4 things gaming can teach education

Gaming and education are often seen as two extremes of a spectrum — the one is a frivolous pastime while the other is a serious, valuable activity. At the same time, we instinctively know that playing and learning are linked somehow — after all, children and young animals use play to acquire the vital skills they’ll need for survival in the grown-up world.

Think back to a time when you played an awesome game — whether that’s a casual game like Angry Birds or Pictionary, or a full-on gaming experience like Dungeons and Dragons or Battlefield. Remember how the hours just seemed to fly by as you became completely immersed in the setting and mechanics? Wouldn’t it be awesome to harness that same engagement for education?

The growing field of gamification has sprung from this premise. It promotes the idea that the way games are built and played can teach us valuable lessons for making non-play activities (like work, chores and learning) just as engaging and rewarding as any game.

Here are four vital lessons that games can teach education:

1. Make learning fun
We all know that time passes more quickly when we’re having fun and are really absorbed in the task at hand. The more deeply you are involved, the less you focus on outside stimuli like the ticking second hand on the clock, or the hungry rumbling in your stomach.

“Fun” is almost impossible to quantify, but it’s one of those things you’ll know when you see it – and, of course, it depends on your learning audience. Fun usually involves interactivity, problem solving, out-of-the-ordinary tasks and practical engagement with the learning material.

Fun in the classroom doesn’t feel like hard, boring, formal learning – but it can be just as effective. In 2011, a South African teacher introduced an Xbox Kinect into a rural classroom in KwaZulu-Natal to help the kids learn English — playing on the console removed their inhibitions and they started speaking more confidently, practically from the first day.

2. Get students motivated
Games are masterful at keeping people motivated by strategically offering rewards at just the right times – a new item, level or game mode, for example. Educational environments, on the other hand, often use punishments and threats (marks lost for mistakes, detention for bad behaviour) as their primary approach.

One of the easiest ways to add positive motivation into the mix is by using a custom PBL system – which stands for points, badges and leader boards. Points and badges can be assigned for completing a task or achieving a specific goal, like handing in an essay on time or cleaning the classroom. Leader boards can tie in here as an effective ranking mechanism.

Games use these rewards to motivate people to keep playing – earn just ten more points ‘till you level up, log in just a few more times to get the next badge. They become status symbols in the community, and can tie in to more tangible rewards (think of the special offers that a Foursquare “mayor” gets). The same effect can be created in a classroom – think of what real-world rewards would be valuable to your students.

3. Foster teamwork and competition
Teamwork and competition are two sides of the same coin – they both involve other people acting as motivators to do well (both in the game world and the classroom). Games use this dual mechanic in all sorts of ways — almost all group sports involve competition between teams, and Massively Multiplayer Online computer games like World of Warcraft often rely on complete strangers banding together to overcome an opponent or challenge.

Teamwork that involves striving towards a common goal uses peer support and encouragement to get participants engaged. Competing against someone else can make people work just that much harder to get ahead. In both cases, merely the presence of other students can drive involvement, dedication and mutual learning.

4. Set meaningful challenges
There’s a big difference between a challenging task and one that’s just plain hard and arduous. Game designers know this because people enjoy being challenged and stretched, but hate failing too often. Make the game too easy and it quickly becomes boring, but make it too hard and players will simply quit.

The same logic can be applied in the classroom. Meaningful challenges are those that require engagement, dedication and hard work but that also provides an equivalent reward (whether that’s the recognition of a job well done or a physical prize, for example). Writing a two-thousand-word history essay is rarely considered enjoyable, but working in a team to craft a board game around a historical topic can be an awesome, and fun, challenge that has equal educational merit.

The psychology here is simple — the less something feels like work, the more likely people are to enjoy and engage in it.

A little bit of play in the classroom can go a long way.



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