New skill acquired: using games in learning

Image: jit / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

There is so much information at our fingertips, offline and especially online, that a truly motivated learner may not even need a teacher, according to Feliz-Murias. Games have features that today’s students – so-called “digital natives” – are used to from online tools: learning by doing, customisation, immediate feedback, active discovery, and new kinds of comprehension. Also, as important as teaching content is motivation – a love of learning. Try our six levels of game-based learning to reflect on your lesson design. Can you complete all of them?

Level 1: Know Your Theory

In game-based learning (GBL), educators use games to enhance the learning experience. They may use more serious games, meaning games designed to achieve certain learning outcomes and not primarily to entertain; or commercial games, designed more to entertain, but with some learning as an additional feature.

This useful definition places GBL between the concepts of “gaming” (with certain rules) and “playing” (more open structure), and between the “whole” (as an object) and “parts” (the different elements):

Games vs. gamification

Image: (Serious) games vs. gamification / Deterding et al., 2011

As you can see, when it is put this way, we can think about the process – the way the learning experience is set up (design, on the right) – as well as the tools that can be used (games and toys, on the left).

GBL is not to be confused with gamification, which is also a human-focused design. This approach uses the design of games to create incentive. In learning experiences, it might mean, for example, putting a time limit on a task, or awarding points and prizes.

Level 2: Make Your Selection

Finding the right game is essential to a successful lesson. Teachers will want to pay attention to production quality, since bad graphical quality is often indicative of bad pedagogy. For a true GBL experience, they should steer clear of “chocolate-covered broccoli”, meaning poor learning tasks disguised in a game-like frame.

Teachers can use a reflection model to put a game through its paces. The RETAIN model, for example, emphasises naturalisation, transfer, adaption, embedding, immersion, and relevance. Of course, teachers will want to keep the learning objectives in mind: as White puts it, “Is your goal to cover content, or is it to deliver some higher-level experience, such as critical thinking or creativity?”

Cost is another important factor for many teachers, but there are ways around it. Many games, including digital games, are freely available in sample versions or can be accessed via national websites for teachers. Donors Choose and other fundraising sites can provide financial support for learning resources, and so can developers, as you’ll see in the next two levels.

Level 3: Serious Games

Below are some examples of games designed with educational purposes in mind. Have you used any of them?

  • KerbalEdu is an educational modification of Kerbal Space Program, offering a low-threshold approach to space exploration and physics, and is cheaper than the regular game

Orbital mechanics

Image: xkcd

Level 4: Commercial Entertainment Games

Games designed for entertainment can still be conducive to learning but may need extra framing, facilitating and functionality by the teacher. They often serve as contextual hubs, uniting thematic and project-based learning to spark the students’ interest. For instance:

Dixit card game

Image: Farley Santos / (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By playing commercial games, students learn to think in systems, reflecting on how different elements relate to one another.  They can also develop communication and other personal and social skills and attitudes via the multiplayer effect. In many cases, they may also benefit from tangential learning: for example, a fan of Mass Effect might be inspired to delve into the science and astronomy behind it.

Mass Effect planet index

Image: jit / Flickr. com (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Level 5: Constructionist Gaming (Student Design)

To quote Papert, “In teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think.”

In constructionist gaming, students make their own games. They might use the visual programming language Scratch, lessons on Hour of Code, Minecraft’s Creative Mode, makerspaces, and other avenues. In doing so, they not only sharpen their meta-learning skills but also develop computational thinking. They might also try to create board games or physical activity games just using themselves or with other objects.

Level 6: Do It Yourself (Teacher Design)

Teachers can create their own games, too. Researcher Sylvester Arnab has developed a process prototype for unpicking gameplay mechanics and configuring them into a new game design.

The Beaconing tool amplifies this process even more. Find out more in this interview:

Achievement Unlocked!

Have you completed all the levels? Congratulations – your creativity is to be reckoned with! Just remember that, in the end, the game is only a tool: by itself, it will not be powerful enough to bring about change or learning. For that, a teacher is needed.