Bill MacKenty

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The right circumstances for games in education to work

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 24 - April 2008 at 03:35 AM (16 years ago). 320 views.

That games in education “work” is without question. When used properly, games can uniquely motivate, teach, and encourage our students. If you really use games effectively, you can motivate poor performing or under-performing students; you can help bright students ask important questions and relevant questions about themselves and their world; you can help gifted kids simulate highly complex systems.

However, it is not simply a matter of sticking a kid in front of a computer game and hoping for the best.  There are a specific set of circumstances which must coalesce in order for games to work.

The Right Teacher

A good teacher must plan a lesson, measure learning, and ask the right question at the right time. Using computer games for learning, a teacher must have special clarity concerning learning objectives, scope, and assessment. But the teacher must also have strong technical acumen, a sense of adventure, and positive experience playing games.

Asking the right questions and setting context before the game is played is important. The right teacher will probably understand regularly interrupting game play is a bad idea. After the game is over (perhaps in the next class), it’s critical to debrief and discuss the learning experience.

Being a geek helps.

The Right Students

When planned well, games work for 90% of the students I’ve encountered (of all ability levels).  However, there is a group of students who simply don’t “do” computer games - no big deal, it’s simply not their thing.

Gifted and talented students require special mention here.

First of all, when I talk about gifted and talented students, I’m talking about the top 5% of the top 5%.  These students are quite rare, but you must understand something about this kid: they grok patterns REALLY quickly. And as we know, games are essentially really fun patterns (here and here). They also seem to have higher-than-average motivation to learn. 

I’ve not yet found a clear and consistent way for gifted kids to use games to enhance their learning - however, there is great promise in the modding community, and in the building of their own games. I wrote a brief piece about my confusion how to use games with talented kids. But I am increasingly aware that building complex systems fits well into the gifted realm (and games model complex system really well).

The Right Parents

It’s ok if your parents are clueless about technology, but you might run into some trouble with parents who are afraid of computers or computer games.  This is where clear planning plays an important role. If you can approach a parent, and clearly explain the activity, and demonstrate learning objectives, most parents will see that this isn’t a waste of time. It also helps if you’ve spent some building relationships with parents and at parent groups.

As if it needs to be said, this is an area where your choice of game, and your learning objectives will be tested. Most parents have a finely tuned bullshit meter. If you say “we are playing World of Warcraft and the kids are learning about swords”. You will have earned the right for them to complain to you and your administrator.

The Right Game

I have an opinion that the best type of game for use in education are COTS games (more).  Not everyone shares my opinion, for perfectly good reasons. However, as you read on, please understand I’m giving you my opinion - that COTS games are the best choice for games in education.

A game has to be a good game before it can be a good educational game. This is why I shun edutainment titles, and games designed especially for education (there are some magnificent exceptions).

This isn’t to say there isn’t value in edutainment titles, just not the kids of education I’m talking about here. So here is what makes a game educational:

1) The game has an educationally-accessible context (historical, contemporary, hard science-fiction)
2) Game play has genuinely educationally-accessible content (Age of Empires has a great educational context, but lousy educational gameplay)
3) Success depends on intelligent choices and decisions (not twitch)
4) Failure exists and teaches when it happens. It is possible to lose
5) The tutorial is crystal clear, and checks for understanding
6) There are multiple victory conditions
7) The feedback model is short - students can quickly see how a decision effects a larger whole picture
8) The game becomes increasingly challenging and difficult

You have to get four things right when you use a computer game:

It has to work right and well.  Technical problems are disastrous in games in education. Short classes and limited technical support make technical problems a serious issue.

It has to be fun. It doesn’t get boring.  A guiding mantra should be “if it’s not fun, why do it?”.  This is why we always think about the game first and then educational potential.

It has to be challenging at different levels of abilities.  Some students are naturally interested in technology and games, others are not.  As much as something which is very difficult can cause problems, so can something which is very easy.  Levels of difficulty help alleviate this situation.

The game need to be accessible for different types of players (ala Bartle player types). Explorers, achievers, griefers, and socializers.  There should be something in the game for everyone.

The Right Administrator

If you are working in a school with colossally stupid administrators, you will not be able to use games in your classroom.  However, I’ve found most administrators are not stupid. Most of them are open to new methodologies, but demand some sort of evidence or plan. 

I often talk about building credibility and trust with administrators. It is important to build trust with your building leaders. Games in education are a novel thing,and frought with potential failure. Most administrators should approach the topic with a measure of distrust. Thus it is up to the teacher to provide clear learning objectives and clear plan for using games. 

The Right Support

The right support comes from the teacher who is using the games in class.  In my experience, schools often have little technical support.  If there is a technical problem, the teacher must be able to solve the issue in class. It’s really that simple.  I suppose I could of put this in the right teacher section, but support deserves it’s own mention.