How Games Should Go to School

Artículo por invitación

How Games Should Go to School


The following essay deals with the subject of video games as a learning resource that could benefit learning acquisition. A game is a well-designed teaching machine that enables gamers to develop strategies for problem solving. Game-based learning is not measured by time, but, rather, by a trajectory towards mastery, no matter how much time it takes. Simply teaching information (“facts”) does not lead to the ability to use this information to solve problems and retained the information for a long time.

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How Games Should Go to School

Note: This paper is based on the following books of mine, where readers can find copious references to the literature: What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003 (Second Edition 2007); Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. London: Routledge, 2004; The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013; .Good Video Games + Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy. Second Edition. New York: Lang, 2013; Unified Discourse Analysis: Language, Reality, Virtual Worlds, and Video Games. New York: Routledge, 2014; Literacy and Education. New York: Routledge, 2015.

When thinking about video games in school it is important, first of all, to consider how games work best for deep learning out of school, which is their original home. Like all tools and technologies games can lead to bad effects, good ones, a bit of both, or none of importance, depending on how they are used. They are not inherently good or bad.

A game is, at heart, a well-designed “teaching machine” for problem solving. A good game can be made around any interesting set of problems and offers good tools (called “game mechanics”) for solving them. Metal Gear Solid is about war and stealth; Civilization is about building civilizations across long stretches of time; Minecraft is about building and modeling things; The Sims is about designing communities and building families; DragonBox is about algebra; Foldit is about folding proteins; and Chibi-Robo is about being a four-inch house-cleaning robot.

Good game designers build good teaching (mentoring, guidance) into the very design of their games. Problems are well ordered (this is called “level design”); the cost of failure is relatively low so as to encourage exploration and risk-taking; instructions and other types of information are given “just-in-time” (a little, right when it can be applied) or “on demand” (a lot, when learners need it, want it, and can handle it); players are given constant feedback (assessment) that they can use; mastery, not time, is the measure of learning; players can set some of their own goals and customize their play to their preferences, though they are encouraged to explore new styles; the goals the game designers set are lucid and feel challenging, but doable (pleasantly frustrating); players often play socially, rather than individually, and collaboration does not count as cheating, as it so often does in school; players are not tested after they have finished a game, because the game is designed in such a way that finishing it is an indication that the player has achieved a certain level of mastery.

Out of school, the game by itself is not the whole package. A game is part of a bigger package that includes when is often called the “meta-game” (a phenomenon actively encouraged by game designers). When players are highly motivated and involved, they go to interest-driven websites where they collaborate with others to take the game further. They review the game; trade strategies; “mod” the game (i.e., learn to use software to modify the game or build new games); “theory-craft” (i.e., study the underlying design and statistical underpinnings of the game); construct tutorials and teach and mentor each other; offer each other challenges or ideas about how to play the game in new ways or how to solve problems in alternative ways; write strategy guides (in text or video); and put up videos of their own play (sometimes with commentary), so others can learn or compare their own play to that of other sorts of players. And, remember, “play” here means problem solving.

Problem solving should be the heart and soul of school. Simply teaching information (“facts”) does not lead to the ability to use this information to solve problems and the information is retained only for a fairly short time. Well-designed problem solving leads to the ability to solve problems and yet learners still learn the requisite information and retain it longer because they use facts repeatedly as tools to solve problems they care about.

So, to me, using games in school means using the style of problem solving good game designers set up, with or without a game. What you need are: a deep and interesting set of problems; good tools with which to solve them; well-designed teaching/mentoring/guidance of the sort good games use; collaboration; a rich set of social activities in and around the game that constitute a good meta-game and take the game further (leading to transfer and the acquisition of new skills). In such game-based learning teachers become designers of good learning experiences for their students, just like game designers.

There is a dilemma, however, when games go to school: Game-based learning is not measured by time, but, rather, by a trajectory towards mastery, no matter how much time it takes; and gamers are not given a single grade as an assessment, but gain a rich set of information about multiple variables relevant to their problem solving and all based on measures of growth across time, not a single “drop out of the sky” test.