Play is nature’s way of getting us to learn – which is why it’s such a powerful tool for education. Almost every animal on earth instinctively wants to play. Lions, tigers and bears all play by chasing, pouncing, pawing, wrestling and biting to develop their hunting skills; while children try to match the square block with the square hole as they learn shapes. Play is a natural route to learning because it’s something we inherently want to do.
Which brings us to a question that’s been asked ever since educators started looking beyond the Prussian model of education: how do you make education…fun? When we’re doing something we enjoy, we tend to want to keep doing it. We’re more engaged, and more likely to retain information than when we’re not enjoying ourselves. These are just the most obvious ways that a positive mood can improve education – the full list of benefits is extensive, as even a shallow dive into academic research in this space will tell you.
The fact that learning through play is so innately effective makes combining education with video games a natural fit. After all, the video games industry has been honing fun experiences that maximise engagement for decades. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that making sure that players ‘have fun’ is the guiding principle of games developers everywhere. While games like 1991’s Mario Teaches Typing and the (in)famous Oregon Trail may hold a special place in our hearts, video games as an educational tool have moved far beyond this level.
But learning institutions, as a whole, have been slow to adapt games as the established educational tools that they are, despite the mass adoption of video games in society. The current approach to implementation seems to be lacking in focus – very generally assuming that if educators create games and put them in schools, things will somehow be better. In some cases, this might actually be better than the systems we currently have in place, but it doesn’t really exploit games’ potential to increase students’ personal desire for knowledge.
So let’s explore one of the things that games can actually do better than established education practices; specifically, drastically shortening the amount of time between completing a task, receiving feedback and then trying again.
Fear of failure
For the vast majority of students, the current feedback loop looks something like: perform task – time passes – task is graded and then you find out whether you succeeded or not. There is no opportunity for do-overs, as by the time they receive feedback from teachers they’re already working on the next step of the curriculum. It’s not difficult to see why this system instils a fear of failure in students. If you fail to understand something, you’re slapped with a bad grade and have to live with it because the core loop is focused on assessment rather than facilitating learning opportunities.
But in games, failures are built in as an integral part of the experience, without stirring up the same negative emotions. Everyone who has ever picked up a game can think of a challenge that they have failed at only to try again with a slightly altered tactic based on the experience of failure. The failure still had consequences, even if it was just losing a life in Super Mario Bros, but it didn’t feel like you definitively failed because you could try again.
This is because problems in video games don’t directly ask “Do you know the solution?”, but instead “Can you find a way to do this?”. The rapid cycle of adapt-react-overcome is impossible in a modern classroom. Teachers simply don’t have the time to give each child the instant feedback they need to rapidly iterate on problems while they innovate their way to a solution. And this is no way the fault of educators! There just isn’t enough time to give every student the personalised feedback they need.
The act of finding solutions in games can also be a multi-step process, with multiple objectives being revealed to the player as they progress towards the ultimate solution or task. From text-based adventure games of the 80s to contemporary online role-playing games such as RuneScape, players learn how to follow a narrative, explore their surroundings, make use of in-game resources, and interact with characters to piece together pertinent information all without extensive external input.
This method of learning is much more useful for most modern jobs than the previous. Almost all of our important and high paying jobs require employees to find answers to problems they haven’t encountered before, which makes seeing failure as a definitive ‘end point’ into a huge stumbling block in the way of improving performance and job satisfaction.
The benefits extend to teachers as well. Offloading the majority of the ‘assessment’ part of the role to systems designed to offer rapid feedback frees up time to actually, well…teach! Can you imagine how much time could be saved if teachers could outsource the marking process entirely?
Positive examples of the use of play in the education sector can be seen in the UK’s Digital Schoolhouse project. The project uses gaming and play-based learning to engage the next generation of pupils and teachers with the computing curriculum. Delivered by the UK video games industry trade body, Ukie, with support from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, its play-based computing workshops has engaged 56 primary schools and reached almost 60,000 pupils.
Having spent a day observing and participating in workshops, I have seen how a session on algorithms can be delivered through the medium of dance, understood the computing instruction cycle through making funny faces, and engaged in Code Combat – a multiplayer game that, through solving puzzles and defeating ogres, teaches players increasingly complex programming concepts.
Including video games in the classroom is about more than increasing engagement, it’s about creating the kind of environment where failure can be a learning opportunity rather than just a black mark on a student’s record, better preparing them for the world as it is now, rather than the world of a century ago. More fundamentally than this, video games as an educational tool present one of the most obvious ways to make students actually enjoy learning and deliver all the benefits that a happier classroom has been proven to provide.