Games teach their players. It's inherent in their design.
Be it something related to the game's world, like Mario being unable to just walk into a Goomba, or something that can be applied to real life, game's make us learn, and in doing so through play, find ways to make that learning fun.
Applying math and probability to a problem on a page can be a dull affair, but doing it to a tense fight with the Elite Four in Pokemon gives the learned skill a more entertaining, and honestly practical, application.
This seems like it would lead to a lot of games being used as educational tools in schools, but that's not necessarily the case. "Teachers who are gamers and have invested in this have seen massive results and potential, but when you are not a gamer and don't have the time and energy to invest, it is very hard." says Santeri Koivisto, CEO of TeacherGaming, a company that looks to find the educational value in games and connect it with teachers.
"Games are just the media that people love these days and spend a lot of time with it, so we should address this by using this media in our education, too."
Koivisto's journey to helping teachers through games started years ago with his own desire to become a teacher. "In 2010, I was studying to become a teacher. We need to finish a Masters degree in applied education here in Finland to do so." says Koivisto.
When Koivisto started working in the classroom, it was right around the time a certain building game was popping up: Minecraft. Having tried it in his spare time, he found that it could have some interesting educational applications, and so he sought to harness it as a new teaching tool in the classroom.
"Very soon after that, Minecraft came out as a niche game back in 10-11, and I decided to try it with my class. The class loved it, and also, the teachers came in to look at what was so exciting. The teachers' reactions really made me think that there was something more here...potentially a business. I was in contact with Carl Manneh, who was the CEO back then, and he liked the idea of offering Minecraft to schools." says Koivisto.
"Both of us has no idea how to do it, but we just started doing it and signed a contract. Also, at that time, Joel Levin (my formed co-founder) launched a blog, and that got a lot of attention. We were in touch and decided to set up a joint venture." he continues.
Minecraft was a hit with his students, and also with the teachers. He could see that, not only did the material engage the students as a fun exercise, but that they were learning from using it. Something special about certain games made players interested in learning their systems, but those systems also had practical applications in real life. Perhaps if he could find which ones excelled at that, he could make a business of helping teachers find those games to help in education.
And teachers sometimes did need help locating them. "As a massive gamer myself who also played a lot of Minecraft back in the day and many other games, it was clear for me to use them in my class." says Koivisto. "However, since then, I've realized that only a very small percentage of teachers are gamers and game media is heavy and demanding to operate, so if you are not a gamer, it is really hard for you."
With Koivisto's experience with games and education, he felt he was in a good position to help non-gaming teachers navigate the complexities of games, finding the ones that were fun and could teach at the same time.
Why Games Help Us Learn
Why do we learn more from games than from traditional teaching? For starters, most can probably think back to at least one class, be it math of science or literature, where a student raised their hand and asked the question most students were thinking: "When am I going to use this in real life?"
"People generally become more interested in topics that are valuable from a social standpoint. I mean, it is basically that when you don't feel something is important, it is hard to be interested, but through games, the value game be more easily seen." says Koivisto.
Games provide immediate, useful application of complex topics. Players can see why they would need to learn the rules in moments, as if they don't learn these rules, they are unable to progress. Should they be unable to understand the trajectory of their jump arc, and do so live, they won't be getting very far in Super Mario Bros. Trajectories aren't exactly a topic for young children, and yet most can put this concept to work very early on in their lives through the lens of a game.
Koivisto's own experiences have shown this practical application at work, and how it helped create an interest in students. "One example might be that you shoot rockets in Kerbal Space Program and you fail a few times, getting exposed to the phenomena of Newtonian physics on the way. Next, you do the heavy lifting with other materials and learn to cope with the phenomena and how to calculate it - how to be effective using it - and THEN you go back to the game and apply what you learned back to the game and make killer rockets."
In this example, players can see a practical application for Newtonian physics. It's not just some floating concept on a page that the students must memorize. Instead, it is a living thing that has an immediate use to the player in a task they wish to succeed in. If they want to fly rockets, they need to know this science.
This also helps other types of learners who prefer a more hands-on approach. Not all people learn well from written work, and prefer to see how these things work in real life. Designing an experiment to help teach it could help, but Kerbal Space Program already provides an accessible, easy-to-use experiment that is exciting to play. Players get to feel the exhilaration of shooting a rocket into space, which could be a lot more interesting than what most school programs could manage.
