ‘work’. That shared experience, that voluntary collaboration – “cognitive surplus”, as Clay Shirky might call it, “blissful productivity” Jane McGonigal might say, can be channelled into very valuable focus such as the example of gamers identifying the structure of a new retroviral enzyme.
There is something deeply satisfying about solving a problem, beating a challenge or experiencing something new when it is done with others. The social nature of online gaming has great potential to bring people together for a common purpose.
Imagine if we made more use of that combined effort: what other real world problems and challenges might gamers solve?
I have no doubt whatsoever that games can make a unique contribution to education and society. I think that in the past we have, perhaps, been overconfident in our expectations: wrongly assuming that games on their own could solve many, if not all, of the barriers to learning. However, if we take the true characteristics of games and embed them in a well thought through set of experiences then we have something that will be genuinely different and make a genuine difference.
Yesterday I spoke at BAF Games. This is a summary of my ‘Play with Learning’ talk. I have embedded links to supporting information into the post . Sadly, I couldn’t capture the lively Q&A session afterwards.
I made my first game as a young teenager – a board game so incomprehensibly complex and tedious, it only ever had one player. Me. I programmed my first computer game at the age of 14, using the machine code printed in the back of a Sinclair User magazine. It took a week to input, twenty minutes to load and thirty seconds before it crashed. Despite those experiences, I spent innumerable hours playing games on my ZX Spectrum.
At the same time, although not entirely related to my game-playing, my school-based education collapsed. I left school with a clutch of poor GSCE’s, a single in A level Government and Politics and a report that read straight ‘E’s.
For me there’s always been a link between games and learning, but it’s taken years of industry and professional experience including my time as a BBC Commissioner and a PhD in the educational psychology of games to fully appreciate the potential benefits.
I am a game player but I’m also a lifelong learner. I am a passionate believer in the potential of education to change lives. I believe that learning is something that can make the world a better place. It can transform society, culture and the economy by catapulting people out of often horrendous situations and helping them realise their potential.
Learning is not an onerous activity – we love to learn. Everyone loves to learn. The thrill and satisfaction of acquiring some knowledge or skill, or overcoming some challenge by developing a solution is universal. Just because the experience of school poisons some attitudes towards education it doesn’t mean that learning ever loses it’s ability to delight.
Play and learning are intrinsically linked. Indeed, we learn in three ways: repetition, play and dialogue. From the moment we are born, play is a basic human desire.
Who could deny that play is enormously attractive? Regardless of whether it is computer-based or real-world, sports and games are a universal passion. You only have to consider the viewing figures for the Olympic Games and the World Cup to recognise that play is universally appealing. The last World Cup had more than 3 billion viewers making it the single biggest collective event in human history.
But it’s not just passive entertainment. In terms of activity duration it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that video gameplay is unprecedented in human history: some estimates suggest that we play three billion hours per week, 150 million people play FarmVille each month. That’s an astonishing amount of time and reach.
Some of the most fervent game players are exactly the same people who disengage or drop out of school and play no further constructive role in society. With their devotion to gameplay, it is easy to see the attraction of making education more game-like.
In education the appeal of games represents a form of Holy Grail. The idea that a disaffected disinterested disempowered teenage boy (or girl) might spend hours and hours of their own time tackling a formidable problem, want to talk about it with his friends, and pursue it until he succeeds is something that any school teacher would love to be able to mimic. A gamer will willingly invest more than the 100 hours needed to complete a game like GTA 4; that’s the equivalent to half a GCSE or 10 credits towards a Masters degree. Gaming seems like the obvious solution to reengage young people.
Sadly, we tend to deliver them ‘games’ like this:
We deceive ourselves that these activities are going to make the same impact as the games we play at home. In fact, if we’re honest, this sort of “educational game” is neither educational or a game because it doesn’t possess the characteristics of either.
Perhaps it is unreasonable to compare educational resources like this with commercial off-the-shelf games. After all Grand Theft Auto 4 had a $100m budget; that works out at $1m per hour of activity. Most educational resources have a minuscule fraction of that. But sadly, even the easy-to-implement feedback and rewards systems don’t come close to what the entertainment-focused competitors provide.
The other problem with educational games is we’re not all gamers so for some the prospect of playing a computer game isn’t that appealing.That said, I’m not suggesting that we can’t all appreciate games and gain something from them.
Many of the perceived benefits of educational games are a consequence of the Hawthorne effect where the extra effort committed to introducing and testing the game are the reason for improved performance, not the game itself. Actually, there is very little evidence to suggest that playing games, without any further contextualisation, delivers any transferable learning at all which is why I’ve said, provocatively, games teach us nothing.
Perhaps when you take these resources apart, closer inspection reveals very few gaming characteristics. In my post what is a game? I identify the following core characteristics that turns an activity into a game:
I haven’t included fun in that list. For me, fun is a bonus in gameplay but it is by no means a defining characteristic. Indeed most games that I play are not fun. Most games that I play, if they are worth playing, are characterised by long, grinding effort. I rarely finish games feeling euphoric – more often I feel exhausted but satisfied. What makes the effort worthwhile is the quality of the rewards.
Many of those game characteristics are intrinsically associated with learning. Games meet learning in the following aspects:
Actually, I think games teach us lot.
So, in spite of my criticisms of “educational games,” I still believe passionately in their potential to inspire learning. And I think their real educational value lies in four areas:
I think that learning is of the utmost importance to our society and our world .While I don’t believe that games are a panacea, I do believe that they offer a unique way to reach and develop our potential and tackle many of the problems we face.
Playing games often brings out the best in us. It inspires ingenious solutions, hard work and perseverance and global collaboration. In games we believe that anything is possible and that we are capable of anything. Surely those are traits that we should bring to bear on life.
NCSU research: Study Shows Sports Can Help Communities Recover From Disaster http://j.mp/o0bzkz
Distract Yourself or Think It Over? Two Ways to Deal with Negative Emotions from Association for Psychological Science http://j.mp/l37Fnm
Too much choice is a bad thing – Journal of Public Economics http://j.mp/kJXbgT
Snooze you win? It’s true according to Stanford reseasrch http://j.mp/iCsjtQ
The sharing of stories or information may be driven in part by arousal according to new study. http://j.mp/jCeDqH
Text message support for smokers doubles quit rates. From the Lancet. http://j.mp/k9CmP7
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs key to wellbeing but order unimportant – University of Illinois http://j.mp/lfSR5O
Practising a little can make lasting impact on brain according to study from McMaster Uni. http://j.mp/kTz1Dz
Being born & raised in a city is associated with greater lifetime risk for anxiety & mood disorder. From Nature. http://j.mp/jrjGpu
Multi-tasking not all it’s “cracked up” to be? Stanford Study shows? bit.ly/16ko3N
Learning Styles: The Cognitive Side of Content by Johnny Holland http://j.mp/izrUDk
Teens still learning to plan ahead from Child Development journal http://j.mp/kzyUhz
Youth cybercrime linked to friends’ influence from Michigan State University http://j.mp/iBAKm3