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On using games for learning

On using games for learning

On using games for learning

On using games for learning

Games are currently being used for learning and education. Some of the most common practices are gamification, serious games, and games-based learning.

Though that is not what many people see in practice. It seems that some of the most popular interpretations for learning games focus on scoreboards keeping track of players’ progress; playful feedback in activities; and tracking of students’ goals and achievements.

These all contribute to the field of games-based learning at face value. But there are some other factors that are important to consider when constructing any program where games are used as a central part of the learning journey.

Keeping the motivation

Motivation is one of the most critical areas of focus for games-based learning. Specifically, we aim to use intrinsic motivation as a way to engage players in playing our games for their inherent value, rather than an external reward.

We can see that in the creation of engaging dynamics. 

Commercial games have the core-loop: the activities that players complete until the end of the game. However, in games-based learning, we apply that core loop in engaging dynamics that inspire students to continue to keep playing and learning. They develop competencies as they focus on playing the game. In turn, those competencies help them reach masteries which (hopefully) are tied to the learning outcomes that we’ve designed as educators.

Probably one of my most memorable memories in games-based learning came from playing Typing of the Dead as a kid. It was a keyboard based version of House of the Dead where the player was tasked with stopping hordes of zombies by… typing.  Run of the mill zombies were stopped by typing small phrases on screen before they attacked you. Bigger, boss zombies, required longer strings of words punctuated with less used characters like ‘q’ and ‘z’

I became a better typist by killing zombies. Ah, those were the days.

Structuring your class from the ground up

Typing of the Dead for was merely one way that my childhood teacher implemented games-based learning. The field has progressed much since then.  Instructors shouldn’t feel forced to used digital implementations of games for their practice. Rather, they can take smaller steps by first structuring their syllabus.

This can be done by making small changes such as reviewing how points are utilized in your course.  Most of us are familiar with the use of points in a course. They are used to judge the merit of an activity or assignment. Whereas, someone using games-based learning could issue points for student interaction in addition to other things.

I’ve taken this step of issuing points for students to accomplish assignments. I’ve indicated that the culmination of 2,000 “experience points” in my class will earn you an ‘A.’ BUT, if a student were to complete EVERY assignment in the class? They could earn up to 5,000 points. This put the onus of decision making on the student. Now THEY could decide how to earn enough points to earn an ‘A’ in the class.

This structuring and scaffolding was my way of providing agency to my students that incorporated the learning outcomes for the course. The rest of my assignments served as scaffolding, structures, challenges, and options for students to choose their own path to success.

Try try again

One of the things that we are most familiar with games is the ability to try. There is an option to keep trying for every game. Multiple paths, multiple options, and multiple paths to victory. These options provide new opportunities for us to try different things and experiment with actions that we think will succeed.

Student performance can take a similar path. Feedback provided to students where they can re-trace their path, identify where changes can be made, and then act on those changes honors the connection to games’ ‘trial’ systems.

This can be implemented in your courses right now with “exit tickets.” In this structure, students who complete a major assessment (test, quiz, paper etc…) complete an exit ticket which includes a few short answer responses: How did you do? What did you do to do it? What can you do differently next time?

This goes a long way towards helping students achieve metacognition in the way they structure their learning and study habits.

Perhaps THIS time my students will learn that reviewing the rubric beforehand is good thing to do BEFORE they write their paper.

Do the means meet the ends?

We can discuss how games can be used for learning all day. But, one of the most important things to consider is how the structure of the class, the course, and your game is aligned with your students’ learning outcomes.

If your class is focused on helping students become better presenters, then your game mechanics must align with those outcomes.

Using this structure, I implemented a system where students must use their pre-prepared speeches in our class for some applicable outcome. That outcome could be anything: a presentation in another class, a difficult conversation with a roommate, or a larger discussion with a parent about changing a major.

The venue of the conversation didn’t matter. What did matter, was how students took the mistakes they learned from practicing their speeches again and again in class and how they applied it to their actual conversations.

Treading carefully

Games can be a very useful application for education and learning. But a pitfall that many other educators, instructors, and teachers fall into is its wide application without further inquiry into the how and why.

Many people see points used a mechanic and want to immediately include it in their course. They see others use badges and leaderboards with their students and they want to copy that activity as well.

At face value, these are not bad components to include in your course. However, you still want to think about what you are applying and how it meets your students’ learning outcomes.

You don’t want to devolve into a mess of “points-ificaiton” where points are earned everywhere and for everything without a greater consideration for the “why” as well as the “how.”

Closing thoughts

Games are powerful tools for teaching and learning. They can be used as a way to structure a course, engage learners, and provide fun examples of how knowledge can be put into practice. Games can also be used for teaching and evaluating learning through projects, simulations, and other experienced based activities.

A key takeaway to games-based learning is the recognition of the learner. Learners are traditionally recognized by grades, but games-based learning can also be used to help students recognize their competencies.

What didn’t they know before they class that they know now? What couldn’t they do before that they can do now? What are they better at now? What have they become?

Game on, 

Dave Eng, EdD
Managing Partner


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