Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Learning from Video Games

While writing his definition essay on the word “game,” Inkwang asked me for my opinion of the word. I said that the thing I like about games is that games are simply groups of rules, so basically anything can be a game when properly defined. Of course, it is possible to center an educational course (in this post, I’ll be directing these thoughts towards my ESL course) around the model that many video games provide. Mr. Pereira first presented this idea, and it’s been germinating in my head ever since. Mr. P suggested that many teenagers are very motivated to play video games, and perhaps if a teacher could distill some of the aspects of video games that drive that motivation, they could apply them to anything. Because a video game is a system, and systems can arguably be used to learn algebra just as easily as they can be used to kill fictional zombies.

So how might I create a video game-like system to help teach my ESL course? Well, first, I must look at what I want. Many video games think about this; the creators of “Call of Duty” want to recreate military experiences realistically. They want other things too, but that’s surely one of their goals. I want to teach English, but more specifically, I want each student to demonstrate mastery over eight areas important for success in an English language classroom: Reading/Main Idea, Short Answer, Research, Outline, Essay Writing, Oral Presentation, and Listening. What seems really cool to me, is that this system seems to have a lot in common with a video game. Each area, or level, has its own set of obstacles that must be dealt overcome. And until those obstacles are mastered, the player can not move on to the next level. Thinking about my ESL course like a video game makes me realize that I can allow each student to move at their own pace, and I can be sure that students will really understand the levels they have passed. Of course, at this time, I don’t have a team of 3D game designers make my class look like “Bioshock,” but for now I am going to try to work with what I can.

Here’s where you come in. Many of you play lots more video games than I do. What am I not thinking about? What are your favorite aspects of video game systems? What can I do to make this project as cool as possible?


  1. I think what has always made video games enjoyable is the immediate, meaningful feedback. If you don't jump at the right time, Mario dies. On the other hand, if you do it just right, you get to move on to the next level.

    This feedback is possible in constructed worlds because they have been stripped of everything that is extraneous to the game objectives and because the distance between risk and reward has been shortened.

    For these reasons I am not sure you could create a "video game experience" which is meaningfully related to many your eight areas of success. Research, for example, is all about entering a space where there are many factors extraneous to your goal. Finding the important information among useless information is a real world experience that may not scale down.

    You could, if you wanted, create a "virtual research space," in which you controlled and created all of the sources students would need to access, including fakes, irrelevant sources, sources of questionable validity etc. The problem as I see it is that controlling the space removes exactly what is most challenging about the process of research.

    There are three elements that I think could be meaningfully video-game-ized: Reading/Main Idea, Oral Presentation, and Listening. These areas are manageable because the "worlds" that they create can be controlled. A single story, for instance, can serve as the "world" for reading comprehension -- in fact, logic puzzles are already functionally reading-comprehension games.

    Listening, again, can be narrowed to a single bounded source. Oral presentation can be broken up into discrete, easily observable steps and dealt with DDR-style.

    But to my mind, the richest area for video-game-izing isn't any particular English skill, but study skills themselves -- classroom participation, note-taking etc.

    I've got a lot more thoughts on this but I also have a baby who needs to be fed. :)

  2. I agree with Mr.P's ideas about immediate feedback, but what I feel is even more important are the immersion and interest factors.

    AB mentioned Bioshock earlier. I believe that to be the most immersible video gaming experience yet. It's like an interactive novel. Imagine if you could help Sherlock Holmes figure out a mystery. While you can't actually talk to characters in Bioshock the atmosphere and mood of the story make you feel as if you're actually there in Rapture. Students can't exactly feel this way about an ordinary English class. You would need some way to really get students interest.

    That leads me to my next point. A student will only pay attention to something that is interesting and exciting to them. Teachers are constantly struggling with trying to make education interesting. What I believe works the best is being different from the norm. Even though you may think the history and evolution of American Literature is interesting, your students may think otherwise. (No offense Mr. P)

    Since I'm not an expert in English I'm not sure how to make it interesting. The best advice I can give is to truly make it immersive (Like the students are a real part of what's happening) and to what Mr P said before. Make sure there;s direct feedback to what a student does. If they do good, praise/reward them. If they do bad, tell them how to do better. I think that's what good video games do.

  3. I think it is really cool to learn a language in a fun way. Since I have learned English, my second language, with many songs and pictures, language education games will be good for them and enjoying learning,will bring a effective education! :)

  4. Josh, I think you make such a good point. In the video I posted today about education in the 21st century, Sir Robinson (I like saying that) describes what he calls aesthetic experience. This, he says, is experience in which one's senses are operating at their peak. It is when someone is present in the current moment. I think that is very similar to what you are describing as an immersive experience, and if I am going to take on the model of video games as I construct a learning experience, I definitely think it is one of the most important components.

  5. I don't know. Maybe you can tell from my classes that I'm not convinced that student interest and excitement are necessary for education to take place :)

    That isn't to say I don't try to make my classes interesting: I do. But it's as a courtesy to my students and because I don't want to spend all day in a boring place, not because I think it'll make them learn more.

    I know this perspective is counter-intuitive, but I would love to see a study demonstrating that student interest leads to objectively higher levels of achievement. It seems as likely to me that students are interested in subjects they do well in as that they do well in subjects they are interested in.

    My skepticism here is related to an experience I've had both in teaching and making art, which is that you can feel really engaged and interested in a class at the time but later on realize that not much learning happened, or you can be totally involved in the process of writing or making music but when you later look at what you produced, it's of low quality. I think we have a tendency to assume that experiences which feel good are good for us and those that feel bad are bad for us. I think there are many examples in which this is not the case.

