Video Games & Sound Educational Practice: What Gaming Reminds Us About the Classroom

The following is a link to an interesting talk by David Perry, a video game developer.  In it, he discusses several very interesting ideas about video games and how they are developed.  If gaming is a topic that interests you or you want to understand its massive appeal and hold on some of our students, this talk is a worthy 21 minutes of your time.  Note: This presentation was given in 2006, so the statistics are much more dramatic now.  For example, World of Warcraft no longer has 5.5 million players.  As of October 2008, it had 11 million!

David Perry’s TED Talk:  Will Video Games Become Better Than Life?

I find the idea intriguing that video game developers are focusing on emotion, purpose, meaning, understanding, and feeling.  The emphasis is not on the graphics and technology, but rather how you get players emotionally involved and connected to the content.  Video games can be challenging, long, complex, and require a great deal of new learning to reach accomplishments.  And people pay for this.  Game developers are focused on how to get players to want more.  Isn’t this how we want students to view our content?  So what educational notions have game developers been using to engage their “learners” in new content?  What can we take away from this as educators and re-emphasize in the classroom?

I’ve been researching this topic for a little over a year.  Almost all of what I’ve found comes directly from or is influenced by James Paul Gee, University of Wisconsin – Madison.  If you have any other resources, I would greatly appreciate it if you would send them my way.  After reading several papers and parts of his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, these are some of the ideas I’d love to discuss more with people and be sure I’m including in my own teaching:

Fact Fetish vs. Ways of Thinking – Games deeply immerse players in their world so they think like the character/profession they are playing.  Educators can immerse students in their content fields so they can begin to think like scientists, historians, mathematicians, chefs, writers, etc.  The focus is not on a list of facts, but rather the context in which decisions are made.

Set a Purpose – Games have very specific goals.  Players know exactly what they need to accomplish to be successful and when that happens.  We should tell our students exactly what they need to accomplish to be successful in our school.  This doesn’t mean we have to give them a formula on how to be successful (this can dampen creative thinking) but we do need to tell them what direction the bulls eye is in and what it looks like.  They will much closer to the target that way.

“Real World” Relevance –  Players take on an identity, immersing themselves in the attitudes, values and actions of that identity (Worried about blood gushing violence? Remember that 83% of games have NO mature content – see Ted Talk above).  Each skill taught in a video game has a specific purpose and application.  Learning out of context is difficult and has poor retention.  Instruction manuals, while still included, are not the main way to learn your way around a new game.  Directions are built directly into the game and appear as they are needed.  They are learned in context.  As teachers, we should “maximize the context” so students can better retain what we want them to learn.

Problem Solving – Playing video games means you are problem solving.  We should value the problem solving mind-set gaming develops in our students and use it to our advantage in the classroom.

Performance BEFORE Competence -Schools sometimes stress competence before performance.  An example of this would be a student reading a textbook and then maybe being allowed to DO the chemistry.  In the gaming world, this concept is often is reversed on its head.  Players get to be immersed in the new learning, freely making mistakes (aka learning!) until they get things to work.  Inquiry Science is the school example that comes to mind when I consider this idea.

Cycles of Expertise – This involves a student learning a skill, practicing it until it becomes automatic, and then circumstances shifting so the student has to adapt the skill to succeed in the new situation.  This is a very important real world ability that games constantly employ.

Fishtanks & Sandboxes – Gee uses the terms “Fishtanks” and “Sandboxes” to describe safe and effective learning situations.  In gaming, these two tools are often used as tutorials or in the first few levels of a game, allowing the players to grasp new ideas in a non-overwhelming environment.   A “Fishtank” is a simplified version of a complex system, such as studying the ecosystem of a real life fish tank before progressing on to an actual pond, lake, or ocean.  The major variables are contained in this learning experience, but in a simplified way so students (or players) don’t become overwhelmed.

A “Sandbox” is an experience that is much like the real part of the game, only the risks are mitigated.  This allowed the players to learn in an environment where the consequences of mistakes don’t prevent them from wanting to continue with the game.  Gee says “You can’t expect newcomers to learn if they feel too much pressure, understand too little, and feel like failures.” (Learning by Design).

In gaming, players can save at certain points to avoid having to start all over from the beginning.  Our larger educational system is often lacking these safeguards to motivation.  If a student fails a math class, they have to retake the entire class, rather then specifically focusing on their skill deficiencies.  As I’m sure we’ve all seen, this can kill motivation and desire to learn in our students.  This is one reason Mastery Learning can be such an effective and powerful method.  The question for me is, how to best implement Mastery Learning on a classroom scale?

