If you’ve talked to a teenager lately, you may have noticed a trend. Teachers everywhere are scratching their heads over how a group of students can have a deep conversation about the ins and outs of a game as simple as “Clash of Clans,” but can’t remember what they went over in class yesterday.
The collective response of the educational community toward this apparent lack of student engagement has been something along the lines of “kids are spoiled and don’t take school seriously anymore.” The answer has been a narrowing of focus on academic goals and an impossibly complicated set of rules that are supposed to help teachers craft more engaging lessons. You can guess how well that’s going.
However, a trend – one that is not at all new – has begun to grow in the world of education that aims to redefine student engagement. Since teachers and administrators hold all the cards in the traditional classroom, students have been forced to meet teachers on their terms. Fortunately, a few educators are asking the right question: How do we engage with students on their level?
The answer: game-based learning.
We mentioned above that the idea of game-based learning is not at all new, and given the memories of everyone under the age of 40 playing “Oregon Trail” or “Number Crunchers” or any of a multitude of educational computer games in elementary school, we can clearly trace this trend back across several generations. At some point in a child’s academic career, the computer games are put away in favor of more serious instruction. All along, the most innovative teachers and instructional designers have been wondering why.
HISTORY OF GAME LEARNING
When we discuss game-based learning in the 21st century, we are referring to computer and video games that achieve an instructional objective. If you want to go back to the very beginning, children have been playing educational games since the invention of rock-paper-scissors, or Simon Says, or whichever of those schoolyard games came first.
The theory behind those games, and behind the earliest educational computer games, was to present information and content in a way that engaged a child who was too young to sit at a desk and listen to a teacher talk at them all day. As the material became more complex and the class sizes too big for one-on-one interaction, the lecture format stepped in as the preferred method of instruction.
These early computer games were a huge hit with kids and educators alike, at a time when the only access they had to a computer was in the school’s computer lab. As hardware became more powerful and sophisticated, computers slowly entered the home, and a multibillion-dollar video game industry started to take off. At that point, however, video games were seen as a leisure activity, a distraction for kids who should be doing their homework.
Games designed to meet instructional criteria are experiencing a resurgence in popularity now that computerized devices are an unavoidable part of daily life. Where generation X children might have only looked at a computer screen in the classroom, the common refrain regarding the millennial generation asserts that the classroom is the only time they aren’t looking at a computer screen.
In response to this fundamental shift in the human experience, educators are beginning to take a closer look at what video games can teach them – and their students. So let’s take a look at just what they’re learning. As we go forward, we ask ourselves: What is game-based learning?
HOW Game-Based Learning WORKS
In broad strokes, game-based learning is an attempt to use a game platform to impart skills and/or information on its players. There is a subtle difference here that provides contrast to the concept of gamification, which is an attempt to adopt game architecture in a nongame-related setting.
Gamification can best be illustrated in the plethora of social apps such as Yelp and Foursquare, where increased participation unlocks rewards such as badges or XP. XP stands for experience points, which can take on any number of names in each individual app. These concepts are lifted straight from the gaming world, but Yelp itself is not a game.
Game learning, on the other hand, is all about playing a game. Effective game-based learning bakes the instructional objectives right into the game-playing experience. The ultimate goal is that a student has so much fun playing the game that they don’t even realize they’re learning new information. Of course, games can take many shapes, but they generally fall into two categories: analog and digital games. Within the world of digital game-based learning, we can break it down into two categories. Let’s look at those first.
· GAMES VS. SIMULATIONS
21st century game-based learning can be put into two separate categories: games and simulations. As if the rest of this article wouldn’t be persuasive enough, just discussing the differences between games and simulations will help to illustrate why game-based learning is so effective.
In a game, you have goals and levels, and your advancement depends on successful completion of tasks or puzzles. This provides an indirect analog for the skills and knowledge the learner is acquiring. These puzzles and tasks certainly force the user to engage with their skills and knowledge, but often in the context of an unrelated story.
A simulation, however, is self-explanatory. You learn by interacting with a computerized environment designed to simulate the very environment in which you will eventually apply your skills and knowledge. In the case of driving simulators, you are sitting in the cockpit of a car and driving around a road course or race track. However, simulators have been built to mimic all sorts of situations, from driving and flying to office conflict and interaction.
The benefit to a well-written simulation is obvious: You become better at a skill through practice and repetition. Such practice might be easy when it comes to something like sports or music, but the Navy isn’t going to let its new recruits hop into expensive jet fighters for their first flight lesson.
· BOARD GAMES VS. COMPUTER GAMES
The world of analog game-based learning has a few key limitations, chief of which is the attention span of the game players. When was the last time you sat through an entire game of Monopoly or Life with a teenager? Board- and card-based games also have a pretty low information capacity. After a couple runs through a game, a player has likely learned all they can from it, and the novelty wears off almost immediately.
