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What game designers can learn from educators; what educators can learn from game designers.
by Sebastion Williams on 06/15/10 10:15:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The competition for our kids’ attention is fierce. They fidget in their seats, especially on Tuesdays, when they rush over to the local game shop to buy the latest release that they’ve preordered. After their purchase, do they get together with friends to study biology? No, they go online to frag their friends in Halo 3: ODST. Just ask the teachers whose drawers are filled with confiscated NDS and PSP units.

Video game companies spend gazillions in advertising their products to kids who plead with their parents to buy them. And these parents will readily drop $60 per game but cringe at half that amount for student fees.

Game designers understand that they must teach players how to play their games and, hopefully, win and have fun doing it. Many educators will talk about how challenging it is to keep students engaged in class. Is it possible to teach and engage at the same time?

What can game designers learn from educators? – not much. School curricula and standards are stuck in the nineteenth century. Edutainment software titles tend to suck and attract kids during the school day only because they don’t have to have their noses in textbooks. Even the new technologies present the same material in the same non-interactive ways.

If game designers included learning standards in their entertainment products and demonstrated how they could be integrated into lesson planning, it would expand the market for the product and assist teachers and parents in and out of the classroom.

The things educators can learn from game design are limitless. Educators should play games – regularly and a wide variety of games. They would be surprised at the plethora of educational content present in off-the-shelf products that are not marketed for that purpose.

The Total War series from the Creative Assembly contains plenty of opportunities for history teachers to discuss military strategies and resource management from varied time periods and permits students to enact and possibly improve upon the greatest strategists in history.

Young students using their vocabulary words in Scribblenauts from 5th Cell to solve custom puzzles will eagerly participate in the activity as well as absorb the words, their meanings and synonyms.

As educators, if you know how your students choose to spend their time outside of class, you will know how to engage them in class. And when your students are looking forward to Wednesdays because you mentioned that you will bring in Medieval 2: Total War for the next history assignment, then everybody wins. That is, if you’ve preordered in advance.


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Comments


Christopher Totten
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I don't think it's necessarily true that game designers have nothing to learn from educators. Educators, having a handle on what lessons would assist in common curriculum topics and child psychology, can inform game designers on subject matter that could be explored in their games, helping them offer new and beneficial content by stretching the boundaries of game design. Most of my favorite inspirations are by looking at art, literature, or other places most designers wouldn't think to look. Even when not producing actual edutainment, there are lots of opportunities for tangential learning (look it up or check out the "Video Games And..." episode on that topic.)



I think a stronger argument would be that they should work together with educators, and not that education is stuck in the nineteenth century or that it has more to learn from game design than game design has to learn from it. By talking to educators, game designers can make games that not only offer more school friendly topics (without diminishing the ability to make fun content that sells well...no seriously try it), but can even (gasp!) innovate by exploring new ground outside of the typical genres that; let's face it, the industry has been unfortunately stagnated in for the last 30 years; sci-fi, fantasy, and WWII.

Dustin Chertoff
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Education is stuck in the 19th century though. The factory model of education was great when we needed to train a massive number of students to be literate and proficient enough that they could work in mass-production factories. The US was also experiencing a period of high immigration. In order to assimilate the youth, a centralized system was needed to not only get everyone educationally literate, but culturally literate as well. In the last 30 years, we have seen our manufacturing/mass-production type jobs mostly sent off-shore. We are now a country where the top jobs and businesses are based on innovation. Our schools do not currently offer, at a large scale, programs to teach how to innovate. Our schools teach how to regurgitate enough information that students can pass standardized exams. But that's not a discussion for here.



There is plenty of research backing the claim that education and games should be familiar bedfellows. It isn't because of anything specific to video games though, but to the experiential learning practices video games utilize. Experiential learning is the key. In fact, game designers have been employing it, and other educational psychology practices, for years - in some cases to far better effect than educators with formal training in it.



Game designers are very good at teaching players what they need to know. The thing they need are educational content experts to come in and help design compelling worlds based around topics important for the real world. Ask a WoW player about the lore of Azeroth, and they can tell you things in such detail. Ask them about the history (lore) of the US and, get blank stares. It isn't the content that is the problem, it is the delivery. Educators know the content, game designers know the delivery. We just have to get them together (and it has started to an extent).



