The games that we play

Alice Savage examines the benefits of games-based learning at Britain’s largest videogames expo, EGX

September 24th-27th saw 80,000 people, including myself, descend on the Birmingham NEC for EGX, Britain’s largest videogames industry event. Every year thousands of gamers and associated press queue for hours for the chance to get their hands on the year’s biggest games from publishing giants, such as Sony and Microsoft, months before they are released to the general public. While many of the titles are aimed primarily at adults, I was struck by the number of young people in attendance – often accompanied by a bewildered looking parent. Other big name partners included Nintendo, Disney, EA Sports, Lego/Warner bros, and YouTube which all offer content suitable for a younger audience.

The videogame sector receives a large boost from children of school age with the latest data estimating that 91% of children aged between 2-17 play videogames either on a computer, console, or a mobile device such as a phone or tablet. With this is mind it is important to recognise that videogame technology is having an impact on this generation and why it is not surprising that there has been a rise in games-based learning within the classroom.

The idea of gamifying learning is not a new one. Games of memory, comprehension, cognition and many other key skills can be organised in the classroom to engage children in active learning using traditional materials such a coloured pens and card. What technology can bring to this pre-established teaching method is instant feedback. Small rewards for achieving goals and challenges can help to motivate children and to keep them engaged in a subject. A good example of this is the BBC revision resource, Bitesize, which has been offering syllabus based revision to students in the form of ‘mini games’ (single challenges that form part of a larger objective) for nearly 20 years.

‘As technology becomes more and more an integral part of society, a gap between the younger generation and the older is forming’

As technology becomes more and more an integral part of society, a gap between the younger generation and the older is forming. Children born in the 21st Century are growing up in the world surrounded by state-of-the-art technology at every turn. For the older generation, this was not the case, therefore it is natural for parents and teachers who have a very different set of childhood experiences to remain on the fence when it comes to deciding on the validity of using videogames in a teaching context.

One of the strongest and most repeated arguments against gaming in the classroom is the psychological idea of ‘over-justification’. This hypothesis theorises that children who already intrinsically wish to learn without the need of outside rewards (justification) can become reliant on the small achievements afforded by games and therefore begin to under achieve when the reward system is taken away. What this argument fails to recognise is that adult society also functions on a ‘justification’ system. “If I work hard I will get a promotion and I will earn more money” is an oft-cited if over-simplified example of cause and effect. Far from causing children to suffer from negative reinforcement, failing to achieve small goals within the safety of a classroom environment and with the support of teaching staff and parents, can teach children to overcome adversity and thrive regardless.

With such a diverse range of learning-based games available to teachers it can seem like a tall order to find the products suitable for your specific learning environment. Some companies specialise in products aimed at certain subjects, for example learning a language, while others are more general and aim at developing the core skills that children need in order to learn. Many software companies offer free trials and there are initiatives in place to fund technology in schools. It is clear that game-based learning cannot replace all traditional teaching methods but for ‘generation tech’ it may be useful to include some in your teaching arsenal.