In digital game-based learning, the information capacity is nearly infinite, limited only by the ability of the game’s developer to update the game with new levels and content. Good digital games also have the advantage of holding the player’s attention span for much longer periods of time. In contrast to the Monopoly question, when was the last time you saw a teenager put down a good game after less than, say, a half hour? How many teachers would – figuratively – kill for 30 minutes of undivided attention from their students?
Why It’s So Effective
Now that we have covered our definitions, let’s take a look at the characteristics of game-based learning that make it such an effective educational tool.
· STICKY CONTENT
Holding a student’s attention isn’t at all useful unless the content actually sticks when the student walks away from the game. However, as we have seen from such blockbuster games as “Halo” and “Pokémon,” the information and skills a child absorbs when playing a fascinating game can be quite sticky indeed.
Ask your local gamer to tell you all about how they’ve built their world in “Minecraft” and what their current inventory looks like, and be prepared for an exhaustive explanation, all off the top of their head. Good game designers are building games that are just as engaging, filled with the content they are required to cover in their classes.
· AVOIDING ASSESSMENT ANXIETY
Games are also helping to redefine the paradigms that have governed the learning and assessment models in the classroom. Gameplay does away with the discouragement that comes along with poor assessment performance. In a game, kids don’t mind dying five times in a row. If the game is worth playing, they’ll dive right back in the sixth time. However, many students are understandably anxious about taking a one-time only quiz or test.
When teachers are attempting to cover a lot of ground and assign grades along the way, they don’t have time for students to retake quizzes and tests. However, if they’re playing a computer game with a reset button, where’s the harm in letting the students try until they succeed? Isn’t success what we’re looking for?
· IMMEDIATE REINFORCEMENT AND MEANINGFUL FEEDBACK
A common refrain from the student body in most classes is, “when am I ever going to use this information?” While this question is as short-sighted as a version of the “why do I need to learn this?” problem, it is still a question all teachers should be able to answer. However, if we rephrase the question to ask when they are going to be able to apply this information in the hopes of cementing it in their memories, it is a very shrewd question indeed.
Games provide much more effective knowledge reinforcement than traditional end-of-unit assessments. Take three days’ worth of notes on the War of 1812 and you’ll forget everything by test day. Or, spend those three days playing a turn-based strategy game as either the American or the British army, and you’ll remember that war for much longer than you would have with a notebook full of dates and names.
Learning skills and knowledge in a game context allows you to put what you learn into action right away, which has several benefits. First, cognitive scientists have shown that “the shorter the interval between behavior and reinforcer, the more rapidly learning occurred.” Having a game character fail a task because of a student’s mistake is as immediate as it gets, but being able to hit the Play Again button is far less discouraging than waiting two days for a teacher to return a test with a bunch of red ink on it.
Second, immediate application of new knowledge is much more effective for creating long-term memory. Even if you are a visual learner, interacting with the information in a game setting can be a lot more effective than writing it down in a notebook. For auditory and kinesthetic learners, applying the information in a game and completing tasks that require the manipulation of that knowledge is undoubtedly better at creating long-term connections with the information.
Finally, a game provides students with instant and meaningful feedback. Students get a chance to learn from their mistakes on the very next try, helping to cement the contrast between the right answer and the wrong one. On a paper test, that red mark doesn’t tell you anything besides “you were wrong.” As much as a student might strive for an A or fear an F, the rewards systems written into the games we play are much more impactful on the child’s psychology.
THE DATA on Game-Based Learning
To this point, we have been discussing ideas and hypotheticals. Now let’s take a look at the numbers that back it up.
Game-based learning is a billion-dollar industry, climbing from $1.5 billion in 2013 toward a projected $2.3 billion in 2017, and that doesn’t even include the world of simulators. Clearly, the education and training world is working hard to capitalize on all of the wonderful benefits.
The most commonly cited study in the world of game-based learning was conducted by Richard Blunt. He conducted three studies to determine the relationship between the use of video games and learning. Across the board, student achievement was higher as a result of game play.
In one study, student performance was an average of 12 points higher on the test after having played a game, and letter grade distribution of the whole class skewed much more sharply toward the higher end, with more than 65 percent of students receiving an A after having played the game, versus 30 percent of those who hadn’t. His studies also proved that gender was no factor, as males and females both performed about 13 points higher on a different test after having played a game.
To muddy the waters a bit, he also took a look at performance in various age groups. Surprisingly, participants in the 41-50 age range actually scored lower with the game, by about six points. However, consider this the exception to the rule: Even if game-based learning isn’t more effective for absolutely everyone, it is undeniably effective for younger students.
A BETTER WAY to Educate
It is an undeniable truth that the youngest generation has a fundamentally different life experience and relationship with technology. Parents and educators in older generations can complain all they want, but this is a reality of their making. By understanding and embracing their children’s worldview, they can provide a more effective educational experience for everyone involved.
Does this mean that teachers of the future should be relegated to observers in a classroom where children receive all their education from computer games? Of course not. Everything in moderation, as the saying goes. However, teachers and administrators everywhere could help their students be more successful in 2016 and beyond by taking advantage of the bounty that the world of technology has provided.