Should education be more like a game?

Five years ago, I decided to read a book about gaming by Jane McGonigal called ‘Reality is Broken – why games make us better and how they can change the world’. I had no real interest in gaming myself, having last played one in 1997 when I deleted my copy of Sim City 2000 from my computer to give myself a fighting chance of completing my degree. However, I was interested in hearing a gamer’s perspective on the lively debate raging in education where:

  • The pessimists claim gaming will destroy learning as it displaces the time children spend reading and learning new stuff
  • The optimists say gaming will transform education by creating compelling learning environments that kids will feel motivated to participate in.

At the time of reading this book, I was definitely a sceptic, not least because the ‘games’ I came across in education often tended to be quite unappealing as entertainment and inefficient as learning environments. However, I found this book really thought-provoking and feel a little more optimistic after reading it. This blog post summarises the main argument of the book and in tomorrow’s post, I’ll give some reflections on the ‘fixes’ for society that she proposes and their implications for schooling.

The motivating argument of the book is this: If people are leaving reality for games, then what is wrong with reality? For children, what is wrong with school? For adults, what is wrong with work?

In Part I of her book, she describes why games make us happy. Games, as characterised by McGonigal, have these four attributes that are useful to think about in relation to our own educational experiences.

Games have a goal that is specific and enticing. When we play games, at any point in time we are doing something with a specific purpose in mind. Games often use story-telling – McGonigal sees stories in games as mechanisms to make the goal more compelling. Having a specific purpose doesn’t have to mean we are working towards an end-point – Tetris is a game without an end. It doesn’t mean that our actions or moves are constrained – we can build our island in Animal Crossing in any way we choose. Goals needn’t be explicitly defined at the outset – often we discover new goals as part of the act of playing a game.

One defining characteristic of all of my adult education has been these specific and enticing goals. Sometimes these are constructed by me as I work through books and YouTube videos to learn a new skill that will have an end-use. I have also tried out learning apps such as Duolingo and Yousician that codify goals in a compelling way. For example, when you open up the Yousician music app one day, the ‘goal’ is not to learn the ukulele since that isn’t specific. Instead, the goal is to increase your streak by practising for 10 minutes or to achieve three stars on the next exercise by playing it accurately.

Schooling also often manages to create specific and enticing goals. I remember the joy of leaving the wilderness years of Key Stage Three to start a GCSE course – a real thing that had a purpose! I was lucky to take part in lots of extra-curricular performing arts at school that had specific and enticing goals. However, I can also think of many times in my own education where there were no specific (or indeed enticing) goals of the class I found myself in. It’s interesting, for example, that so often the arts in school are delivered in a way that precludes the experience of students working towards the specific and enticing goal of performance or exhibition.

I am not sure who would disagree that students should have specific and enticing goals in education. Perhaps some would say that the purpose of education is so messy and complex that we cannot articulate our goals. Perhaps others would say the love of the experience in the moment should be enough in itself for students. That’s fine if all students in the class genuinely seem engaged and working as hard as they can, even without having specific and enticing goals in mind. However, if goals aren’t clear and students seem distracted, I guess McGonigal would say don’t be surprised when they walk home from school and jump straight onto the games console!

Games have rules, which are limits on how to achieve goals. McGonigal says: ‘By removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal, the rules push players to explore previously uncharted possibility spaces. They unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking.’ Rules help teachers manipulate tasks to increase the chances that the intended learning takes place. Maths teachers set investigations, but with constraints to force students to pursue particular lines of thinking. English teachers require students to work out how to incorporate specific quotes into their answers. Art teachers constrain choices of materials or focus. Rules constrain choices, giving students hooks onto which to hang their ideas for how to move their thinking forward.

Games have a feedback system that tells players how close they are to achieving the goal. At its best, a feedback system in a game should uphold the promise that a goal is achievable and provide motivation to keep on learning. Notice that in this definition of a feedback system there is no attention given to the thing that educational psychometricians tend to focus on – accurate measurement of attainment!

Games create tight feedback-interaction loops which make it satisfyingly obvious whether we are trying out the right things. Educational apps also tend to do this very well. These are more difficult to achieve in mass education where the teacher necessarily cannot give instant feedback and adaptive instructions to 30 unique students at different stages of learning or skill acquisition.

Weak feedback loops aren’t our only problem in schools. We are also nervous about giving precise feedback on progress in achieving goals to students in case it demotivates them (I’ve written about this elsewhere). These issues arise because mass education generally requires students to move in ‘lockstep fashion’ through the curriculum, with the same goal as everyone else in the class, regardless of whether it is an appropriate, specific or motivating goal for them. The combination of poorly specified goals and lockstep movement means we largely allow students to infer how well they are achieving a goal by observing their performance in relation to their peers. (‘I don’t know what the goal of learning French is, but I do know I’m close to this goal than Sally and further away from this goal than John.‘)

By contrast, games often have a strong ipsative element – the player is constantly judged on metrics against their own performance the day (or hour or minute) before. And the feedback system delivers constant feedback that they are making progress because the algorithm creates a perfect balance between delivering challenges and facilitating success and achievement. Again, I think our difficulties in balancing challenge with the experience of success is not intrinsic to the nature of the tasks involved in learning, but rather to the drawbacks of meeting the diverse needs of a class of students. (For example, good personal tutors can create this motivating feedback environment really well.)

Games are voluntary, with everyone knowingly and willingly accepting the goal, the rules and the feedback. McGonigal says that voluntary participation is crucial since it allows players to feel pleasure and safety even where games are delivering stress and challenge.

This seems crucial to me – for learning to be effective, it often means placing students in stressful and challenging situations. I don’t think this can or should be avoided. And yet, schooling feels far from voluntary for many students! I don’t really have any answers to this educational dilemma. Every so often, a school pops up that allows students to opt into learning as they please. It works out well when students do volunteer to take part. It has no solutions for when they don’t.

The philosopher Bernard Suits said :

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles

Games create sensations that make us happy. That’s why we play them. If schooling is less fun than games, should we ban games or should we try to make schooling more like a game? Is this even possible?

I am still a gaming novice and something of a gaming sceptic, but tomorrow I am going to apply McGonigal’s ‘fixes’ for society to see whether we can get anywhere in making education more compelling for our reluctant students who love to game!

One thought on “Should education be more like a game?

  1. Pingback: Making school as compelling as gaming – Becky Allen

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