The real challenge is money. Small game studios need capital to develop titles. There isn't much research involved in developing educational games, so government grants can be very hit or miss. It will take capital from other, private sources to break into this market. Existing game studios are poised to jump in, but given the lack of publicity surrounding AAA quality educational games, it's clear they have not. And I fear that the game publisher mentality is that an educational game means Reader Rabbit or Oregon Trail.



Anyway, if anyone out there is interested in developing high quality, commercial educational games, let me know. I'd be interested in talking with you.

Jesse Broussard
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Honestly I would love seeing commercial games that I could use in class without having to sell my soul to the principal or using games that are just variations of worksheets on computer screens. Stuff blowing up plus kids learn would be powerful.



Games teach players how to play using educational pedagogy, whether they know it (or want to admit it) or not.

Teachers should be using more ludo methods to teach their kids. But every time we do it's water down by those who don't understand, making it ineffectual.



Bedfellows doesn't even begin to explain what game designers and teachers should be...is there something stronger than conjoined?

Dustin Chertoff
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How about, having a public affair that is streamed live on the Internet for free. ;)



You bring up a good point though, and that is penetrating the market. I've tried, unsuccessfully, to get the administrations of several schools (in MD, DC, and NY) to even listen to me propose ideas I was submitting to a grant agency. They would give me the run around and eventually I ran out of time to get them on board. Administrators would express interest, and then not return or ignore phone calls. So, I've sadly come to the realization that the primary market for these products is not schools, but homes. If enough buzz is created in the enrichment market, then maybe the slower moving education administrations will take notice. Unfortunately, it is an uphill battle, because you still need teams of people with the resources and skills to actually make the games in the first place.

Jesse Broussard
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The primary market is schools -- but you can't sell to a whole district you have to hit the right teachers who can sweet talk principals or you need to start in places like rural Louisiana (here) where many people are willing to try anything to get their kids to pass.



I don't think designers/coders (or wannabes) are in short supply. It finding people who can design with education in mind.

Brock Dubbels
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Wow, this looks like something someone would write that has never worked in a classroom but reads a lot of gobbledygook about how the problem solving in games creates cognitive transfer. Sorry, no research to support that. In fact, without a competent "teacher" informal or otherwise, most of the games kids buy end up on shelves. My own experience working in schools with kids is that most kids want the reputation of being a gamer, but don't know their head from a power up. Here is a study I did that looked at just that: http://is.gd/cRLFs

. The next year I taught kids how to play and create transfer -- it is the teacher, not the game, and it is the social network surrounding the game -- here is a study I did on that: http://is.gd/cRLPU.



It is easy to generalize and say that teachers are stuck in the past, but quite honestly, where are we with games? I see genre collusion where games are all becoming a massive glob of aspects of the same thing that is successful in one ends up in the other.



Kids run in packs.



Not all kids play games. Oddly, I offer a games unit in schools, and many kids are playing casual games that really do not require much cognitive complexity. So when you talk about teachers and games, which games should teachers teach like?



Most kids like low cognitive threshold/ high reward games -- but in schools, we teachers need to teach things like photo synthesis, dependent clauses, vectors and acceleration, and yes, dates, names, and facts.



We also need to teach with ill-structured problems, but when we do, the parents and students reject that as poor teaching, just as game players call it poor game design -- even though ill-structured problem-solving has been shown to increase collaborative problem solving abilities, help deconstruct and order problems, and create original solution sets.



Herb Simon, who some consider the father of cognitive science once said "it is the role of the teacher to align the problem so that a solution becomes clear". This is what game designers and instructional designers do. But often, it is just a variation of a problem set they have created or seen elsewhere.



If it isn't, then it is ill-structured and people don't like it.



It requires thought and work then and the acquisition and seeking of new information and a reward set that better be worth it. This kind of reinforcement is usually found in the social network -- either the game community or the grade book.



I think you are giving game designers too much credit for engaging kids.



For as many kids that play games, many more go to school and actually have positive experiences with teachers.



By the way, shout out to Mr. Joiner from fourth grade De Laveaga in Santa Cruz, CA -- thank you for teaching me calligraphy after school and all the cool assignments.



Here is an example of my games unit. http://wcco.com/local/English.teacher.Minneapolis.2.359400.html



that year I was able to create a 6% growth on reading comprehension standardized achievement tests using this. It was not the games. It was the curriculum that taught them how study games.



Once again design, community and context, not the object.

