Engagement Through Gaming: Part One

April 3, 2009 at 6:15 am Leave a comment

I just had an interesting conversation with the headmaster at my school about ways that we might use games to engage kids who just aren’t reaching their academic potential. Games certainly aren’t unique in these situations–plenty of teens who excel in an extracurricular area (from more socially acceptable ones like team sports to more marginalized activities like skating or hacking) have trouble excelling at school.

From that conversation, I’ve decided to start a new series on engagement through gaming. This is part one: the philosophical basis.

So how do we turn a highly accomplished gamer into a highly accomplished student?

First, of course, we have to believe this can work. I certainly do, because I firmly believe that games can be (and are) valuable in an educational context. Check out the American Library Association’s Gaming and Literacy resources if you don’t want to just take my word for it.

But many folks who bring gaming into schools and libraries are still more or less slipping it in the back door. I’ll admit to being a little guilty of that–when I asked my boss if I could start a library gaming program here, my motivation was more that I knew I’d have a great time, and thought the students could too. Although I did write up a formal program proposal, in all honesty I wasn’t thinking of gaming as part of a larger learning framework.

I’m reminded of something I heard Christopher Harris say at a conference last year. Gamers like playing games because we constantly get to experiment and try again. When you “die” in a game, you either have a few lives still to play, or the chance to start from the beginning with a fresh approach. This isn’t true of traditional approaches to school. Sure, you might be able to repeat a grade, but that’s not a desirable outcome for most students–or most teachers.

So what can we learn from games?

1. There’s motivation to succeed. If you’re not engaged in high school, all the adults in the world telling you about college still won’t motivate you to try harder. Why try to get to level 2 if you can’t see the value–or even the fun–in level 1? We need to find a way to translate the payoff of successful gaming–winning, leaving a permanent record on the high score list, solving a series of problems on your own–to the academic setting.

How to do it in a school: There’s no easy answer, but I think one approach is to create a culture of success. Be committed to individual gains and the overall success of your school. Some students will perform better if you can nurture a personal winning spirit, and others perform best if they believe they’re part of a winning team. Either way, it’s crucial to tie academic success to tangible personal goals. For some families, academic achievement for its own sake just isn’t a priority. Find out what is. If you can demonstrate the link to financial stability, innovation, leaving a lasting mark on the world–whatever the goal is, find a connection.

2. Competition is friendly. Movies like King of Kong may leave you thinking that the world of competitive gaming is a sad, lonely place, but in reality, many–if not most–gamers have a community of generally supportive players around them. Sure, there’s plenty of smack-talking, but gamers don’t want to truly alienate each other or they’d have no competitors. (In real life, at least–forums like XBox Live may be another matter entirely.) What’s more, the fact that no game is ever quite the same twice means that everyone has a chance to succeed.

School is already competitive, but many students stop playing when they see the same kids come out on top time and time again. That’s because academic competition usually calls for the same skills over and over, when in reality success can come in many different forms.

School can also feel like a high stakes environment–and it often is. High school seniors compete for a finite number of slots in college admissions pools. Failing a test or a class can be a huge setback. Deadlines are firm. In games, on the other hand, competition can be heated, but no one would keep playing a game if the same players always won. That’s why so many players actively support each other, and why enthusiasts of games like Halo keep coming back to join a multiplayer game with strangers–winning is more fun against new and skilled opponents, and losing is never permanent.

How to do it in a school: Encourage low stakes competition in the classroom. Vary the kinds of challenges you pose so that new students get a chance to come out on top. The contest still has to be meaningful, though–just as gamers eventually tire of playing a game with invincibility cheat codes, students quickly realize when they’re winning empty awards.

3. Creativity is encouraged, and experimentation is possible. You’ve probably heard that one characteristic of gamers is a tendency to jump right in and start playing around without reading the directions. We do it with games, and we prefer to do it with life. Learning the rules of a game by trial and error is more fun–and often faster–than memorizing written specifications. And formal instructions don’t often include the kinds of shortcuts and strategies that gamers discover for themselves intuitively.

In school, by contrast, we attempt to to teach a lot of fundamentals by skill-and-drill. We’re beating information in by rote memorization. On the one hand, this appeals to our sense of equality–we’re creating cookie-cutter students. If we teach them all in the same way, they should all come out the other end with the same skills. This is particularly true in math and science–we teach a rigid progression of steps, and if you leave one out you can’t possibly get the right answer. But it’s also true of English and reading, even if it’s more subtle: we’re often (perhaps inadvertently) creating a hierarchy of reading (books good, magazines bad; online “reading” and listening to audiobooks aren’t real reading).

How to do it in school: It’s not going to work with every lesson–at the end of the day, the English alphabet still has 26 letters–but as much as possible, encourage critical thinking by posing a problem and soliciting solutions. Instead of immediately rejecting wrong answers, try them out and figure out why they don’t work. Let students share their approaches to a problem. A shortcut that works for one student won’t work as well as the step-by-step approach for another.

These are just three of the ways we can translate the gaming world to the education world. And they’re all a bit abstract–the next step would be to design a specific curriculum with these philosophies in mind.

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