As a high school biology teacher, rarely did I see moments of higher engagement than when I had my students participate in games of my or others’ creation during class. There is something inherently useful about gaming in this context, not necessarily from the vantage point of being “fun” or “cool,” but moreso from a human drive to learn through storytelling (or, in this case, play). This is not a trend isolated to mankind alone, but we seem to be the best at illustrating it (consider the fact that wild animals like cats learn and practice their hunting skills through play with siblings, which is not dissimilar from learning social skills by “playing nice” with our siblings or through the oral traditions of epic stories like The Iliad, Bible, Quran, etc.). We learn best when given the opportunity to learn through context-rich play, which is an extremely important principle when trying to shape classroom pedagogy — especially when the instructor is able to merge learning objectives with gaming objectives in a way that masks the “not fun-ness” of being a typical, disengaged student in an uninteresting class.
I point to the value of using hands-on experiments in a science classroom compared to direct instruction: yes, the same concepts can be taught through both pedagogical means, but the latter tends to be fairly understimulating in comparison to constructed, inquiry-based learning. If, as a 16-year old, I am expected to apply the skills learned in my biology class on a high-stakes test (creating an action plan to protect sea life from an oil spill, for example), it would behoove me to have had experience hypothesizing, forming an experimental procedure, collecting data, and coming to a conclusion about whether or not my ideas were valid solutions to the problem. Can this be done through direct instruction? To a certain extent, yes, but the ownership of material in that case primarily belongs to the instructor rather than the student: the student is a passive element because he or she cannot A) test the procedures being presented by the teacher or B) easily deviate from the procedures being presented by the teacher in the event that he or she sees an alternative solution to the problem. A lack of ownership only serves to distance the student from the real-world context and, more unfortunately, the skills he or she may have acquired through experiencing the learning on his or her own. For this reason, the situated nature of gaming can be an incredibly powerful tool for educators from all fields of study.
As a launching point for this topic, I propose a discussion surrounding the game Demon’s Souls (PS3), which successfully and masterfully incorporates several of the 21st century skills we expect of our students.
What makes this particular game so useful in discussing learning is the affordances it makes to the player despite its obscene difficulty. While the designers ensured that reaching the end would be no simple task (by brutally reprimanding you for your failure to properly complete an objective), they managed to include some very subtle, but important, features that keep the game balanced for the skilled and unskilled alike. The strongest relationship between Demon’s Souls and educational psychology comes from a combination of behavioral modification (through operant conditioning), dynamic difficulty, and opportunities for social learning.
This session could be used to spark a larger discussion about how games successfully teach their underlying elements so well that people are not only willing to play through, learn, and discuss them with one another, but pay for the right to do so. Questions and topics might include:
- The specific elements of educational psychology behind the creation of a great game
- How educators can capture these elements the same way Demon’s Souls has
- How these elements make the difference between between game-based learning and gamification
- How situated cognition (the idea of ‘knowledge as doing’) serves as a foundation for game-based learning
- How gaming contexts replicate the 21st century skills we want our students to be able to perform