‘Learning by Playing’: Seven Tips for Game Designers

By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

I like video games and introduced my son to them with Wizardry I a very long time ago. For 20 or more years, I’ve been looking at ways to make videos games work in classrooms. So have many others. The recent New York Times article, “Learning by Playing,” explores some recent developments in schools.

This concept, gaming in classrooms, has many facets. Is the game a first-person shooter game (Doom), a resource management game (Railroad Tycoon, various Sim games), a role-playing game, or even massively multiple-player online role playing game (MMORPG, e.g., World of Warcraft)? Or is it a purely educational game? Do students learn more than just eye-hand coordination from games? Is gaming an appropriate use of classroom time? Does the answer change with the students’ age? Are games ready for prime time, and, if not, when will they be?

Most would agree that well designed games are fun and engaging. Also, you’ll have broad agreement that the features of successful games, if applied to learning, should make learning more successful.

How much of gaming, especially computer-mediated gaming, is appropriate for a classroom? I guess you’d have quite a wide range of answers to that question. At the Quest to Learn school highlighted in the Times article, they’re already committed to this answer: lots. The school uses the talents of professional game designer, Katie Salen, to power its exploration into classroom gaming. Ms. Salen has a passion for using games to improve learning.

I think that we must explore all options and cannot fault Quest to Learn for being a laboratory for new ideas. I don’t think they’re ready to take over all education yet and have a long way to go before they are. Here are some thoughts about using games in learning. These are just my opinions, and I’d love to discuss them with anyone else seriously. Great teachers use some of the strategies of games in their classes to great effect.

Two of the major problems with games are:

  • Games waste lots of time. Learning games tend to be dull. Exciting games, even with deliberate learning injected into them, have low learning to time quotients.
  • Non-learning aspects of games distract from learning. Generally, a game has been created to be, well, a game. Unless, it’s created from the ground up to be a learning experience, it will not have a very good ROI [return on investment].

Still, we CAN learn a lot from games and reapply that to helping students learn. The ideas below may open up ways to build great learning tools:

  1. Do not attempt to use anything like drill.
  2. Do create an interactive learning experience, not just lip service to “interactivity” but real and meaningful interactivity.
  3. Allow students to become personally attached to the learning using the tools of games. In as trivial a game as Monopoly, you choose your token, in effect, your avatar. Use that principle in learning tools.
  4. Provide for social interaction. Why is bridge or any other card game popular? Because it allows people to socialize around the game space.
  5. Give rewards and set goals for achievement. Recognize accomplishments and progress without denigrating failure. It’s the philosophy of “learning to mastery.”
  6. Provide a path to success that can be measured by progress. Allow students, while learning, to reach level 35 on the way to level 40.
  7. Allow for progress at the rate that each student can manage. Keep the steps challenging but not overwhelming. Anyone can win with enough time and effort.

I learned geography in fifth grade quite well by playing a game. It was deceptively simple. One student stood at the front of the classroom with a pointer and a blank map of the world pulled down for all to see. The first student in the first row stood behind the student with the pointer, the second behind that student, etc. When the student at the front pointed at a country or ocean or sea or lake or other prominent geographic feature, the first student to identify it moved on to the next class position. No one ever “ran” the entire class no matter how much they tried. We all studied outside of the game time to try and improve. We also found out about more remote geographic features we could point to if we were chosen to stand at the front of the class. Very quickly, most of the students could name most of the features on the map.

Instead of adapting or modifying the products of Electronic Arts and others, let’s use our own tools from the ground up and just swipe a few of their ideas.

9 Responses

  1. If you look at the New York TImes, you will see a lot of articles on gaming. I saw the first two, the one by James Gee, but missed the interactive classroom.

    Why all the sudden interest in games in education? THere has been a groundswell with the permission , I think given by the Obama Administration. One can say that it was a verboten subject for the last eight years.

    I learned to bring games into my classroom as a part of the work in subject areas through serious games.

    In a game students can make a mistake and the penalty is simply that they do not win. I confess to staying late at school to best a student on a game so thet they couold want to best my score. On most games that worked, well as long as i did nto score too high, just in a teasing level near the students.

    I have spent the summer in gaming, in scalable game design, in Globaloria, and in my favorite area of learning, geography. http://www.mywonderfulworld.org
    is from the National Geographic. When I taught geography it was very competitive with the various ways in which geographers used the new technologies to capture the attention of students.

    We had the games about states where the state dropped and you had to place it. We had the internationl guessing games, and then we had the transition to Map Machine, and Xpeditions. .. moving on to the Jason project. I think what captures the interest of children is that they don’t have to wait for the rest of the class, you can go at your own level and you can validate your knowledge.

    My class was so interested in learning by games that we combined games that had the content we needed to know, Cross Country, the states game, and a game in whidh we had to solve cases all over the US.