Brock Dubbels
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Wow, this looks like something someone would write that has never worked in a classroom but reads a lot of gobbledygook about how the problem solving in games creates cognitive transfer. Sorry, no research to support that. In fact, without a competent "teacher" informal or otherwise, most of the games kids buy end up on shelves. My own experience working in schools with kids is that most kids want the reputation of being a gamer, but don't know their head from a power up. Here is a study I did that looked at just that: http://is.gd/cRLFs

. The next year I taught kids how to play and create transfer -- it is the teacher, not the game, and it is the social network surrounding the game -- here is a study I did on that: http://is.gd/cRLPU.



It is easy to generalize and say that teachers are stuck in the past, but quite honestly, where are we with games? I see genre collusion where games are all becoming a massive glob of aspects of the same thing that is successful in one ends up in the other.



Kids run in packs.



Not all kids play games. Oddly, I offer a games unit in schools, and many kids are playing casual games that really do not require much cognitive complexity. So when you talk about teachers and games, which games should teachers teach like?



Most kids like low cognitive threshold/ high reward games -- but in schools, we teachers need to teach things like photo synthesis, dependent clauses, vectors and acceleration, and yes, dates, names, and facts.



We also need to teach with ill-structured problems, but when we do, the parents and students reject that as poor teaching, just as game players call it poor game design -- even though ill-structured problem-solving has been shown to increase collaborative problem solving abilities, help deconstruct and order problems, and create original solution sets.



Herb Simon, who some consider the father of cognitive science once said "it is the role of the teacher to align the problem so that a solution becomes clear". This is what game designers and instructional designers do. But often, it is just a variation of a problem set they have created or seen elsewhere.



If it isn't, then it is ill-structured and people don't like it.



It requires thought and work then and the acquisition and seeking of new information and a reward set that better be worth it. This kind of reinforcement is usually found in the social network -- either the game community or the grade book.



I think you are giving game designers too much credit for engaging kids.



For as many kids that play games, many more go to school and actually have positive experiences with teachers.



By the way, shout out to Mr. Joiner from fourth grade De Laveaga in Santa Cruz, CA -- thank you for teaching me calligraphy after school and all the cool assignments.



Here is an example of my games unit. http://wcco.com/local/English.teacher.Minneapolis.2.359400.html



that year I was able to create a 6% growth on reading comprehension standardized achievement tests using this. It was not the games. It was the curriculum that taught them how study games.



Once again design, community and context, not the object.

Jesse Broussard
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I would never suggest that teachers leave classrooms rather than our role changes. In class I shouldn't be the font of all knowledge but the guide to where the knowledge is.

I love problem based learning (ill-structured questions with no right answers - most of my lesson plans are written that way).



Its not the curriculum. I can teach the wrong information all day long. They'll learn it



It's the method, its the context, it's the community.



And there IS research about transference...check out www.gameslearningandsociety.org

Dustin Chertoff
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I don't think games could (or should) ever replace teachers - I'm not sure the OP was suggesting that anyway. In fact, even if we wanted to, I don't think it would be possible given the institution that education currently is. I think games provide an engaging enrichment activity that can form the basis for classroom discussion. You won't learn how to do calculus playing crayon physics, but a good instructor can make the connections between what needs to be learned and the experience the student had with the game.



Claims regarding transference won't be based on a single study one way or another. (You can look at the work by Valerie Shute at FSU, or Jan Cannon-Bowers from UCF for some work supporting transfer though). I think most claims for transference are based on the idea that increased engagement leads to increased motivation to persist with a subject, which ultimately leads to better performance . The key to the transference issue (and effectiveness of games in general) is engagement. If a teacher can do it, awesome. If they can't, then there is opportunity for games to act as an enrichment platform.



There is no magic bullet solution. Some people love ill-formed problems (they end up in grad school where they learn how to write long posts and argue on the Internet). Other students struggle with basic reading and math. As always, we need teachers to recognize what a student needs and to provide the resources that will benefit each individual student the best. That is where the factory model of teaching breaks down. Students learn in different ways and at different paces. You can't teach everyone the same way. Some games can act as enrichment for students that are doing well, while others can help students in need of certain skills (i.e. the flash-card type games that are common). Other students need one on one attention with the teacher.

Sebastion Williams
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@ Christopher T: You're correct. game designers and educators should be drinking from the same well. It was a feeble attempt at sarcasm. As suggested, tangential learning is the adhesive that permits students to assign relevance and develop a thirst for knowledge.



