A refreshed view on Game Based Learning

One of the featured keynote speakers at the ISTE13 conference was Jane McGonigal (@avantgame), director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future. In her keynote titled “Learning is an Epic Win”, Jane revealed the dynamics of gamers worldwide, and the potential of engaging gamers for a higher civil purpose.

Prior to hearing Jane speak I thought I knew a little about Game Based Learning. For the last few years #GBL seemed to be picking up pace in educational circles. At the conferences I have attended in the past few years, there have been various keynotes and presentations advocating games for learning in increased urgency. I would say that I have been mostly sceptical for a few reasons.

Firstly, GBL seems to carry quite a few “buzz words” that get thrown around when it comes to games in learning. Gamification, collaboration, virtual worlds, mass online rpgs, etc seem enough for anyone just to yell out “SOLD!”.  I feared that the hysteria and hype surrounding these words is that for seeking educators it means games are an educational babysitter, through the mindset that “games = fun = engagement = individual learning”

With this in mind, vendors are increasing to offer services, platforms and content in the form of “engaging” games. These are often offered as shining beacons of answers to effective and efficient student development of outcomes. However, for obvious reasons, there’s something about sitting a student in front of a game and expecting magic to happen that doesn’t sit well with me from a educationalist point of view.

At the risk of sounding overly negative about games, I can assure you that I’m not. I’m an avid gamer myself, and have been engrossed in digital and physical games since I could talk. I have been sceptical though, about the benefits and opportunities of GBL; and more importantly, how it is best integrated to support learning.

For this reason at recent conferences I had elected to attend sessions where presenters would give insight into how they have been using GBL as the vehicle for learning. The use of minecraft as a platform seems to be a popular choice. Unfortunately, of the sessions I have attended at ICTE13 and ACEC12, the examples seemed to lack rigour, purpose, and student outcomes tied to curriculum. I don’t think that minecraft can be justified as a worthwhile exercise for students on the basis that the kids are having fun, therefore it’s worthwhile. It might be argued that they are developing communication and collaboration skills, but where is the content? The purpose? The close integration of knowledge and learning? I love games, and there is no doubt kids love games. But I’ve always been wary of its justification in teaching and learning.

After Jane’s keynote at ISTE13, I felt there was hope for making sense of GBL. Still not completely sold, I decided to purchase Jane’s book: Reality Is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World for further pursual. And I’m very glad that I did! In fact I have enjoyed this book so much, that I thought I would write a blog post about it. It has been inspirational to the point where I think other educators, interested in GBL or not, should take note of the themes from this book.

So thanks to Jane McGonigal, I have hit the F5 button on my views on GBL which have now been refreshed. Here’s why:
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Image courtesy of David Vignoni via Wikimedia

Why should we care?

  • Because whether we advocate games or not, Jane reveals that there are 183 million active gamers in the USA, closer to home in Australia it’s 15 million, and worldwide close to 1 billion. In Jane’s words: This is “creating a massive virtual silo of cognitive effort, emotional energy, and collective attention lavished on game world’s instead of the real world” (pg4). Collectively, the planet is spending a staggering 3 billion hours a week in gaming. Jane explains that these hours are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.
  • In the USA, 97 %  of youth play computer and video games (pg5). Whilst one out of 4 gamers are over the age of fifty, the average game player is 35 and has been playing games for 12 years (pg5). However, today’s students live and breathe a digital world and expect to consume video games.

What’s behind a” good” game?

  • Games have a goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation (pg21). These determine how effective a game is. Jane quotes Bernard Suits in revealing that “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”  (pg22). This is precisely what is fun, motivating and rewarding about playing games.

Fun, Fiero & Failures

  • Games are fun, but shouldn’t only be looked at as escapism. Rather, Jane reminds us of Brian Sutton-Smith’s words: “The opposite of play isn’t work.  It’s depression” (pg28).
  • Jane describes Fiero as “the italian word for ‘pride’…it is what we feel after we triumph over adversity…we throw our arms over our head and yell” (pg 33). She also goes on to cite studies that confirm that “Fiero” moments are one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience. It made me think about whether our students experience enough if any “Fiero” moments in their learning. Are they being stimulated, challenged, satisfied, and rewarded with genuine highs in the classroom? Students should be craving satisfying work, with the hope and experience of being successful, just like in games. So do we take note of this, and design lessons accordingly? Or use games as the vehicle for this type of learning?
  • Gamers spend 80% of their time failing, and still love what they are doing (pg64). The culture and mindset of failure in the classroom here plays a big part in embracing learning opportunities and persistence to higher goals and achievements. The nature of games is that the gamer still wants to persist in order to reach that next target.

 Participation & Motivation

  • “If we are forced to do something, or if we do it half heartedly, were not really participating. If we don’t care how it all turns out, were not really participating. If were passively waiting it out, were not really participating” (pg124). These 3 eloquent sentences summarise what it actually means to be participatory. This quote made me think about how teachers allow or disallow students to direct their own learning; learning where students are self-motivated and self-directed, and where interest and genuine enthusiasm is fostered. This is a large positive of GBL because students have to voluntarily participate in the game, therefore they immediately become effective participants if they are interested.

 Re-inventing reality

What the digital realm offers

  • Investigating Your MP’s Expenses is an example of what people are capable of when collaborating through the power of technology. Jane points out that Wikipedia has required crowd sourcing to the tune of 100 million hours of thought.  That is like rounding up a million people and asking them to contribute 100 hours to Wikipedia, for free. Or persuading 10,000 people to dedicate five full time work years to Wikipedia. As Jane puts it: “That is a lot of effort to ask a lot of people to make, for no extrinsic reward, on behalf of someone else’s vision” (pg225).
  • Jane argues that with 1.7 billion internet users, it shouldn’t be hard to pull off projects to the scale of Wikipedia. “If the right motivation could be provided, we should be able to complete 100 Wikipedia sized projects every single day” (pg225).
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In light of Jane’s book, I don’t think I will look at the potential of games and student learning in the same way that I used to. In particular, I have been amazed at what Quest To Learn are achieving in the way that they are structuring their teaching and learning around GBL.

However, I still think there is the danger of laying games over existing  lesson plans and expecting magic to happen. This is not gamification!

In convincing others about what GBL could offer for education, I am predicting that most hesitant educators, particularly those who have largely grown up without video games, will continue to deem video games as a distraction from our real lives, and therefore irrelevant.

To a large point, living our reality is important. However, we can now think of games as having much more potential than just entertainment that serves as a disconnect from reality. As Jane argues in the final chapter: “games don’t distract us from our real lives. They FILL our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths” (pg354).

Thank you Jane McGonigal for refreshing my views on GBL! If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend Reality Is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World as your next read!

*Disclaimer: I do not work for Jane, nor am I receiving any commission on making this post! :p

Have you read “Reality Is Broken”?

What are your thoughts on GBL?