    Children were walking around with atlases, and maps, and learning map projections on their own.

    Parents were asking if I needed funds to buy more of the games. I had only five computers, We solved that problem by having a set of parents come and work with me after school until we were able to offer it on Saturdays.

    The National Geographic of course had competitions which were a next level and we did sponsor a geography bee and participate in the Jason Project.

    However, our best work was making a game of our own about the Chesapeake Bay, that involved history,
    maps, places to visit, the ecology, the economy and the intense study of the estuary. We never finished the game, Fish and WIldlife created one that was better and we found resources that continued to enhance our learning. What was interesting was that Fish and Wildllife, The National Aquarium in Baltimore, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation offered us games we could not refuse. The learning
    was so substantial that my students wanted to write a grant and did. We got a grant to visit, learn and study the Chesapeake Bay. One of the fun things was the study of the Eat a Crab Lab at the Smithsonian Center
    .. It was a wonderful, wonderful reward for hard work.

    Not sure if I have revovered from teh Anoxina Mae song
    . we integrated art, history, music, visits, hands on and
    topics that let us learn so much about the bay. The games were a significant part of the infrastructure of learning tools. And yes, there were the books, and the
    recipes, and the interviews with Fish and Wildlife people. Marc Prensky helped me to think about how important partnerships are.

    If I was in a classroom, now. I would be even more enriched by Scalable Game Design, and the Google tools and ways of using mashups.

    Here’s the problem. How do teachers on the digitial dark road, or who do not live in areas with broadband take advantage of the many partnership resources?

    The OSTP site has the plan of the PCAST, Presidential Commission on Science and Technology. Mentor teachers is one of the ways in which they think they can make a difference.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  2. Sorry, forgot one very , very important resource.
    http://www.earthwarch.org, is a great resource for teachers and students.

    There are grants that provide the funding for teachers to participate in real science, and environmental learning , there are also grants to help students go places to learn.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  3. Typring too fast.


    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    There are interactive lessons in both this and the
    Smithsonian Estuary Research center. You can
    work on the pier and do all seven of the experiments.

    Turbidity, salinity, weather and tides, micrsoscopic
    investications, and seining. I have photos on Facebook about the visits to SERC . Also there
    are at the Natioinal Aquarium in Baltimore in which students do hands on experiments on adaptations.
    Fun stuff….. for teachers and students.

  4. As Bonnie suggests, the realm of geography learning options is so much richer today that my half-century ago game looks like the horse and buggy. It simply illustrates the point that game styles can translate to the classroom even without fancy technology. Computers just enhance the experience. That game that I played was in sixth grade. With today’s technology and technology-savvy sixth graders, just imagine what could be done.

  5. I am a reluctant game player. I like single games. I helped to write a scenario for Whyville, the lesson part, and had to go into the game to play to understand how to write the lessons. People started talking to me and trying to tell me , give me hints and so on. I was uncomfortable and I knew who the person was. I found that my ways of learning are pretty individual. So I had to rethink about my dislike for some of the new types of games. Second Life. I do a lot of things in a day so to get real immersed in a game , deep in a game that I have to respond to a lot of other people , is uncharted territory to me. I do like the scenario that was created in Whypower on thinking about energy.
    Building a house for a couple of years, building a house for ten years. . then to run a city using wind, water, electric, coal and other power. I learned a lot in a short period of time. What was interesting was that I kept thinking about the scenario even when the writing of the lessons was over. I still have not committed to second life, but I understand how it probably can be compelling for people who are not so challenged by time.

    Whyville is a subscription game with lots of components.

    I think in the way I learn I like to figure out things on my own and not so much the team kind of learning. I probably don’t like to be wrong. So there are components of game playing that may be personal.

    Another game that I played was Warlords. For some reason to understand it, I tried to be each of the groups that are in the game to understand how tto play
    and got completely involved in the game. Before the learning of the game I never thought about tactics except in chess. Again there were others playing the game and it was interesting to get to the top levels quickly. I don’t know that anything I learned was transferred to real learning but it spiced up thinking about early warfare. It provoked interests..in strategy.

    I am not a gaming insider at this time. But there are kids who are who think in very different ways than those ways in which we educate.

    What is remarkable to me is that often I don’t have a clue using regular ways of teaching to know who learns in these different ways.

    There is a friendship , a respect that kids have for people who can learn a game, and who participate in the use of games that they like.

    My favorite game story is about an Egyptian boy who was one of my pupils on Saturdays .. where I worked in computer learning and teaching. Games were a part of what we learned but not all. So, when he would not leave the room after four hours, I placed a call to his mother. She said, I was expecting your call, no one can make him concentrate on anything, what has he done now. I was only calling because he would NOT leave the computer and it was inconvenient for my
    beign able to use the restroom. I told the mother
    that she was wrong and invited her to come see me.
    He was one of my best students in informal learning.
    I spoke to his regular teacher and we created a way to have him use the game in the classroom. He totally changed in his behavior. He totally aced his way to excellence using the games as a platform for learning.

