Shall We Play a Game?

~by Andrew Peterson

Most of us can recall some experience in our formal education that included a game. Depending on your experience, it might have been a simple spelling bee, some form of Trivial Pursuit, or Jeopardy as a form of test review. Others might have played some form of role-playing, like a model UN, or Reacting to the Past. These experiences are usually recalled with fondness when reflecting on our academic experiences. Few remember a multiple-choice test taken in 8th grade, but something about games let us recall the experience. Reflect on your own past. Do you recall any games that you played in the classroom? Try to recall what other classes you were taking around the same time. Likely the other academic endeavors are lost, yet the game experience remains.

Game designers beginning the creation process of a game often start with a simple question of “What emotions do I want my players to feel?” Good games are designed to create an emotional connection or response to the experience. Game-based learning advocates recognize the emotional connection provides an intellectual connection to content. Ask someone to describe the last game they played and they can likely recall clear details.

The interesting conversation starts when we merge game design principles into the course design process. So often, course designs are limited by a simplistic view of mapping learning objectives to assignments and assessments as separate from the overall learning experience.  Where is engagement being measured? What emotions are present during the lesson? What type of interactions do the players have to successfully negotiate?  Often these missing elements are directly related to student deficits in higher level thinking and soft skills required for success in their careers.

As a game designer, your game competes for the attention span of your players. Players that pick up your game do so over the choice of any other activity. Imagine if academic design could boast the same—and they can, through incorporating game design principles in their course design process.

Pedagogies that rely on play often do so at the expense of control. When players have agency (control) over their experience, they tend to have deeper engagement. When play is introduced into the classroom, the instructor has to recognize that an element of student decision making is being introduced. Understanding the cognitive and affective aspects of your own content and the elements of games you plan to use is a critical part in effectiveness.  For example, In the role-playing series Reacting to the Past, often students play out scenarios that become historically inaccurate. If your goal as a history instructor is to have students memorize names and dates, this would be counterproductive. If your goal is to have students gain understanding of people involved, variables at play, and possible alternatives of historic events, this would be an excellent match.

I have had the chance to attend (and present) at numerous game-based learning conferences. I wish I could credit this quote, but have been unable to find its origin. “We all remember the saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.’ But if you really want the horse to drink, just convince the horse he is thirsty and he’ll find the water.” The role of the instructor used to be to contain and convey all the knowledge. As in the analogy above, it was up to the instructor to know where the water was and lead everyone there, even if they were not thirsty. Now with content almost universally accessible with a Google search, the instructor’s role is to engage the student to show them why the information is valuable.

An engaged student learns. If we create an environment promoting engagement, then we have done our job. Games are excellent examples of engagement engines; academia can learn a lot from them.


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