Don’t Incentivize Games And Play in The Classroom

A few months back, I blogged about “The Wall.”  In the minds of many, play and work (or learning) are mutually exclusive ideas.  This continues to haunt me as I filter through the comments on a video of students in my district sharing their Minecraft creations on YouTube.  It’s not just adults who struggle with the idea that game play can be a fertile ground for learning. Even our youngest learners are conditioned to believe that school isn’t a place for play.  Learning only comes from textbooks.

Sadly, many of us, in our efforts to pioneer game-based learning in our classrooms are reinforcing that wall.  As I read about other educators’ game-based learning projects or have discussions with teachers who have well-meaning notions of bringing Minecraft or other games into their classroom, an all-too-common thread is emerging:  ”After they’ve successfully completed their assignment, I’ll let them play ____.”  I even see teachers using this approach with skill-and-drill “educational” games.

And so, another brick is added to the wall.  This only widens the gap of relevancy between what happens in the classroom and what happens outside of school in the minds of our learners.  Incentivizing play in learning relegates video games to a dessert tray that can only be sampled once you’ve eaten your spelling words and finished all of your algebra.  We’re doing kids a long-term disservice in their thinking.

My plea to educators, especially those brave enough to explore game-based learning:  make video game play a part of how you do business in the classroom.  Don’t make it a reward.  Good games can stand on their own pedagogical merit.  We often talk about fostering lifelong learning in kids and we need to encourage them to be critical and thoughtful consumers of media, including video games.

-Lucas

Refining “Game-based Learning”

In case you hadn’t noticed, education is full of jargon and rife with an alphabet soup of programs, policies, and practice.  It’s often challenging for me as a professional in education technology to keep my terminology defined.  What’s the difference between CIPA and COPPA?  When you say PBL, do you mean problem-based learning or project-based learning?  Of course, my own area of passion in education, the use of games and game principles for learning is faced with a similar, murky sea of words and ideas.  Recent discussions, between David Warlick, Mathias Poulsen, and myself via Twitter during ISTE 12, forced me to consider the issues.  For me, it’s time to refine the definition of “game-based learning.”

It’s exciting to watch the idea of game-based learning gaining market share in the discussion on educational change, especially, since I’ve been pushing it for a few years now.  There is, however, some confusion among educators, and even in my own mind, about how we define the different terms associated with the use of games and game principles in the classroom.  What’s the difference between using games to teach and gamifying the classroom?  Let’s take a look at some of the big ideas:

Playful Learning

One of the best things that game-based learning is bringing back to the education reform discussion is the value of play and a playful approach to learning.  This is nothing new (see Vygotsky, Piaget, and others), of course, but it’s an idea that has seen hard times in an era of standardization and high-stakes testing.  The value, here, is in encouraging learners to “play” with ideas.  In doing so, the idea of failure is either not possible or is an accepted part of the process.  Using this sort of approach also provides learners with opportunities to test ideas and hypotheses to solve ill-defined problems.  Some key thinkers in this area that you should review include:  Papert, Brian Sutton-Smith,  and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Though an integral part of game-based learning, it’s a only a component of the bigger picture.

Using Games To Teach

First off, notice I’m saying “using games to teach” not “using video games to teach.”  I think this in an important first distinction.  While most of my work has been in the application of video games to instructional goals, I think that focusing solely  on video games is too limiting.  There are some incredible games out there that are not electronic at all.  Secondly, I think it’s important for educators to distinguish between simulations and games.  Simulations provide experiences through which participants experience concepts and are certainly valuable for learning, however, they lack many of the elements that games bring to the learning process.  So, how do we define “game,” then?  According to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, “a game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”  Others include variations on the definition, but the fundamentals of rules, challenge, and interaction are foundational.

I see the idea of “using games to teach” as the use of a pre-designed game to help learners reach an instructional goal.  In the world of video games, this breaks down into two areas that I feel are distinct:  the use of “educational” games (think Math Blaster) and the use of commercial, off-the-shelf games for education (think using Civilization V to teach World History).  The quotes around educational are intentional.  All good games are educational even if they weren’t designed with the classroom in mind.  My personal passion is exploring the use of games not designed for the classroom to help learners understand concepts.

