THE BLOG
11/05/2012 05:35 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Education Can Learn From Games

For those that follow my writing, speaking, and the like; you may know me for my advocacy of Game-Based Learning (GBL). I was a gamer as a kid, and, truth be told, I still am. I used to play World of Warcraft and other MMOs ritualistically. I binged on RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy. I became talented in FPS games like Left for Dead and Unreal Tournament. Games engaged me. They still do. My current game is XCom, although I am enjoying Casual games on my iPad as well.

In my teaching career, I experimented with games in the classrooms. I know my students played them. Many of my students played WoW. In fact, they would spend hours outside of school collaborating, questing and raiding. Ironically, they were having trouble collaborating with their teammates in class. There was a disconnect, and I wanted to rectify this by connecting the collaborative gaming environment to the classroom. Students were collaborating with each other outside of school. How could I get them them to use this skill they already had in the formal learning environment?

This moment illustrates a larger idea. What can we learn from games to improve our classrooms? Games are carefully and intentionally designed environments that create flow: the balance between challenge and progress. Great games are challenging, but not too difficult, and thus not boring. On the contrary, they have specific mechanics to create this game flow.

Freedom to Fail - This component is so powerful. I can guarantee that anyone who plays games has experienced this. When I am on the plane, I see people playing Angry Birds for hours on end. During that time, they are failing multiple times, and yet they still keep coming back to play. Why do we punish students when they practice? Why can't we reward them at their best? Here's an example to illustrate my point: A student is not doing so well on the practice worksheets and other assignments leading up to a test. However, the day of the test, this same student succeeds and gets an excellent score. You know what often happens; the students gets a grade for that learning component that is lower than the score on the test. Why? Because we average the work they did in the practice and learning phase with the summative test! To me, this seems unethical. Games don't punish us for making mistakes in the learning process, Education shouldn't punish kids for making these same mistakes. We should be creating a safe, engaging space where failure and learning from mistakes is just part of the process of learning.

Situated Learning and Complex Problem Solving - James Paul Gee in his book "What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy" illustrates this point well:

"An academic discipline, or any other semiotic domain, for that matter, is not primarily content, in the sense of facts and principles. It is rather primarily a lived and historically changing set of distinctive social practices. It is in these practices that 'content' is generated, debated, and transformed via certain distinctive ways of thinking, talking, valuing, acting, and, often, writing and reading."

Learning is not just about knowing content. It's about learning content and using it. Whether you are playing World of Warcraft or Halo, you are learning about this immersive environment that the game provides. You are learning player skills and using them. You are strategizing. You are solving complex problems. You might even be collaborating with other players. We should be creating learning environments in our classrooms that do the same, and creating assessments that value the same level and rigor of learning.

Personalized - We know we need to meet students where they are at and take them to new places in the learning process. All of our students are different and one-size does not fit all. Games meet the player where he/she is at. With complex mechanics, players are given just enough information, but also challenged enough to create appropriate rigor. Good teachers do this to. They differentiate-instruction through a variety of instructional strategies. They know their students through personal relationships as well as data. Games are focused on player needs and ability, education should do the same.

Of course, there are many other things to learn from games (I would love to see comments on this), but these are some of the key and most important ideas in my eyes. I'm not saying that games will solve all educational issues and challenges, but there are already good examples of teachers using games as part of the curriculum, and schools that have embraced game mechanics to create a learning model. We can learn from games and leverage them as tools and models to engage all students in learning. I'll leave you with this parting quote from Jane McGonigal from her book "Reality is Broken." Consider how we might create this for our students.

"A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we're good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression."