The relation between games and learning (talk given at ALT-C 2009)

I want to start by going back seven years to Christmas of 2002 when I found myself taking part in a treasure hunt with some of my friends. We were given several pages of clues, like this one here, which together led to a treasure that was hidden somewhere in the southeast of England. We eventually figured out that most of these clues had a connection to the playwright Christopher Marlow. In fact there was a story that ran through the pages of the hunt was a thinly disguised version of Christopher Marlowe’s life story. As a result, I found myself reading everything I could about him, and found it fascinating, which was something I really hadn’t expected. I mean I used to dread English and History lessons at school. It sunk in for me for the first time for me that there was an important connection between my two of my main interests, games and education.

Other people had obviously figured this out long before I did, and when you start looking it’s easy to find lots and lots of examples of how people learn informally by playing games. Unfortunately just because games can lead to learning, it doesn’t automatically follow that you can just take games, put them into a formal educational setting and suddenly everybody is going to learn lots more. You’ve got other problems too, not least that not everybody likes games in the first place and even people who do often only enjoy particular types of games. It’s really important to realise too that it’s actually just as hard to make a good game as it is to design a good learning experience. You can’t just throw in points and levels and magically expect everybody to become motivated.

So to try and dissect what is going on a bit, I want to start by looking at what types of learning do seem to naturally occur in games. In particular I want to propose that there are three main categories of learning. These categories certainly aren’t mutually exclusive and a lot of learning that does happen is going to fall into more than one of these.

1) Meta-learning

First of all there’s meta-learning – that is learning how to learn/ Here you’ve got things like James Paul Gee’s ideas about how when people play video games they are learning to master a semiotic domain. You’ve got stuff like what Stephen Johnson talks about in his book ‘Everything Bad is Good For You’ to do with people learning telescopic thinking when they play games. They are learning about how to deal with multiple objectives at multiple levels. There are also questions about whether gamers have different mindsets when it comes to failure compared to non-gamers. This is all really interesting and important stuff, but as educators, if you are teaching in a disciplinary context, it can be quite hard to apply any of this on an everyday basis.

2) Deliberate practice

The second type of learning that you’ve got learning is that which occurs through deliberate practice. This is really really common in games. This is practice with feedback and adjustment based on that feedback, and in the case of a game it happens in a safe environment. So an archetypal example here might be Guitar Hero, The Brain Training games that you see are another example. However, there are examples with higher-level skills. For instance, there’s a very addictive social browser game called Travian that is basically all about learning how to negotiate with people, about how to lead people, about how to get people’s trust. Just because something involves practice, doesn’t mean it has to be low-level or that the adjustment that doesn’t involve reflection. One of the things that game designers have actually become quite good at is figuring out how to make this sort of practice fun. Unfortunately a couple of the techniques they use for this can cause problems for educators such as using very rapid feedback cycles and also using randomness in various ways, which is an issue as soon as you try and link in assessment. The other thing you have got to remember, there are lots of learning that don’t fall into this Kolb learning cycle type model so we can’t necessarily apply this everywhere we might want.

3) Misalignment

Finally, the third type of learning that I want to talk about which I think is very important. This is where the learning that happens informally is somehow misaligned with the goals of the game. So the example that I want to give here is of a board game that’s called 10 Days in Africa. You win the game by creating a journey on your tile rack of tiles that correspond to adjacent African countries. This game improved my African geography enormously. However the important thing to note is that the goal of the game isn’t to become good at African geography and you could in fact win the game without knowing anything about African geography whatsoever. So the goal of the game is in fact misaligned with what you find yourself learning. The treasure hunt I mentioned earlier falls into the same category. If you’d won the treasure hunt by coming top in a test on Christopher Marlowe, then I don’t think it would have been quite as fun as it was. All of this causes us quite a lot of problems as educators if we’re trying to figure out how games fit in with learning, because we want our activities and our assessment to be aligned with our learning outcomes. This is Bigg’s idea of constructive alignment. It’s in some ways about this tension whether we want people to take responsibility for their own learning or whether we want people to learn stuff because they come across something that they find really interesting. You also have this problem with assessment, because you need to align assessment if you want to measure if people have learned the things that you wanted them to. It’s a bit like in World of Warcraft where it is perfectly possible to reach Level 80 and not actually be all that good at playing your class.

The magic circle

There’s another big issue we face if we’re looking at how to use games in formal education. One of the concepts that you often hear about in relation to games is that of the magic circle – this is the idea that to play a game you step into a magic circle, that is a space that is marked off is some way where there special meanings ascribed to objects and behaviours. On the other hand, places of formal education already have cultural norms associated with them that tell us what behaviour is acceptable and what isn’t, and you’ve got these incredibly strong power relationships as well. All of this is going to make it so much harder to create a genuine magic circle in the classroom than it is to create a magic circle not in the classroom. The other thing you find happening is that you find some students feel that using games in the classroom is a waste of time or condescending. I think there are cases where the game in question just isn’t that good in the first place – it’s the chocolate-covered broccoli analogy that you sometimes hear mentioned. I think it’s also related to interesting questions about motivation though and what the educator’s role is when it comes to motivation – if you are a motivated student, is it patronizing in some way when your teacher assumes that you’re not motivated and does that assumption then affect your original motivation?

The paradox of rewards

Another angle I want you to consider is the role that rewards play in games. This is really important because, there is lots and lots of evidence that offering rewards actually decreases intrinsic motivation which is something that we obviously don’t want. However if you look at games, they generally revolve around rewards, and if you look at say achievements, it's not just rewards that unlock thing in-game. Yet, it’s clear that the motivation of the people who play these games is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. So what’s going on here? I think if want to figure out how education and games fit together we need to try and understand this. Is it to do with the fact that the reward is say being given by a computer not a human being? Is it to do with the fact that in a computer game you can generally have as many attempts to a goal? Is it something to do with the nature of the reward? I’d be interested in people’s opinions on this.

Learning from game designers

So finally, I’ve talked a bit about some of things that I think hinder engagement in games in an academic context and I’ve talked a bit about assessment. I do think nonetheless that there are things that we can learn from game designers, even if there are difficulties with using games directly. I think that because game design and learning design are both about creating experiences. In the case of game design, it’s about creating interactive experiences and in the case of learning design about creating transformative experiences. But you’ve obviously got an overlap there, especially, as most pedagogies suggest that if you want to make experiences transformative, it helps a lot if you make them interactive in some way. Now the world game design is a very different world from learning design. It’s not as entwined with academic research and funding tends to be much more commercial. As a result the things that game designers have learned about designing interactive experiences are often quite different from what we as educators have learned and that there’s lots that we can learn from each other. So if you fancy a change from reading education books and articles, I suggest you have a look at what’s out there about game design.