What Can Games Teach Us About Learning?

On Tuesday, while the fifth, seventh, and eighth grades attended a performance at Bass Hall, the seventh grade spent a class period picking up trash around campus.

Perhaps it seems like they got the raw end of the deal, but when I walked outside in chilly 30 degree temperatures, I saw delighted students rushing the field, calling to their friends to hurry up.  One student stopped by briefly to chat, but then said, “I’ve got to go, Dr. Kris — I’ve got a sculpture to build!”

What happened?  The seventh grade team, led by Erin MacNabb, took an important community task and turned it into a friendly, collaborative game.  What could students build out of the trash they collected around campus?  Suddenly, a duty became a pleasure, and a physical exercise became an engineering task.

Increasingly, educational researchers are asking the question: What can games teach us about learning?  We have all seen how children and adults alike can lose themselves in the pleasure of a good game: from Minecraft to Monopoly, from chess to Angry Birds.  Think about the elements of some of your favorite games, past and present: strategy, problem solving, collaboration, friendly competition, and the ability to learn from failure without fear of embarrassment. 

In fact, the latter is one of the most important ingredients of good games: players know that “failing” is not failure; it essential to growth.

Think about Angry Birds: each time you send a bird flying toward a target, you are learning something about angle and velocity, about how the structure will respond to the bird.  You are not discouraged if you don’t hit all the targets at first – in fact, if it’s too easy the game loses some of its appeal; instead, you become excited as you see your own growth. You don’t get a cookie when you succeed – the reward is the opportunity to move onto something even harder!

No wonder educators are interested in game theory.  We want our students to feel comfortable with trial and error, to persevere in the face of setbacks, and to be more motivated by intrinsic feelings of accomplishment than extrinsic praise or rewards.

In November, NYU researchers published their findings about a study on math video games. They discovered that these games enhanced motivation – but that the gains were greater when they played with their peers either collaboratively or competitively. The study’s co-author, now a professor at Stanford, wrote:

“Educational games may be able to help circumvent major problems plaguing classrooms by placing students in a frame of mind that is conducive to learning rather than worrying about how smart they look.” (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-11/nyu-evg110613.php)

In another study out of England, researchers created two versions of a math game they called “Zombie Division.”  They designed an “intrinsic” version where players’ mastery unlocked advances in the game itself and an “extrinsic” version where the game was periodically broken up by an online math quiz that gave them a score on how well they had performed.  Researchers then performed follow-up assessments:

The results were clear: The children who had played the intrinsically rewarding game learned more math. Next, the researchers allowed another group of children to choose the option they preferred. The verdict here was even more definitive: The pupils spent seven times longer playing the intrinsic version of Zombie Division. (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/04/whats-the-secret-sauce-to-a-great-educational-game/)

So next time you hear about a “fun game” that students are playing in math or science or English or history, don’t assume it is just playtime. Sometimes games teach exactly the lesson students need to learn most!



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