    Again. I am not an avid game player. I do it to understand kids and adults who learn well in that way.
    I am lazy … I memorize stuff. I have learned to work at the games. I am very pleased to get rid of frustrations with confrontation in gaming. New for me.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  6. I think computer-related games are great for certain kinds of learning simply because they allow for endless practice on demand and provide immediate feedback.

    There are games that require interaction with other players, in a spirit of competition or cooperation or both.

    There are also simulations and open ended “games” that push the definition of games into new dimensions.

    But in my mind, all of these pale in comparison to the biggest game of all — and that’s real life. When I set up an assignment, for me it’s a “game” that calls for real world learning, application, assessment, revision, etc. The situations are real: the characters (classmates, interviewees) as well as resources such as books and other media are real, There are rules, and there are ranges of winning and losing. Competition is against the self and not others.

    The key is to get the student to transfer her/his natural love for games to instructional assignments and projects. How do we design our “lessons,” curriculum, and methods to incorporate game features that seem to inspire learning? -js

    • Steve Pavlina calls Life the ultimate game as well. http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2006/12/life-the-ultimate-game/ To Steve, games are about providing choices to the player. We play games both because they are fun, but also because they offer the challenge of making decisions. They stimulate the brain in ways that facts alone tend to be boring without context. I often think that computer games today are so intriguing because they offer both a challenge and a safe place to fail. Much in agreement with Bonnie Sutton… “In a game students can make a mistake and the penalty is simply that they do not win” That is one of my standing definitions of what school should be, a safe place to fail.
      Have schools failed to be fulfilling enough that games have been allowed to fill the void? Or did the games sneak in when we were not looking? Real Life can offer a challenge but can also really hurt when you mess up as most any adult will attest. I remember some movies where the games had been designed to actually hurt or kill. I wonder how addictive those would be to students.
      Games offer safe challenges that if related to real world, can become a form of flight simulator for life, at least for some aspects of it. Some things of course will always have to be learned the hard way. They are in a way, a continuous thinking treadmill. I certainly believe that games have a place in teaching today. They engage, they challenge and they can, just as flight simulators, direct learning when designed correctly. I even wrote one just because it was on my bucket list or something like that. Check it out here if you are interested: http://www.globalscholar.com/Game/Default.aspx .
      If nothing else, maybe they will also help kids to learn to cope better when they lose, even in the game of life. On the computer you just press try again. Often in life you just have to do the same thing. I remember my son explaining the rules of a new game to me once and starting out with “So you can either cheat or you can not cheat”. I also remember my kids arguing the outcome of a game and debating who won first and who won second. Both of these examples offer interesting perspectives on what games can teach us beyond just math facts.

  7. When we use technology, and create a space for learning that is participatory or project based. the pages of the book do not limit the learning. I have had teaching experience in DODDS Schools, ghetto ( DC) schools, Arlington Virginia Schools, summer schools, after school and once created a program that was an after school initiative that happened once from Wed after school for four hours at a career school, and with a Saturday component where we delivered you can say unusual programs.
    We thought of all of the skills that grandparents and parents used to hand down to kids that are lost in
    time based on two parents working.

    We thought of the games that children could not afford
    so they can learn and be comfortable with that type of learning. It was a computer based learning initiative.
    We built games back in the day. But we took a long time to build. Some of those children are now adults and writing to me about the way in which this started their career ideas.

    In gaming with additional constructs in learning, I often discovered student scholars who were not the expected learners. These kids could beat the heck out of a game, but would sit quietly in class if allowed.
    In learning the Amazon trail for the first time, old game,
    I found that many of the best players were not the regular kids who memorized everything.

    In playing Oregon Trail, I learned to watch how kids think. I always played the game in a safe mode. Kids would push the limits of the game to see what would happen if. We actually wrote to the game designers and one of my last game collaborations was with Oregon Trail ..before it was overwhelmed.

    At a Supercomputing conference a game maker from Lucas Arts came in and showed us what his ideas were of the components of a game.. and then changed the look and feel of the game. Making the players obese and or short.. …Actually George Lucas had games.. I still use Yoda’s Challenge with kids..

    In thinking about kids in hospitals who have nothing to do all day, we used games from a friend of the Lucas Foundation .. and my students tested the games.

    There was a foundation that created curriculum for hospitalized and incarderated students..

    I used to be a teacher of the gifted. I found that using technology,I could nudge out, and create , bring out
    the creativity of students and their ..self awareness with games.

    I also found out that I am a cautious game player.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  8. Young children are natural “scientists.” They explore everything, including testing the limits of games — or any other software they encounter. As adults, too many have changed to “safe mode.” I’m afraid that our schools have had a role in that change as has our society and, frequently, their parents.

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