Ten Surprising Truths about Video Games and Learning

| February 24, 2011 | 17 Comments
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“Your brain’s important, but not all that important,” said Dr. James Paul Gee, a professor at Arizona State University and a leading authority on literacy and the potential of educational games, during a talk at the Learning and Brain conference last week.

By that he means the following: What we’d assumed about the importance of brain functions – following rules and logic and calculating – are no longer relevant. There’s been a revolution in the learning sciences and the new theories say that human beings learn from experiences – that our brains can store every experience we’ve had, and that’s what informs our learning process.

Following that logic, he says, the best kind of learning comes as a result of well-designed experiences.

Gee, who spoke at the Learning and the Brain Conference last week, used this theory to launch into research-validated reasons why video games are good for learning. Here are 10 truths, according to Gee. Video games:

  1. FEED THE LEARNING PROCESS. The best learning experiences have the following values: motivation, clear goals, interpreted outcomes, and immediate and copious feedback. Video games have all these components. Kids play video games for fun with the goal of progressing to the next level and eventually conquering the opponent, whether that’s another player or the computer. What’s more, the social aspect — sharing tactics, experiences, and explanations – helps cement what they’ve learned.
  2. OBVIATE TESTING. The current assessment system forces teachers to teach to the test. Video games hold out a different way of thinking about assessments: namely, that we don’t need it. Compare a student who’s taken 12 weeks of algebra classes to one who’s played the video game Halo on the most challenging setting. The algebra student must take a test to assess what he knows on the day of the test. The Halo player has mastered the skills needed to get to the final level – and that’s his ultimate goal. No need for a test in that context. “Learning and assessment are exactly the same thing,” Gee said. “If you design learning so you can’t get out of one level until you complete the last one, there’s no need for a test. There would be no Bell Curve. It’s unethical to test a student based on one day’s knowledge. We have to change the attitude about testing on a government level.”
  3. BUILD ON EXPERIENCE. With every new game, the knowledge and expertise picked up in previous games can be applied to a new experience, a fundamental part of learning.
  4. REDEFINE TEACHERS AS LEARNING DESIGNERS. Game designers create well-designed experiences and social interactions. Teachers are designers of learning, and can create experiences tailored to suit their outcome. If we “re-professionalize” teachers as designers, they can create their own scripts for what they want students to learn. This type of learning is based on good teaching, not curriculum per se.
  5. TEACH LANGUAGE THROUGH EXPERIENCE. The biggest problem with using scholastic language is that it’s not used outside of school. “The language you learn at school is not the one you use at home,” Gee said. The best way of learning language is not from a book or a dictionary, but from applying it to an experience. For example, kids can decode even the most cryptic game manual after they play the game because they’re experiencing every image, action, and dialogue that’s described.
  6. ENTICE KIDS TO LOVE CHALLENGES. The video game industry is making a killing selling toys and games that are difficult to master. “They’re selling stuff to kids that are complex and hard. And because it’s outside of school, it’s virtually addictive.”
  7. MOTIVATE LEARNING. If a student is not motivated to learn, there will be no learning. It’s hard to motivate students to learn something like algebra without context, without motivation and the gratification that comes with mastering a video game.
  8. TEACH PROBLEM-SOLVING. When it comes to problem-solving, research shows that if you teach and test facts and formulas, students learn facts and formulas. This doesn’t correlate to solving problems. But if you teach through problem-solving, students learn problem-solving skills, plus they learn the facts – for free.
  9. ENCOURAGE RISK-TAKING. If the cost of failure is high, as it is in schools, then students are discouraged to explore and take risks. If the cost of failure is made lower, such as in video games in which the player “dies” and starts over again, students are motivated to explore all their options. They rethink goals over and over again, and try out new tactics if something’s not working. That type of learning — risk taking — can’t happen if the cost of failure is too high.
  10. PROVIDE VALID LEARNING MODEL FOR SCHOOLS. “We should use the learning principles built into good video games in and out of schools, even if we are not using games. The learning principles can be built into many different curricula,” Gee wrote in Learning Theory, Video Games, and Popular Culture, published in The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture.

Hear more of what Gee has to say in this video from the PBS Documentary Digital Media – New Learners Of The 21st Century.

Watch the full episode. See more Digital Media – New Learners Of The 21st Century.

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  • http://spicybrown.com Scott Brown

    These are all great points and I’m very excited to see them develope, but we also need to focus on real games (in the physical world). Games that build life skills through cooking, structures, robotics, music etc. The great thing is that these physical games can have video game elements in tandem to help create a super learning expereince!
    Maybe schools should just be labs/workshops/kitchens/farms?

