Lame-based learning

Games by Ian D, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Ian D 


Just came across this article which, once again, has me despairing about the way people talk about games-based learning. Gates speaks with two fundamental flaws in his thinking (it may have been more but the second half of the article was auth-walled), which seem fairly common across the board.

“it’s an adjunct to a serious curriculum”

We’re never going to get anywhere with this if we keep assigning it to ‘other’. Anything fun, anything creative, anything outside the box – it’s not serious. We’ll stick it in somewhere because we like that it ‘promotes engagement’ but then we’ll get on with the proper learning in normal ways. It’s this kind of thinking that has driven the gamification trend – ‘we like the engagement games offer but we still want proper learning because games are a bit scary so let’s add some points and badges and make it a thing’. It fundamentally misses the point of why people are engaging in games in the first place.

Games aren’t ‘other’. Games aren’t a layer you can apply to something else. Games *are* proper learning. It just doesn’t look like any other kind of learning we have in our brain’s cultural inbox. It leads to the next problem:

“Imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught them math concepts while they barely noticed, because it was so enjoyable”

They already are, Bill. This is what strikes me as the most fundamental problem with the discussion of games in learning – the idea that games do not contain learning unless you deliberately put it in there. Commercial game designers design for engagement and nothing else, which appears to terrify most people in the business of education – after all, you can’t possibly be learning unless you’re planning and talking about it explicitly. However, the fact that you can’t ‘see’ the learning doesn’t mean it’s not there. If you discard Angry Birds or PvZ or Minecraft or WoW as merely ‘entertainment’ you’re discarding a whole host of rich learning in not just maths but physics, design, literacy, social skills, resilience and too many others to keep listing. This is why IMHO the entire genre of ‘educational games’ needs to die – the design is usually for learning first, and usually in a one-dimensional way (the example given in the article has the objective of ‘manipulating fractions’). And then people wonder why kids aren’t spending hours playing them, setting up Vent servers, building wikis, making machinima and so on – all the hallmarks of ‘engagement’ in commercial games.

Learning in games is messy. It’s implicit and incidental and you can’t control it. It’s the elephant in the room when we talk about games. It’s daunting to think that the people who are producing some of the best learning environments/experiences didn’t actually mean for anyone to learn anything at all (at least not in an outcomes & curriculum sense). I really do wish that people – particularly rather high-profile ones – would consider this before banging on about ‘levels’ and winning being a motivator.

9 thoughts on “Lame-based learning”

    1. There were a whole host of things absent from Gates’ thinking in the article, of which yes, that was one. He seems to ignore the fact that the whole ‘fiero’ thing comes from triumph over yourself primarily, and can be based on failure not victory.

  1. Wow, it has just clicked. I have been keenly following these posts on game-based learning thinking about how they could be applied to what I do and have just realised that ‘game’ is just another word for ‘experiment’. An ideal experiment should be one where the aim isn’t to ‘win’, but to explore the space of things that can happen, where you learn from failure, where you construct something that belongs to you. My discipline suffers from the ‘de-gamification’ that came with the passing of the chemistry set: in the generation before mine, practically every one who came into do a chemistry major would have had one and spent ages already playing with chemistry as a game: now, that play is gone, and there’s nothing to build on. We need to bring that space back. Resolution made. kthxbai ;)

    1. You’re right – nice analogy. I had a chemistry set when I was a kid and would gleefully combine whatever I felt like to see what happened. Then I got to school and chemistry was all ‘follow this page of instructions to get this predetermined result’ and it was depressing.

      I will keenly await the day when we have an emergency evacuation because you have set the Riggs building on fire :).

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