Spelling scrambles or 3D shooters? What teachers misunderstand about video games

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More and more teachers are open to introducing digital games in their everyday work, but they make a distinction between “good” and “bad” games. Tom Hildgen, an expert in gaming and media, thinks we might be using these terms the wrong way around.

As I write this article, the game “Fortnite” (Epic Games, 2017) scurries through the corridors of schools like a haunted figure and unsettles the teachers. Games like this are often seen as one of the causes of school failure and as one of the reasons for students’ lack of exercise and school refusal. Fortnite is clearly a “bad” game, whose only purpose is to be fun.

Teachers refer to me when they have questions about or want advice on video games. In the case of “Fortnite” and other similar games, it is usually a question of how they can get rid of it – or at least banish it from school so that students can focus on the important things. But what if we used these games to teach?

 “Good” games are mainly considered to be those that were purposefully designed to reflect pedagogical interests, like maths games or spelling games, while “bad” games are usually designed for entertainment. These are called commercial off-the-shelf games (COTS), and when they are well designed, they make for a lot of fun.

Serious games or edutainment software lag behind COTS games in multiple ways. A commercial game’s main goal is to entertain and therefore to sell well. Enormous monetary and personnel resources are used to make the game a success. If the game fails, the producing company may go insolvent. Serious games can't afford such efforts, because the budgets from which they benefit are very limited. This is reflected in their graphical quality as well as in their content. These programs often lack basic game principles, meaning that they are not games at all, but rather gamified learning applications.

And this is where they become dangerous for education. Because when teachers use games that are only a substitute for worksheets, they miss the wonderful effect and potential that can be achieved by playing in class and using video games for curricular work. They use the games almost exclusively for drill and practice.

The students are experts in playing games and they have not forgotten how games function. They realise immediately when something is presented to them as a game which is not a game. Edutainment software is like chocolate-covered broccoli: the student looks forward to a piece of chocolate, and only when they bite into it will they notice that it is merely coated broccoli.

Other media that were never intended to be pedagogically relevant are used very successfully in school. For instance, Astrid Lindgren did not write Pippi Longstocking as a pedagogically valuable book; she just wrote a great book, and then the teachers discovered its value for their lessons – to introduce young people to the wonderful world of reading, writing and imagining other realities, among other possible educational scenarios.

We can do the same with digital games. The professionals in education can use computer games as well as books to convey learning content, and this works better with “real” games, i.e. commercial off-the-shelf games, than with so-called “serious” games. We manage to impart knowledge in our classes using books, movies and audio recordings without any problems, so why do we have such a hard time with digital games?

There's no reason for that. Video games are not the holy grail of education, but they can be a powerful learning tool among others if used wisely – and a fantastic side effect is that they are an awful lot of fun.

Tom Hildgen was born in 1977 in Luxembourg and studied to be a primary school teacher in Belgium, a job he has been doing since 2001. Starting from 2012, he worked as a teacher advisor for three years. He has two Master degrees in Gaming and Media from the Danube University Krems in Austria, and since 2017 he has been working for the SCRIPT as a school developer.