Here, we also see a direct benefit to a hands-on learner, and how games can also give these concepts an immediate use to players who might be having difficulty staying interested in something that seems like it will have little real world use for the student.
It's also key that games need to make complex subjects approachable to the most people. "To be curious and to interested in a topic is the most important factor (motivation) to learn something, and games are really good at sparking interest in different topics. They make hard stuff and new stuff approachable." says Koivisto.
Games, by their nature, work to make difficult concepts understandable by as many people as possible. If they fail this, people don't play them. People need to know the complexities as quickly and easily as possible in order to wish to continue playing, so game developers are already hard work in trying to make complex concepts simpler. This also strengthens them as educational tools, as they are already built to teach the player in fun and straightforward ways.
These have been a great help in communicating complex topics. "Clearest are, of course, computer science and other tech related topics, but then comes the ones that are hard to demonstrate in class. Many STEM concepts, for example. It's hard to demonstrate gravity or some other physics phenomena in an effective and interesting ways." says Koivisto. "Also, some social aspects are very potent, like practicing collaboration, or maybe demonstrating how complicated social mechanics work."
It also doesn't hurt that games are just appealing to the students they're looking to teach. "In general, we should apply skills that we are learning in other contexts and medias to games, and the skills etc we learn from games back to other places. Building up engagement is obviously also very key since a lot of people are also very invested in games, and as an educators, you can use that expertise in your advantage."
The results Koivisto has seen have been staggering. "We have seen data of students basically skipping a year in math skills after few hours with certain games, and figuring out hard concepts in an hour or so because the demonstration we are able to do in games is so powerful."
Picking Good Educational Games
"Almost everyone would like to leverage the engagement games provide in the classroom, but the challenges are content quality (educational games tend to chat), where to find the content, and how to actually deploy this content if you are not gamer yourself and don't have hours to spend to just play and find the best stuff." says Koivisto.
Teachers, already busy with the difficult tasks of day-to-day instruction and other aspects of education, may not have the time to pick out the best educational games, which is where Koivisto and TeacherGaming are looking to come in.
"Our 'niche' is an entertainment game (made for fun) that also has connections to the curriculum. Then, it's our job to connect the dots and make using that piece effective and easy." says Koivisto. "Some of the best games out there currently are Democracy 3, Kerbal Space Program, Planetoid Pioneers (from the game engine point of view), Epistory, Universe Sandbox, and, of course, sandbox games."
These games can cover a wide array of subjects, but Koivisto isn't just limiting his search to traditionally entertainment-based games. Some also lean more toward edutainment as well. "We have many games in the pipeline, but it goes without saying that some topics are hard to cover with 'entertainment'. Therefore, we do have some games that are 'best fun from the edutainment field to cover the rest (with more coming). Something like Storium or Meta!Blast might be the best examples from here. Also, with smaller learners, the content is more edutainment like." he continues.
TeacherGaming has already set some of these games to work with a pilot program as well, sending them out into the wild to see how students learn through games. "The pilot schools are now testing a system where about 35 different developers with us have integrated their games to a portfolio that shares the same analytics engine and content management system. So, basically, teachers can click and select a lesson topic they want to teach, and our system will handle the rest, providing analytics and assessment options at the end." says Koivisto.
"A typical pilot program lasts for few months and includes a piece of curriculum that schools test, sending their feedback to us. Of course we are testing how the features work, what games work best, and if this is reasonable in general!" he continues.
Through this pilot program, Koivisto looks to work with teachers and developers to find those educational aspects in games and use them to make students see the useful applications of their school work, giving them practical ways to put it into action. Through presenting it to teachers in a way that ties it to the curriculum, he also intends to make it easy for educators to access whether they know games or not, allowing them to easily and simply assess its use and put it to work.
Koivisto is still open to other developers who feel their games have something to teach, as well. "Most of these games we have discovered and contacted the game devs about ourselves, but some developers also approach us if they feel their game would be a nice fit. It is a community effort in its literal meaning." says Koivisto.
Through this community of developers and educators, Koivisto and TeacherGaming are hoping to use games' unique ability to teach and excite, putting it to work helping students grow in subjects they might otherwise have trouble in.