A new adventure in games-based learning

Having decided that I wanted to focus my energies on persuing games-based approaches to learning about two months ago, a lot has happened. I have designed at least 10 games (althoough only one playtested so far) in order to hone my game design skills and have been forced to think really hard about questions like:

What is a game?

What is fun and why do we associate fun with games?

What do we really mean by games-based learning?

What makes games-based learning effective?

Are we in danger of missing the point with games-based approches to learning?

I have delved into all types of games from no-tech pervasive games to high-tech alternate reality games in search of the answers to these questions, and although this journey has only really just started for me, my thoughts and opinions regarding those answers are beginning to crystallise. More than anything, my understanding of games-based learning has been turned on its head and my eyes have been opened to the rich and fertile landscape presented by games in their broadest sense, you can learn about services by professional gamers and find all the information you might need.

Amongst the books and articles which have contributed to the evolution of my thinking in this area are:

  • the writings and research of Jane McGonigal, particularly her recent book Reality is Broken and the work she did on the I Love Bees ARG for the release of Halo 2.
  • Thoughts and musings offered by users on Twitter, blog posts from the folks at Hide & Seek, and various other snippets I have uncovered from the gaming community through sites like gameful.org
  • Research and experimental approaches to education such as Quest to Learn in New York

More than anything, I have become concerned that the term ‘games-based learning’ is starting to be misused in educational settings, and as a result the education community are missing the vast potential of a games-based approach to learning.

I remember taking a load of Nintendo DS consoles and putting them into a school with Brain Training installed, giving them to a group of kids for a few weeks and seeing what happened. I recall thinking – is this games-based learning? Is this really what all the fuss is about? and feeling slightly short-changed by the experience. Learning and Teaching Scotland have had massive successes using computer games with students of all ages, and there is a buzz about leveraging existing computer games for the learning benefits they can offer. Equally, some have approached the field from the other direction – rather than applying existing games to education, they have designed computer games with education in mind. In some cases, games are being used as a carrot to convince the learner to revise, or improve their maths skills. Both of these examples, however, dissociate the learning from the game to some extent (and in some cases more than others). In the cases of projects such as those initiated by L&T Scotland, the learning is to some degree dictated by the game itself.

For these reasons, I feel uncomfortable using the term games-based learning to describe these approaches. In the case of projects which use computer games and leverage the learning benefits they offer in terms of cooperation, teamwork, creativity and so on, I think a more accurate term might be game-centred learning. That is because the learning which is possible through a specific game is to an extent determined by the game in question. In cases where games are used to improve engagement, or as a narrative to accompany formal learning, I would use the term game-incentivised learning.

In neither of these cases does the game form the basis of the learning – in other words, the learning is not intrinsically integrated into the game. That is not necessarily a bad thing – in both the cases above there has been a measurably positive effect on learning and engagement. The danger is that the education community fall into the trap of thinking that this is where games-based learning starts and ends. Not only do these approaches only scratch the very surface of what could be possible using truly games-based learning, they are focused solely on computer games.

Researchers like Jane McGonigal have identified the positive psychological effects of games and how games leverage these effects to draw players in and keep them engaged in unparallelled ways. This is not new – games have been doing this since long before computers were even conceived of. However, games as they stand today are infinitely more various in their nature than they ever have been before, simply because of the freedom that modern communications technology affords us. Computer games and consoles are one manifestation of this, but other more recent genres such as Alternate Reality Games are also giving us a glimpse of how the emerging interconnectedness of our society can be harnessed to engage players on a much grander scale. Currently, this potential is being used primarily by commercial industry to part people from their hard-earned cash, but the potential of these types of games are only beginning to be realised when applied to education. More than this, thinking around how we can design education to leverage the established positive psychological effects which games employ to such magnificent effect is just getting started (see Quest to Learn above). So it is vital that we not fall into the trap of thinking that games-based learning has arrived – we have only just begun to realise it’s potential. We are presented with the opportunity to redesign education under a new paradigm which

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