Serious Games

Serious games is another term that you’ll often hear in discussions on game-based learning.  According to Wikipedia a serious game is, “a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment.”  That definition can encompass a broad range of games including “educational games,” games designed for training, games designed to solve real-world problems, etc.  I believe that the Games for Change movement would also fit as a subset of serious games.  Consider the game Re-Mission, designed to help cancer patients not only learn about the disease but also fight it.

Gamification

Gamification is applying the principles of games and game design to a non-game-related system.  This concept is quickly gaining momentum in the corporate world, spurred on by increased access to social media and mobile technology among consumers.  Take a look at FourSquare, for example.  When gamifying a business, consumers unlock badges and awards for being frequent patrons and earn points for participating in events and activities much as they would by completing activities in a game like Call of Duty or World of Warcaft.  When applied to the classroom, the discussion focuses on ideas such as replacing traditional grades with experience points and levels, player groups, and redesigning lessons to be more akin to the quests (see quest-based learning) that players might experience in a game.  It’s important for educators to distinguish, here, that this idea can be applied to any subject area and doesn’t necessarily involve the use of a pre-designed game.  A video by the folks at Extra Credits does a decent job of summarizing the idea – http://youtu.be/MuDLw1zIc94.  This is also another opportunity for me to plug 3DGameLab, an online system that makes this process manageable for classroom teachers.

For my own sanity, I’ll be lumping the ideas of using games to teach and gamification under the bigger umbrella of “game-based learning.”  Of course, I’ll still have to ask others using the term what them mean when they say it.  If you’re interested in learning more, follow the #GBL tag on Twitter.  If you’re looking to engage with other educators in the trenches who are wrestling exploring these issues, take a look at Jennifer Lagarde‘s Level Up Book Club (#levelupbc on Twitter)

(Edited 7/2/12 – Added Serious Games)

-Lucas

The Wall

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” or so the saying goes, and apparently, there’s truth in it.  According to an October 2011 story in The Atlantic, the lack of unstructured play is making our children more anxious and depressed.  When I present on the topic of games and their value for learning, I usually hit this fundamental issue.  Play is valuable.  Powerful learning happens when we’re in that flow state.  I point educators to a great TED Talk by Dr. Stuart Brown on importance of play.  In his talk, he quotes Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, “The opposite of work isn’t play – it’s depression.”

This wall between play and work is entrenched in our fast-paced, corporate-driven culture.  Play is something we do on the weekends and perhaps in the evenings after we’re home from the office.  What’s frightening me, lately, is that I’m seeing this same mental wall in people’s minds between play and learning.  Our busy, test-driven classrooms allow little room for “sandbox” time, a time for simply exploring a concept of the student’s choice.  Our curricula are formulaic and, of course, time-finite.  We must ensure that all students achieve mastery before the summer.

It isn’t a surprise that the idea of bring play (and video games) into the classroom takes many educators aback.  After all, we’ve been thoroughly conditioned by the rat race.  What really concerns me is that this same division exists in the minds of even our youngest learners.  How do I know?  I’ve been moderating YouTube comments!  Several months ago, I posted a video of our 5th graders sharing their Minecraft creations.  At some point, the video became somewhat viral (as of this posting, over 600,000 views).  The huge majority of comments (over 4,000 so far) are coming from K-12 students.  I’ve been really surprised by the pushback I’m receiving from these kids.  Comments like, “You can’t learn from a game,  you learn at school,” and  ”how can you learn while playing a game?” aren’t uncommon.

I often evoke Scott McLeod’s blog title when thinking about things like this.  Public education is barreling full steam down a path toward dangerous irrelevance.  Is what happens in the classroom truly meaningful to our kids?

C’mon innovators!  I know you’re out there.  Let’s reverse this trend, and bring play and exploration back into the learning process.  It doesn’t have to be through video games (though, that’s a good way to start).

-Lucas