    I also have an argument from history, which is that many of the greatest minds the world produced were educated in systems that were intensely boring by today's standards. At least when you walk into American Lit I don't just hand you the poetry of Walt Whitman and ask you to copy it out by hand for two hours, deducting points for poor penmanship and for speaking in class, which is what I might have done in the 1700s (well, not with Whitman, because he hadn't been born, but you know what I mean).

    Finally, it has a cultural component. In math and science, the US is getting destroyed by countries like India, South Korea, China, and Sweden. The teachers, students, and administrations in these countries place very different emphases on student interest and engagement and yet all are producing better results than the US system. I know it's hard to compare education cross-culturally, but at the very least the example of other school systems should cause us to have doubts about the value of student interest in facilitating learning.

    I'm going to relate this back to video games the next chance I get, but as usual, I have to go run and feed my daughter. I'll just leave with the thought that we would all (teachers, students, parents, administrators) be happiest if our classes were interesting, but that doesn't mean that more learning would happen if they were.

  6. Ok. Once more into the breach.

    Since I'm in a provocative frame of mind, let me throw another provocative statement out there: video games are boring.

    I say this as a person who plays a lot of video games. I've been logging 20 hrs/week on Fallout: New Vegas since I bought it (helps me stay awake when it's my turn to take the baby) and some of my earliest memories are of playing video games: everything from Rogue on my dad's UNIX workstation to Super Mario Bros and Metroid.

    That said, video games are just about the most repetitive, low value way to spend time. Whether you're memorizing button presses, moving around a map achieving mission objectives that are nearly interchangeable, exploring "worlds" with incredibly little variety relative to the real world, or grinding XP on your way from one cut-scene to another, what makes video games enjoyable is not that they are interesting.

    I want to take a second out to say that, yes, there are some games that in various ways go above and beyond the standard fare, but even these, when compared to other experiences rather than just to other video games, are just not very interesting. Sure, Braid has some neat puzzles, Bioshock has a relatively thoughtful story (but it ain't Shakespeare...), and Nethack requires creativity and planning, but I think that any argument that makes grand claims for video games actually misses what makes them work, which is not, I would argue, how immersive they are, but how limited they are.

    Last year Mr. AB brought this article from Cracked to my attention:

    I think it does an awfully good job of discussing how video games turn their limitations and constraints to their advantage.

    This was the article that caused me to consider the ways that the same principles could be applied in the classroom; in my view, the point is NOT that video games show us ways to make our classes more interesting or entertaining, but that they show us ways to get people to do boring things in spite of themselves. That's why I think that the proper application of video game theory to education is to basic skills-building, not to more complex tasks.

  7. I think a simple question to ask yourself would be: what have you REALLY learned from video games? Sure, you've felt a sense of accomplishment and gained game-specific skills. But as far as learning goes, can video games be said to teach anything beyond maybe hand-eye coordination?

  8. Mr.AB, I think that learning English through a video game is a more memorable and efficient way to learn. Because you have fun but at the same time you are learning, and most importantly you remember what you learned because you where having fun. Learning through fun is for me one of the most important and helpful ways to learn especially English, because when people think of English they think on a boring class and they just what to get it over with. But by making the classes fun, people will learn it cheerfully and they would want more of it. I would also enjoy it more because I love to play video games and I have also made other people addicted to video games, so it would be great!

  9. I was thinking, wouldn't it be cool if you could make one personalized level per student? That would be cool, and fun! What some parents don't realize is that video games can be fun AND educational. I guess it depends on which video game, though. Some video games do the exact opposite of teach. It seems that they suck out your brain cells with each level you pass!

  10. Haha! I think Morgan is totally right with what she said about video games and teaching. Mr. AB is an excellent teacher. No matter what, he always teaches his class in a magnificent manner. The idea of comparing a way of teaching class with a video game is great because technology is being used more every single day. The advances computers, the internet, documents, and many more pieces of information are facing nowadays are potentially growing. It seems to me that kids are now more interested in technological media, and less on letters written on a piece of paper. In fact, I would love a class where we would use "academic" video games to learn something new every day, like we usually do.

  11. hmmm, first, Mr. AB, as for me being a gamer, as i really enjoy playing video games, can tell you that you could make things better for students if you let them think in a way they understand. or in an interesting way. people like games because they are interesting, or sometimes just fun. most games have a clear objective, and give you many options to choose from to complete them. i can give you many examples of games people like to play alot, and maybe you can get an idea on why, or maybe take some ideas. online, RTS games, *real time strategy* examples would be: Battledawn, Ikariam, etc. online RTS Games *which you buy would be: Starcraft, Starcraft II, Warcraft, Warcraft II, Warcraft III. RPG Style games: *role play games* World Of Warcraft. games: L.O.L *league of legends* FPS Games: Sudden Attack (SEA, NA, or Korean), Combat Arms (NA, SEA, or Korean), A.V.A. (something of Valiant Arms), and Warrock. all theses games and maybe others are played world-wide with more than 1,000,000 people playing each game.

  12. 2nd, Mr? i think Mr. P, *if i can call you that* sorry*, that would actually depend. games arent actually boring, as many are pretty fun and interesting. some actually might change who you are, from a brat to maybe a philosophical person. also, games, are a interesting thing, as sometimes, people try to say something or point something out. *not the ones of the killing zombies or anything* games are used for many reasons, some are for government propaganda, some are to show the people how creative one can be or how wide space can be, or how the world is becoming nowadays. you never know. also, some games are made so people can experience or play as a soldier in a war or etc. you can also be in a role play of a commander, which would let you build armies and fight against other players. also, some could be made so you know how it is to control a civilization or how hard it is to be a leader. you never know, the reasons of games widely spread and games are not always a waste of time.