    • moth

      “We should use the learning principles built into good video games in and out of schools, even if we are not using games. The learning principles can be built into many different curricula,”
      I think this completely agrees with your point, as do I. It would be a dream to teach at your lab/workshop/kitchen/farm school. Imagine the learning!

      • Dan

        We used to have that (lab/kitchen/workshop was called “home” or “community”) and then we decided that everyone had to have the same experience and that it wasn’t fair unless the government got involved and watered down everything and made “vanilla” learning for all. This is the reason we need to return to a locally-based government that removes large bureaucracies from the equation. They marginalize everything and always reduce our freedoms and opportunities.

        • Cathal

          I, being a secondary school student myself, totally agree with you, Scott. The Government have some bizarre idea that intelligence is measured with how much information you can store and regurgitate on an exam day. Students aren’t given the chance to show and develop skills in real life situations, which gaming provides. I personally love computer games and after reading this article, I’ve come to the realization that many of the games I play do have a lot of educational values. We shouldn’t necessarily be using games in the classroom (even though it would be beneficial) but we should learn from them and use them in schools to hone those skills of participation, problem solving and risk taking

  • NenadDjapic

    I am puzzled by no testing in this context claim. How we will know that smbd in 12 days mastered Helo if we dont test him. One player who got skils can play for others until ultimate level.

    • Anonymous

      I think the point is this: mastering Halo*is* the “test.” You can’t progress to the next level without conquering the one before it.

  • http://woganmay.com/ Wogan

    Definitely a concept worth exploring. Valve can teach you how to use a new weapon at full effectiveness within 5 minutes. So why can’t a school teach you how to apply real-world problem solving at the same speed?

    It’s actually quite interesting what you can learn from games. Capitalism-based sims are good for basic economics, any war simulator has map reading, any game that involves angles and trajectories has math involved – it should be very possible to extend that learning model into the real world.

  • http://twitter.com/vocabgenii Genii

    Excellent article!

  • http://mylifeasanon-gamer.blogspot.com/ Heidi Siwak

    As a teacher who has recently become a gamer so I can understand why I’d want to bring gaming into my classroom and how I can use it as a mode for learning, I found this article to be useful. I am completely new to gaming, but already I see the learning value. My game of choice is Minecraft. I’ve already discovered that I HAVE to problem solve if I want to proceed. By design I must explore and take risks. What I am learning is completely transferable to the classroom and beyond. Thanks Tina.

  • http://twitter.com/Almost60Really Paula Lee Bright

    Unless I missed it, the article leaves out another important benefit of gaming for learning (and I see no reason why there couldn’t be awesome games for algebraic principles…any topic, in fact). Dopamine! The pleasure of facing a challenge and mastering the steps necessary to achieve the goal.

    Learning should be filled with all the wonderful natural chemicals of enjoyment that our brains can supply so easily. I wish schools and our government would realize the potential in learning and reading and exploring for fun and incorporate it into the school day.

    Although as you said in a different article, the school day won’t always be as it is now…thank heavens!

    • Anonymous

      Great point! Thanks Paula.

  • eyelsi

    I would also argue for some people who says video game does not help imagination.
    Because of Grand Theft Auto, it is very easy for me to look at mapping system when I travel.
    Also, I love to imagine new dungeons that can make interesting games – in a better way.
    because I know what generally interest people and why it interest them – rather than having my own imagination, which would probably just be interesting to myself and not a huge audience.

  • eyelsi

    I would also argue for some people who says video game does not help imagination.
    Because of Grand Theft Auto, it is very easy for me to look at mapping system when I travel.
    Also, I love to imagine new dungeons that can make interesting games – in a better way.
    because I know what generally interest people and why it interest them – rather than having my own imagination, which would probably just be interesting to myself and not a huge audience.

  • http://twitter.com/WanderingEds Dr. Jessica Voigts

    And, gaming (especially multiplayer games) teaches teamwork, social skills, and the ability to strategize and think together.

  • http://twitter.com/pkb0001AU Tricia B

    Great article! At Verge Pipe Media we see the incredible potential for more gamification and learning analytics in the classroom. Our most recent blog actually highlighted a technique that Purdue University is implementing that takes us back to the days where you could earn a gold star from your K-5 teacher. Instead of gold stars, they’re badges – not the ones you sew onto your vest, but ones that allow teachers to track students’ progress and keep the students interested in reaching goals/staying on track. I know I for one am interested in seeing MORE classrooms implementing these creative learning tactics. http://vergepipemedia.com/blog/passport-to-the-future/

  • Mother of the Bride

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  • bnleez

    Learning and formative assessment are not the same. Learning is the process of change that results from feedback loops. Feedback loops drive change. Formative feedback and learning are also associations that influence each other.