Game developers take on game-based learning

You know how these things start: a tweet about some new research into the benefits of game-based learning spawns 45 tweets and all sorts of thinking about the intersection of games and learning. Yeah, that old chestnut. What was exciting about this tweeting flurry was that the insights and perspectives on what makes a game a learning experience came from game developers, not teachers.

The conversation was sparked by my tweet about an Australian study from Macquarie University for the NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre which highlighted the benefits of game-based math. The research was carried out by Dr. Kristy Goodwin, who highlighted the following benefits in the Mangahigh Extended Evaluation report (PDF):

  • Improved student learning outcomes,

  • 100% teachers reported that games had improved student learning,

  • 83% of students reported that the games helped their learning,

  • 94% of students reported that Mangahigh was more enjoyable than traditional modes of mathematics instruction,

  • Teachers reported enhanced student confidence which may lead to greater engagement and motivation, and

  • Instant feedback contributed directly to a more transparent learning process.

Getting acknowledgment that games have a role to play in learning and education is always good news – except the use of the phrase ‘Digital Game-Based Learning’ just seemed unnecessary and overly academic. This report added to the growing global body of significant research into the value of games in learning environments. Learning through play, who knew right? Der.

No, the really exciting bit was that I had only been recently reflecting on being more engaged with my Twitter followers who are either game developers or those that support the games community. This kind of report provided the fuel to get the conversation started. Very quickly game developers Andrew Goulding (@brawesomewaffle), Ben K (@AussieBen), and Andrew Duval (@_AndrewDuval) got involved in a tweet-chat about games and their impact on learning.

A few things became central to the conversation that followed. First, my initial point that other factors are crucial than just dumping the game in a classroom of students: that time and again the tech/game is only as powerful as the capacity of the teachers to make it meaningful in the context of the students’ work, otherwise it’s just a stupid way to crowd an attention-seeking, disjointed, and desperate curriculum. This means that teachers have got to start understanding games as a separate medium, the same as they might do with books or films, in order to appreciate the mechanics, design, and opportunities they offer. And there’s only one way to do this: play them.

Second, the way games are funded in Australia has a history of being pretty sporadic. Given that Australia has developed games which have stood their own ground on the world stage makes for a very impressive story – but that’s for another time. Certainly when it comes to the funding of educational games, things get even more lean. The US has gone quite a way to making in-roads on developing better educational games, thanks to the funnelling of major philanthropic investment from groups like the MacArthur Foundation, the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre, and the Gates Foundation. Of course the scale of these organisations do not exist in Australia, and neither does the kinds of support and thinking for games-based learning. This is gradually changing however, with examples like Knowledge Quest, Mathletics, LiteracyPlanet emerging as some examples of ways games can be built around learning outcomes.

Third, most people who grew up with games know that making a game educational is not the only way learning happens; and edutainment has a horrible history of trying so hard to gamify learning to make it ‘fun’ that it sucks all the fun out. And those who make games are even more qualified to have insights on this area, as Andrew Goulding pointed out –

The second comment by Andrew nailed it, in my opinion. It highlighted something often overlooked by those wrapped up in edutainment, and the same affliction teachers have when they use a tool, resource, or game that they don’t fully understand. Mechanics and motivation matter. I think this tweet would make great context for a panel program with educators and game developers. Andrew Duval qualified this by saying –

That last comment by Andrew Duval would also make a great public debate for educators and developers; and parents for that matter. There is such a pressing need to better educate people about how games function, their purpose, and their potential for teachable moments. For far too long games have been lumped together in the bucket of mindless violence, subconscious gambling, and meaningless story – it’s worth remembering that other mediums have all gone through this societal evolution; consider music, films, comics, and even books. Andrew Goulding wrapped it up towards the end with this nice insight –

While there is still so much to learn about game-based learning, there is also clearly a need to have more conversations like this, with a wider audience of experienced developers, designers, educators, and learners. It can start and end with everyone playing their way around a room full of games of all genres and platforms, coming together to explore perspectives and experiences, and building a better awareness that the answers often lie in communities we’re not connected with enough.

Also check out: Mangahigh and Dragonbox App