@Brock D: I've done guidance curricula, treatment plans and therapy for over twenty years. I've used superhero role-playing games with hyper-aggressive kids in group guidance. And the work you have done in Minnesota with games, learning, growth and development has been exemplary. Let's be honest though - we are a rare breed. Educators and purported change agents still hold fast to outdated methods in facilitating growth, change and development. Your methods are innate - engage youth around their interests and allow them to absorb knowledge as they understand it and as it relates to their experiences. I appreciate your criticisms and see that you are the real deal. You should be cloned (ethically, of course).



@Dustin: This is the perfect time for game-related research as opportunities for funding are more available. And you are right, games should not replace teachers but educators should recognize that all of us are students and learners - some more advanced in some areas than others. Youth can teach us the best ways that they learn and determine what is relevant to them and when.

JB Vorderkunz
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Having just completed a lit review of engagement within videogames last fall, the results on learning via games, both entertainment and educational, is pretty mixed. I scoured PsychINFO, PsychARTICLES, and ScienceDirect using "video game", "computer game", and "engagement" as my search terms - there were frankly more studies with negative or inconclusive results than with positive results. Students had more fun with games, but they didn't necessarily learn the material, in depth or breadth, more than their non-gaming counterparts (i.e. the control groups tested as well as the gaming groups in several of the studies).



So, aside from the issue of how much engagement in gaming actually increases learning, there is also the issue of construction: Total War doesn't teach kids that human history is a complex phenomenon that is driven more by symbolic systems (culture) than material resources (material resources ;-P), both of which effect each other in myriad ways. Instead, Total War (and the RTS in general) teaches kids that whoever starts with the best resources and uses the best build will be able to successfully subdue or destroy everyone else. great.



I agree with the sentiment expressed here by all - the current mass production model of education is hopelessly outdated and harms more kids than it helps. On a related topic - why the hell do we still have a 18th century style representative democracy when communication technology makes direct democracy (via referendum) possible for the first time in human history?

Sebastion Williams
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@ JBV All solid points made. So-called civilized humans have a tendency to be lazy - especially mentally. We generally want the most output for the least input. We prefer the convenient and expedient over the correct and just. So relying on old ideas, values and methods fits this paradigm perfectly. But think about it for a minute, if students spent more time in non-traditional settings absorbing nuggets of knowledge, they would learn in more practical and effective ways. Much of the learning standards applied in many educational systems is information that is not useful as a fully-functioning citizen of the world. Look at the number of successful business people who did not complete formal education. I was told some years ago that we need to master five basic tasks of increasing complexity - how to read, write, speak, compute and think. The first four are covered but teaching us how to think - not in my experience.



I just used the Total War series as an example of bolstering curricula on the history of military strategy/leadership. As educators play, read and talk about off-the-shelf games, they would best decide how to use them to support their teaching strategies.

JB Vorderkunz
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@Sebastion

This is a great discussion! I almost added a note last night which I think I should have: I didn't mean to sound so negative about the use of RTSs in classrooms. I think that they can be an excellent introduction to history - in fact, using Bogost's concept of procedural rhetoric, they can be a fantastic starting point for discussing theories of History (big H history!). "Ok Kids, what about this situation seems realistic, what seems unrealistic?", and so on...



There are many teachers amongst my family and friends, and I know you guys need every bit of help you can get!

Sebastion Williams
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@ JBV: We all need to realize that these yougn students are the future and we must invest in them. I remember when I was in school, if I found a topic of interest to me, I would saturate myself in it often way above and beyond what was necessary for homework, assignments and tests. Of course, most subjects may not be of interest to many students but I believe it is up to us -educators traditional and nontraditional - to discover the unique ways to make learning palatable to all students. As Jess B mentioned earlier, it is truly the method of content delivery, the context for absorption and retention and the community in which that learning can be applied and seen as useful.

Dustin Chertoff
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@JBV With regards to literature regarding engagement, games, and learning, have you looked at the games River City, Lunar Quest, Quest Atlantis, and Immune Attack? The first three are mmo/virtual worlds. The literature surrounding them might have something you can use. Also, you might want to explore journals that aren't psychology/education based. I've found a lot of the games research to be published in Computing journals (ACM has a journal on communications/digital media, Foundations of Digital Games is a conference that often has games/education connections). You also might want to use "serious games" as a keyword, instead of video/computer games. A lot of the focus on non-entertainment games is in military/corporate training, and not K-12. So you can also look through the training and simulation literature as well. You will often see engagement referred as "presence" or "immersion" there. Also, http://digiplay.info/digibiblio is a great site for a variety of papers related to games research. It isn't all education/training related, but there are enough articles there to jump start and fuel a lit review.



