Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Games and Learning

Games have been a part of civilization for centuries. They have been a source of entertainment in people of all cultures and regions. In modern times, digital innovations have allowed us to expand the ways in which we can play games, and we have begun to realize that they may be more than simple diversions. We’re finding more evidence that suggests that games have a lot of potential beyond their entertainment value.
Videogames have the ability to be powerful tools for teaching and learning. The biggest hurdle they face, however, is that what they teach is different than what is typically taught in an American school. In the classroom, external forces often stress the need to have high scores on standardized tests, so teachers sometimes feel constrained to teaching the material on those tests. In contrast, videogames present a variety of situations and force the player to think and strategize about the problem they are facing, thus creating knowledge through experimentation. According to game designer Raph Koster (2005), “[games] are on the same order as learning to drive a car, or picking up the mandolin, or learning your multiplication tables” (p. 34), and that “it’s one thing to read in a book that ‘the map is not the territory’ and another to have your armies rolled over by your opponent in a game” (p. 36). They give context to knowledge, creating scenarios in which learning becomes useful and necessary on an intrinsic level. A videogame is best served when used to build skills and problem-solving abilities, and application of knowledge becomes just as important as the acquisition of it.
The way videogames can accomplish this is by presenting a conflict that the player must solve. In order to overcome this problem, the player must gain mastery over some sort of skill; this can be as simple as aim-and-shoot or as complex as organizing an empire. The player is driven by the challenge and the sense of accomplishment gained upon defeating it. In her article about motivation for playing games, Cheryl Olsen (2010) puts it simply, “an easy game that does not require much time or focus to beat is not as much fun” (p. 183). Challenge is an essential part of the game experience and directly relates to how enjoyable the game will be.
Beyond that, games offer many other potential layers for learning and mastery. By necessity, a game must present the player with choices; there has to be at least two paths that the player can take, and the result is determined by the action taken by the player. Often times more than two options or results are available, and some more complex games offer a large amount of creative freedom to the player. For instance, games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim allow the player to choose their race, appearance, and type of skills they want to improve upon, all in a large virtual world to explore with an abundance of quests to complete. Even more, some players “mod” (or modify) games, changing or adding more elements. These sorts of creative freedoms allow players to explore and experiment in ways they cannot in the real world. Educators could take advantage of this and create learning experiences in which the player is not only learning, but also doing so by choice and with enjoyment and creativity.
There are benefits in social learning as well. Games can give less confident students the chance to build self-confidence, since it affords the chance to fail and experiment without the pressure of being a “let down” or a “failure.” Olsen (2010) notes, “For some, video game skill seemed important to their self-esteem, especially if they had less success in other areas such as academics or sports” (p. 181). This is especially true of children who were reported to have a mild learning disability. Olsen (2010) states, “Children in this group were more likely to be victims of bullying and to report being excluded by their peers; thus, they may put a higher value on connecting with peers through video games” (p. 182). Games provide a common ground on which players can relate to each other, and they may prove to be a good source for peer-based learning and teaching through their ability to “motivate [players] to learn through a combination of affiliation and competition” (Olsen, 2010, p. 182). More experienced players can help newer players improve, and players can share what they have learned or discovered with other players or collaborate to achieve a common goal.
The diverse and substantial ways that games can teach demonstrate limitless possibilities. As a newer medium, videogames have a lot of potential that has not yet been fully explored. Since most games are commercially produced, the focus tends to be on their value as entertainment and their ability to sell; sadly, this has led many to believe that videogames have little worth beyond being trivial distractions. Harry Brown (2008) recalls in his book Videogames and Education, “In 1982, the case America’s Best Family Showplace v. City of New York concluded that videogames are ‘pure entertainment with no informational element’” (p. 63). Furthermore, the majority of media discussion about videogames in the past has been centered on the portrayal of violence and aggression, rather than on the positive potential of games. Brown (2008) makes a powerful point about this debate:
If the key to this potential lies in videogames’ capability to induce a state of heightened identification between players and characters on screen, then we must consider that games, if they can teach aggression, can also teach empathy, one of the core ideals of liberal education (p. 78).
As videogames become more prevalent and explored, new attitudes are emerging, and with it comes new types of games that explore their potential to teach and guide.
The implications of this can be applied in many different areas. In the classroom, games can be used to teach more complex concepts or to provide experience. Historical events can be recreated and experienced from the point of view of a character in that time, and scientific models can be tested and explored without danger or expensive equipment. Beyond school, games can be used as a tool for training, or even as a method for creating empathy to issues otherwise far removed from the average person. For example, Brown discusses a game commissioned in 2006 called Darfur is Dying, which centered on the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. In the game, your character is required to get water for your village, but the stakes are high; “if we fail, we learn that boys captured by the militia face torture and death, while girls meet with kidnapping and rape” (Brown, 2008, p. 71). Success allows you to continue, completing tasks to keep your village supplied, as well as interacting with non-player characters. While games such as this have met criticism for being “too shallow to provoke critical thinking or active political response” (Brown, 2008, p. 71), some theorists and designers believe that this type of humanitarian games have huge social potential. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal discuss the idea that games are popular because they provide for human needs, and that the knowledge gained from creating these virtual worlds as well as the motivation to play them can be utilized to improve the real world. They provide the opportunity for players to empathize more powerfully with the position of the people in conflict, and, most importantly, to realize that the issue at hand is not fictional but rather reflective of a reality they may not have been aware of.
Games can be as useful as they are entertaining, and we still have a lot to learn. Digital games have opened up many possibilities, and new technologies continue to emerge and improve. Luckily, incentive to play games has existed for thousands of years, and we will continue to enjoy and explore them for years in the future.
Works Cited:

Olson, C. K. (2010). Children's motivations for video game play in the context of normal development.Review Of General Psychology, 14(2), 180-187.

Brown, H. J. (2008). Videogames and Education. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.

Koster, R. (2005). A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Arizona: Paraglyph Press, Inc.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Press.

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