Games in Education

10 Mar

At SXSW, I participated in a panel about the ways in which games can be used in education, as part of a traditional teaching environment or (dare I say it?) as a replacement for certain aspects of the education process. I’m obviously no expert in this area (though I do have some strong opinions!) but I’m thinking about it a lot as I determine how we’re going to teach the things we need to teach at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. So, I was grateful for the opportunity to get my thoughts in order.

Here’s basically what I said:

I think it goes without saying at this point that games have a place in education.

Most games have some sort of educational component. That’s true whether the game is played on a board, played at a tabletop by a group of friends roleplaying a player-generated storyline, or played online with virtual friends in a virtual environment.

In these contexts, children AND adults can learn about the world around them, about history, about their place in a social context, about relationships. And they can learn lessons about competition and cooperation, about deferred versus immediate gratification.

Speaking from personal experience, I learned more about Japanese history playing in an Asian-themed D&D campaign than I did in all the classes I ever took or books I ever read. I learned more about the nature of storytelling – its value and structures – collaborating in the telling of stories with friends by rolling dice and making stuff up. Through games, I learned how to make and execute plans and the consequences of success and failure, for myself and for others. I learned, as they say, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat.

But these are not the things we usually associate with “learning” in the traditional sense, not usually. These are lessons – vital ones, I think – in the humanities, the arts, the cultural world but not in the areas everyone seems to be in an uproar about these days. Where most people see value in games is in the teaching of STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

In STEM areas, games – or more precisely, game development – can play a critical role.

All games are, at some level, mathematical constructs. Regardless of format, they typically boil down to probabilities and simulations… To design a combat table for a roleplaying game, you have to understand probability… To represent the behavior of an object set in motion by player choice, you have to understand physics… To create a video game, which is, remember, just software, you have to learn to code.

Games are mathematics and engineering and science made real, made practical, removed from the realm of the abstract. And all that STEM stuff is wrapped up in a form students already engage with on their own. They don’t have to be dragged to math, they’re already interacting with it through play. They don’t have to be dragged to coding, they’re already intrigued by its power through play. To return to the arts for a second they don’t even have to be dragged to Aristotle, they’re already interacting with his ideas about narrative through the construction of their own stories as they play.

They’re already passionate about these things, thanks to games. And what better foundation for learning can there be than that?

Put all that together, apply some pedagogical rigor to game play and game creation and you have an educational framework second to none, one that pushes every kid’s buttons and draws them into learning in a form they already appreciate. There’s no need to poke and prod them in pursuit of a passive, nineteenth century education or to assess their progress by applying old-school methods. We can give them a 21st century education they want, which will set them up for future success.

But what of assessment?

I mean, you don’t necessarily want to grade play! You can certainly grade coding and math prowess – we already do that. But the key assessment in a program built around games is in how the software runs. What does it matter if you’re building an accounting package or a thermostat control simulation or a first-person shooter? Does the code work? Is it optimized appropriately? Is the AI behaving intelligently? Does the physics sim respond as one would expect? Assessment may be a non-problem. We just need some new, more appropriate rubrics (my new fave word, now that I’m in the world of education!).

So, clearly, I see massive benefits to the inclusion of games in a modern curriculum, whether based on STEM or STEAM (the “A” being the Arts, of course). But there’s one more element of a games education I’d like to touch on here:

Games as Moral Teaching Tools.

For all the benefits of multiplayer experiences – across a table or across a virtual world – I’ll go to my grave believing games are the greatest tool we have for emotional learning, for the teaching of empathy, for, in other words, Moral Learning.

Why do I believe this?

Because games are the first, and to date only, medium in the history of humankind to allow me to walk in your shoes and for you to walk in mine. We alone among media can let people – adults OR children – experience, first-hand, what it’s like to be an Egyptian child in the time of the pharaohs or a similar child living through recent events there… we can put players in the shoes of a general about to send soldiers into combat… we can allow them to experience the effects of decisions typically made in the highest levels of government.

Games aren’t about observing, absorbing or interpreting… they’re not about reading or seeing… they’re about doing. And that gives them a power unique in our history. We’d be crazy not to take advantage of that in our schools.

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2 Responses to “Games in Education”

  1. Sa Liu March 20, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

    Can not agree more!

    It is just how to connect developers and educators together to create a game that are both instructionally effective and yet are as engaging as commercial games.

  2. David Navarro García April 21, 2014 at 7:31 am #

    I agree and disagree with this.

    I agree because I have experienced learning through games myself. I did learn english without even noticing when I played Ultima VI and translated the game to spanish, I also learned morals, and philosophy thanks to Ultima IV and Martian Dreams. I got very good at doing “strategies” and calculating proability and numbers with the active time battle from the Final Fantasy series.

    In general, games are a good medium to learn almost anything as long as the game touches the subject in some way.

    There is a problem with this though. We’re all individuals and not everyone learns the same way. Some people enjoy reading more than gaming for instance, and for them learning through games would be tedious and in the end won’t be as effective for them as other mediums. This problem happens nowdays as well with the educational systems that exist around the world.

    The problem here of course is that if we try to find the best way for everyone to learn something, it would become way too difficult to maintain.

    In my opinion, what should be done here is that teachers should use games, comics, books, movies and any kind of media in a better way in education. They should recommend them depending on the subject, and the studens who are interested will probably check them out. I don’t know how learning other languages works on the States, but at least in Spain the way it’s done doesn’t work. Very few people here knows how to speak a second language, and the reason is that using just textbooks is not an effective way. I learned through games, and I’m sure some people would learn by just reading comics, or watching a TV show.

    In the end, the best way to learn is just doing something that’s entertaining for the person who is learning.

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