With regards to RTS games, they speak well to Brock's point. They do not represent the ill-formed problems that faced the decision makers related to the historical conflict that the game is based on or modeled after. Games are highly structured and simply give the illusion of choice (and in some cases, the same outcome occurs regardless of player choice). Because of this structure, it is possible to game the system - i.e. develop an optimal build and resource strategy. The min-max process does speak to human nature though: In general, we like to generate the highest output with the minimal amount of effort.



But there are other things that simply are not modeled in games. Take the Civilization games. While as a player, you are likely to learn about the functions of various types of institutions and major world projects, the game behavior is really one of military conquest. The most efficient way to win the game is to destroy your opponents before they get too powerful. If anything, this just shows that the side with the better guns gets to rule. But this ignores all of the diplomatic and cultural influence that is important. There is no leader rhetoric to sway citizens, no sanctions to attempt to dissuade a country; you can trade resources, technology, and wage war - because at the core, it is the combat that is the most fun.



So these games on their own do not teach the player. There needs to be another aspect where students reflect (or receive guided reflection) on their actions and important aspects. You could teach about the stages of civilization through the Civilization games. But the game would simply be one component of the curriculum. It would serve as a shared experience for students, but ultimately the teacher would have to guide those students to meaningful conclusions about history and the interactions between civilizations. Could you design a game that includes all of these things? Sure. Intelligent tutoring systems are being designed to attempt this. But an ITS cannot react as quickly as another human with years of teaching experience.

JB Vorderkunz
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@Dustin,

Thanks for the heads up. ScienceDirect is a fantastic database and has just about every academic computer-related journal, so I've probably seen a lot of the studies to which you've referred (I think). I also omitted that I used Academic Search Complete - between the 4 databases, that's well over 3000 different journals! (Admittedly only 1/8 of those were relevant to this topic in any way)

Nathan Addison
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I have enjoyed reading this article but I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the responses posted above.



You know, it seems that this has been a hot topic in conversation of the gaming industry. I've been seeing discussions and debates quite regularly these last few months. In fact, my own company (which we recently started) almost went the route of educational video games. Mainly because of the amount of potential investors that always seemed to bring up topic in one form or another. Hopefully all these ideas will make the relationship between games and education into something amazing for our people.



And yes I agree with the WoW reference; it is amazing the amount of information and the detail of that information that hardcore gamers can recall. I'm living proof of that.

Ask me exactly who Napoleon was and I couldn't tell you but ask me why it was so important that Solid Snake had to infiltrate Shadow Moses or even what gun Revolver Ocelot prefers to use and I can easily explain away; even though I haven't played that game in over 10 years.



Good discussion, Mr. Williams



...oh and Oregon Trail rocked during it's time in the spot light! Even though the game was pretty stale it was still one of my favorite History class memories.

Sebastion Williams
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Happy Father's Day to you, Nathan, I hoping that we can infuse elements of game design into all forms of education. It would not be expensive, will open up new markets to the game industry and address many issues of school retention, achievement and engagement. My basic premise is that we play, learn and work according to our learning and intellectual styles. It is not about the what but more about the how.

Brock Dubbels
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Please feel free to read my study on Sustained Engagement with games: http://vgalt.com/2009/10/11/dance-dance-education/



The key to games, play, and the other activities we design for academic learning is having clear outcomes and modeling the outcomes for the learners. Games are most effective when they are played with others who are more experienced and can facilitate transfer.



Good discussion here.



I have found very little work on the cognitive benefits of games. That is why I do research in this area.



Games do help people learn, but so does falling down, winning a beauty pageant, or forgetting your wallet at the picnic.



It is not a matter of whether we are learning, it is what we learn. Teachers have specific outcomes they must achieve and are accountable for. Until we change the system of expectation, teachers are caught in the line of fire. No teacher wants to be thought of as the easy teacher who just lets kids play flash games in the computer lab. And many folks who influence education and classrooms want to be able to easily see what is being learned, sometimes at the cost of complexity and depth with focus on state assessments.



Learning is our natural state--however, as a classroom teacher, what matters is what the kids learn. Games can be very powerful. I have used them for seven years in my own classrooms, and was even commended for raising reading scores...but, games are tools just like a compass or a cell phone or a slide ruler, they need to be culturally situated with a guiding purpose from the community using the games.



A good way to think about them is Edwin Hutchin's Cognition in the Wild. I have found this very helpful in my methods for measuring cognitive growth.


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