Tuesday, 1 April 2014

What Video Games Can Teach Educators

Image by Grant Potter
No one denies that video games are popular. How popular? Well, the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board, the organization responsible for video games' parental ratings) has a great infographic to answer that question:
Video Game Industry Statistics

It's particularly interesting that almost 50% of gamers are between the ages of 18 and 49. These statistics demonstrate a couple of things:

-video games are not just or even primarily children's entertainment, but with so many adult gamers, kids are even more likely than they would be otherwise to find themselves drawn to the world go gaming. In other words, if you don't like video games, you'd better settle in for the long haul, because they're not going anywhere. 

-40% of gamers are women, which should put lie to the idea that games based learning will appeal to boys and alienate girls

-gaming is almost ubiquitous in our culture. Even kids whose parents don't want them having "screen time" will probably find that their kids are exposed to games at other people's houses. You can limit, but you can't really avoid it. 

So ok, games are popular. WHY - and what does that have to do with learning?

I think two things account for video game popularity:

1. Games offer people the chance to try on other roles, to become someone different. Great movies and books do the same thing, but games are even more so. They're specifically designed to put you, the player, in control of a character who, more often than not, embodies some characteristic you've wanted to try but never been able to take on. 

2. Games hit the sweet spot for rewarding our brains. They have (at least, they do if they're any good) the perfect balance of challenge and reward, of difficulty and success. There's always a way out, unlike in real life where some problems are just unsolvable. And they scaffold you perfectly, introducing information at the precise rate you need it, usually only as it becomes necessary to solve a problem. 

So what does this mean for education? I would argue that game designers understand teaching better than many educational professionals. How often do teachers find themselves forced to teach topics in isolation, or move on before a student is ready, because the curriculum demands it? How many of us really feel like we hit that sweet balance of challenge and success with all, or at least the majority, of our students on a regular basis?

This is not to blame teachers -- we do our best, and you have to keep in mind that game designers spend years carefully designing and testing each game to make sure it achieves exactly this goal. But it seems that the education industry in general has some important lessons to learn from game designers.

Question of the Day:
How do you feel about video games for kids?

My opinion is pretty obvious: I think games have a lot to teach us. I do, however, believe in moderation for everything. Any kind of sit-and-get time should be balanced with the basics of a healthy lifestyle, both in terms of physical activity, human interaction, etc. I don't think, though, that video games are the demons they're made out to be.

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