One of Gee’s most thought provoking quoes for me is “They [players/students] need always to see failure as informative and part of the game, not as a final judgement or as a device to forstall creativity, risk taking, and hypothesizing.” (Learning By Design)

Choice & Differentiation – Video games used to be very rigid in the choices they gave to players.  The levels in old games consisted of the same screen and the game just got harder and faster.  Later you could progress through the levels going in a straight line, wherever the game led (think original Super Mario Brothers).  Today, we have “non-linear” games in which players can choose when, where, and how to accomplish their goals in worlds that can take literally hours to walk your character across.  There are even Google Map pages dedicated to the terrain of games such as World of Warcraft.  I could write a great deal just on the topic of choices presented to players, but for now I will merely present you with the thought that games are now being developed and played that no longer have an “end.”  Choice is a large part of the massive success of these games.  I’m not saying that teachers need to give students infinite choices, but how much choice we are offering is something to ponder.

Pleasantly Frustrating – Known to educators by the jargonish phrase, “Zone of Proximal Development.”  This is the idea that what is being learned is not so challenging it cannot be accomplished, but is not so easy that it is boring.  Some call it “learning on the edge.”  Video games use this concept very well, manipulating the feelings of players so they just can’t turn off the game.  They are ALMOST to the next level, boss, goal, etc. and they want to keep going.  The player gets immediate feedback and can see how they are progressing towards their goal, especially when they fail.  They learn what they did wrong and try a different approach or work on perfecting their new skill until they get it right.  I think teachers can make interesting gains with their students when this idea is consciously incorporated into lessons.

Group Work – Games have come a long way from 2-player pong.  MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games such as World of Warcraft) can have upwards of 25 people (sometimes hundreds) working on the same objective, in the same place, at the same time.  Coordination and teamwork, anyone?  In these types of games, students are building skills that include organization, time management, teamwork, and more.  Many teachers try to emphasize these things in the classroom.

The traditional view of gaming is far from the active society of the classroom.  We picture a teenage boy sitting alone in the basement, not talking to anyone.  The reality of gaming is that it has been extensively developed through product testing, marketing, etc. into a community experience that uses some of the best aspects of effective educational practice.  Video games can be useful to us beyond the games themselves.  The ideas and theories behind them re-emphasize what we know to be good teaching.  We want to hook our students into our content and keep them wanting more.  Video games are a good example of how to accomplish this.

Works Consulted:

I am currently developing an optional presentation on this topic for my staff.  I decided to blog about the various points to help solidify my thoughts (that’s why this is so long! 🙂 The presentation, at only about 15 minutes, won’t be).  If you have any comments or questions on the relevence of gaming in the classroom, please feel free to comment.  I’d love feedback on how to make sure the information in this presentation is relevent to the classroom.  I previously did another presentation on Modern Gaming Culture, which focused on how students interact with the now very social world of video games.  Thank you!!


5 thoughts on “Video Games & Sound Educational Practice: What Gaming Reminds Us About the Classroom”

  1. Hi,
    I haven’t made it all the way through your post, but I will. I find this stuff fascinating too and appreicte anyone who takes the time to share thoughts about it.

    One comment I want to make now, is that engineering such engaging and real-seeming experiences for students – like games, learning objects, etc. carries a huge burden of responsibility which I’m not sure most educators are qualified to bare…maybe this doesn’t matter. Maybe students should be trusted to sort it all out (the fact from fiction) themselves. I’ve found, in designing learning objects (some game-like), that students absorb my biases in subtle and scary ways that I find difficult to predict at the outset. More than once, I have created an online experience that has engaged a student with sound, animation and real-seeming experience so that they’ve become utterly convinced (in a way that only real experience can) of a skewed or even completely misguided understanding of a concept. And I don’t find this out until testing for understanding later…too late.

  2. A reply from S. R. Tod and posted with permission:

    This blog reminds a great deal of The Holodeck in Star Trek New Generation. I think the readings you’ve presented are exciting and if staff are presented with in-depth and pervasive training, including continual current awareness updates, that such an approach could excite students and treat them with a dignity that is often missing or lagging in America’s education system, i.e. real, no half-stepping, no just-barely-good-enough. The fact that it is multi-sensory and higher-learning-styles-focused, makes it all the more exciting, provided the funding is available and renewable. Despite many wonderful innovations in American education, it is still largely a top-to-bottom authority structure; and we need to get to the point where knowledge, truth of any kind and in any form, can emanate from our students, from teachers, parents, from anyone and any where. Embracing and exploring the usefulness of gaming in the classroom would consist of a major step toward as system which still, far too often, encourages passive learners and passive learning.

  3. I love this, especially the parts about inquiry-based learning, frustration, and differentiation. In my own personal professional development, I’m currently working on the spirit of inquiry I encourage in the classroom. I have started to tell students when I’m going to let them get “a little bit frustrated,” and I work hard all year to cultivate a classroom culture that says failure is good … as long as we learn from it.


  4. You might want to talk with Liz Simpson at U.W. She’s been working on using video games in classrooms for a few years now. She even taught a class for teachers for a couple of summers to try to get more people involved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: