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Learning through Games - A Revolution

How we use learning to create fun in games, what learning is, and how we can completely change education and the future job market with our video games.

Dylan Woodbury, Blogger

September 13, 2010

7 Min Read

This article was posted at my website, www.dtwgames.com, where we post a game design article every weekday. We are brand new, so give us a look (we are open to some writers who would like to write/blog about game design, the industry, programming, video game history, etc.).

See article at my site: http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/learningthroughgames.html

How much thinking is allowed in games? What many don’t know is that we think a lot when we play video games. Whenever we make a decision, face a beast, or strategize, we are thinking.

Many don’t know that thinking/ learning is the primary reason for fun. Learning may not sound like a lot of fun, as school pops into one’s mind, but the learning in school isn’t the learning you do in games – or in life, for that matter.

People play games much like toddlers go through life – we examine a situation, predict the outcome of a certain action, test it, and examine the results. Whether it’s trying to bring down a boss in Super Mario Galaxy 2 or releasing a balloon into the sky, we are still learning.

Games have been testing learning and thought more and more lately. People have obtained headaches after playing games like Braid or Portal. Challenges in these games require the gamer to think and learn more than ever before, and people have fun – learning is fun.

But if learning is fun, why is school so boring? Because we don’t learn in school – we cram, memorize, and follow an algorithm… that is not learning! I am here to propose that if school was set up more like a video game, school would actually be fun, and there would be no divide between smart and stupid people.

The first order of business is making the material matter to the player – making the material important. Good grades can be important, as they avoid consequences, regret, and a whole truck-load of negative feelings. A student may be motivated by grades, but that does not matter – a student must be self-motivated in order to succeed in school (or just have a skill set for following sets and cramming irrelevant information into one’s head, the modern definition for smart).

How do we make learning important to the student? The answer: by simply having the student learn organically. That means, you learn by doing. When humans learn, we use the scientific method (even though we might not be aware of it). First, we notice a problem or challenge, like needing to get from one side of a room to the other without landing in the acid between the two sides. Next, we hypothesize based on previously learned information, thinking, “Maybe if I put a portal on this side and that side, I will end up on the other side.” Then, we test; we shoot the portals and jump through. Finally, we analyze the results and what we hypothesized (it worked). At that point, the player has learned – one can transport to a new area by laying portals on opposite walls. Even if it didn’t working, the player learns that the converse is true, bringing him/her closer to the answer.

At that moment when you find yourself on the other side of the room, chemicals of pleasure are released into your brain, rewarding you for the mission accomplished and motivating you to learn even more. After learning about the portals, you now have this concept tucked inside your head for the rest of the game. This is something that you won’t forget, because you have learned it by doing.

How can we use this method, for instance, to teach a child how to add two numbers? We can make a game! Why? Because a good game can organically teach and make learning the information important and fun.

I know that about half of my readers just rolled their eyes. “Educational games are boring!” Most educational games are boring because they didn’t do it right! A game that simply puts two numbers on the screen and tells you to enter the result is not organically teaching. You can do that in real life! Games like these do not utilize what video games have to offer.

Let’s imagine a medieval game, in which the protagonist is doing the usual thing – defending villagers and defeating evil. We can throw in a learning challenge that teaches something very applicable in the real world. Let’s say you need to cross the river, but an obstacle is keeping you from crossing, like the sailor can’t figure out how much to cost for both the protagonist and his sidekick, or whatever. Suddenly, knowing addition becomes important, crucial to the player’s progress in the game. When given a reachable problem in an open environment to experiment and apply the scientific method, as well as a good streaming dose of feedback, the player will figure it out for himself/herself.

This can apply to all subjects on all levels. For an English example, let’s the player must crack a riddle written on a secret cave, but the riddle has a word the player does not know. At this point, the player will either look up the word and apply his/her new knowledge (good), or by cheating, guess, and realize what the word meant later (great!). The player will have a better chance of remembering this word in the long term, as he/she discovered it by doing (not by repeating the word and definition a hundred times before the test).

These are not the strongest examples (revealing those would reveal my ideas), but I can tell you that the most important thing is making the learning crucial to progress in a game, and there are ways to do it without tacking on lame puzzles (trust me). It is very important not to add foolish puzzles that, for some reason, demand that you know what 8(3+4) equals. This area, creating challenges and setting up mechanics in a way that makes experimentation and solving fun and organic is the most challenging and important, but also what could drive games like these to revolutionize everything.

Education fits very well within video games, but for many reasons. Video games also have a great learning curve. What you learn at the beginning is constantly tested, the player is required to build new concepts on top of older ones, and in doing so, can face new, tougher problems (does this not sound exactly like Legend of Zelda?). They’re even set up similarly – Challenge (problem), level (chapter), boss (test), final boss (final exam). The only difference is that in school, you have to learn before you do – taking notes, reading a lesson, etc. In a video game, you learn and retain all this by yourself. The reason why books come with lessons before the practice problems is that the student has no way of learning the material by doing the problems (no feedback, boring, and not motivating).

It is my hope that people begin to see beyond the criticisms like violence and addictiveness of video games, and see the great opportunities in them, like the ability to facilitate learning. I envision a modern education system that does not teach, but rather facilitates the learning of students through video games (digital interactive learning environments – DILEs). I see a future where students look forward to school (crazy, right?), and not see it as a five-day crawl between weekends. Video games even propose to fix many other broken aspects in school, like the focus on following a series of steps (plugging in numbers, which, honestly, computers are better at) and lack of creative problem solving, doing something without knowing how to ahead of time (the thing we need most for twenty-first century jobs).

We are facing a complete revolution of school, video games, jobs, and life. The possibilities are endless, and there are many ways to facilitate learning through video games (I’m holding onto my secret ideas until I am in a situation in which I can make them a reality). Think about it.

This article was posted at my website, www.dtwgames.com, where we post a game design article every weekday. We are brand new, so give us a look (we are open to some writers who would like to write/blog about game design, the industry, programming, video game history, etc.).

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