Games in the Classroom 7–game mechanics for creating learning
22 Aug 2007

Games in the Classroom 7–game mechanics for creating learning

One of the big ideas from 6.0

22 Aug 2007

slide3.JPGOne of the big ideas from 6.0 was that kids are not naturally good at complex games. They often have the time, resources, but they do not always have the guidance of a mentor. Many kids are playing games designed by adults for adults. This is good and bad. Good in that the adult games have some complex problems and require some really deep thinking; bad in that they may just be provocative on their content without having very good game play. The point is, kids learn through play and our games are often cultural tools to transfer knowledge, develop skills, and get them ready to become adults. What we try to do as educators is pretty much the same. So why have we stepped away from using games?

But not just any games. The kinds of games that require some flexibility in problem solving are the ones I am most interested in. By looking at these games we can consider some of the elements that might inform how we engage students in well-designed instruction.

Games have not changed much.

There are some different genres now, and computers take much of the computation out of the complex games that we would have played in small groups. You can now play Risk, Monopoly, D & D, and stat sheet baseball all on the computer.

But what makes games fun are the same some core elements that have always been there.

The reason I have them in this order is that the first games I have seen my toddlers engage in is imaginative play. Is imaginative play a game? The kids take the toys and do what they do. Making sounds and telling us stories about what is happening; they put pillows under the table and make a race car. This is really productive learning. It is modeling and practicing what they see in the world. So perhaps imaginative play is not a game from the perspective of a formal definition, but it is often at the root of games with narratives.

Games with narratives are important for passing on cultural and professional knowledge.

But some games do not always have narratives. Cribbage does not have a narrative, neither does kick ball.

The big idea is that some games have these elements and some do not. But games can be a model for developing culturally valued skills, or for entering worlds of story and preparing for the development of competencies. What would happen if you explained to your kids that chess was a model for practicing battlefield tactics? Games are often representative of some abstracted system. In chess, you don’t have all of the details that make war tedious, like supply lines, morale, weather. But what you do have is a formalized system that necessitates strategy, resource management, and creative tool use. In addition, one must use the imagination to visualize all of the potential moves your opponent might do to counter. This kind of predictive play is the same kind method Einstein used in his thought experiment for Special Relativity.

When we think of this first step, we need to remember that play and games are powerful tools that take the facts, often conveyed in a lecture of from a text, and ask us to interact with them as processes and contexts. This potentially offers opportunities to develop deeper and more flexible knowledge of the system being described, rather than just memorizing it. Science can be taught this way, and so can literature and any other content area that has methods of inquiry. What you are doing is when you create games is the creation of models of the world and then modifying them to explore, fantasize, escape, and maybe try on a new identity.

Einstein used this same tool for imagining special relativity! The point of this taxonomy is not to place value in the sequence, but I have noticed that each one seems to build into the next for adding complexity. Imaginative games seem to come early.

As kids imagine their play, they often begin to take on the roles and identities of who they are imitating. They eventually learn that there are rules that come with roles, i.e., white hat cowboys don’t rustle horses, or the rules are made up for new variations as they play—as in, “No, you can’t do that. You are the baby, I’m the mommy “, or “let’s turn the submarine into a spaceship.”

These possible worlds are powerful.

And as children progress with age, we start to see them playing more formalized games developed in our cultures, like board games, signifying, soccer, kick the can, rapping, and telephone. Games are beginning to gain structure here with rules, and from here they can become somewhat complicated when we add elements that create uncertainty like branching, new rules, and probability. These more advanced games may provide the kid of habits of mind that can deliver the kind of complex problem solving many of today’s careers demand. Life is not always as you would expect. This is what I am hoping we begin to embrace in our lesson designs.

This is where games like D & D and other adventure and role playing games come in. They are built on the idea that given a certain situation, rules and roles will create certain contexts, and there might be a variety of solutions. Oddly enough, games develop this complexity very early on for kids. Just recall Chutes and Ladders®. In it there was a board squares and you moved in the squares in a linear or straightforward process. You probably know that the spinner brings luck in, but what makes the game more than just a horse race is the fact that are rules built into the board too. If you land on a chute, you might be sent back; if you land on a ladder, you might accelerate forward several levels on the path.

The importance of this is that there are many ways through a game. The elements of branching and probability demand this variable experience. When you add other elements like the way Monopoly has squares on the game board where you have to take a card like Chance or Community Cents, or you have to pay rent on some one’s land or hotel, or you decide to buy it, you have to adapt and act.

What this is leading to is games and designing classroom instruction can be very similar in their approach. A key to making it playful is allowing for non-linearity—that is uncertainty. Knowing that people may experience and play in different ways, and that people like this.

Do you have a lesson where the kids can make it different but just as good? The assessments can reflect the way games guide play through criteria and structure. The key is creating some latitude in how you evaluate the final product.

Things teacher should think about:

Games and lesson plans can be designed with the same elements.

Uncertainty can be stressful, but the right amount can be exciting.

Complex games have complex problems. You may have to have do overs.

Complex games often utilize all of the elements of listed in the taxonomy in different combinations and permutations, thus demanding the player to understand the problem and react on the spot. If they don’t get it, they can try again. If they are good problems, kids will persist and seek solutions.

There can be many solutions to a problem. It is good to allow for many approaches, even if this takes more time. These alternative explanations allow for greater variety of solutions, creativity, and flexible thinking.

Leave a comment
More Posts
  1. Justin Parsler August 22nd, 2007 5:10PM

    Hi, I am new to these pages, having been lured here by Brock posting on Gamesnetwork. I am a games studies postgrad at Brunel University (London) and, as of this September, will be teaching games design to MA students.

    Have you all read ‘What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy’ by James Paul Gee? This is a great work and covers most of the ‘games in education’ basics. I say ‘basics’ without intending to be rude, because games studies is still in its infancy, and basics needed covering.There has been a lot of work done in the games studies field but, because it is all still so new, people tend to assume that ‘nothing’ has been done. Well worth checking out what is available, starting with the title above (allthough, of course, you might all have read it).

    We(I include myself out of games studies solidarity, though I do not use games in education, I teach how to design games) are now at the stage of having proven(at least, to anyone who will ever be convinced) that games can be used to teach, as long as they are used sensibly and part of a body of work. There are several companies offering games solutions for corporate training.

    I firmly believe there will be games as part of every teaching curriculum within ten years. The two biggest barriers seem to be:

    1. Students don’t think they are learning when they are playing games.
    2. Teachers are resistant to using games in the classroom.

    This in itself is a matter of education: games are perceived as trivial and pointless. They can be both of those things, but they can also be a very positive educational force. People need to be convinced of that.


  2. Dan August 23rd, 2007 2:13AM

    Perhaps it is in designing games that students can make the biggest journey. Not only can they engage in creative writing but they also question the issues of rules and non-linearity, and ultimately want to make something exciting and challenging for each other. Many games have toolsets that will enable this (albeit some take a lot of skill/knowledge and wouldn’t be useful to lower age groups).

    Non-linearity is (in my experience) a holy grail that rarely delivers in games. Baldur’s Gate 2 was pretty good, with a wide choice of character combinations in your party there was so much humour and many different quests that the game had lots of freshness on each replay. Other games deliver different endings but too often it comes down to a final choice at the end of the game, what you’ve done previously doesn’t matter. A game due out quite soon (I think) is The Witcher which promises not to make the impact of your choices immediate, thus you are forced to make a decision and might only see the ramifications an hour or two later. This could be very powerful and avoid reloading your last save (of 30 seconds ago) to ensure you mske optimal choices. Indeed I believe the view of the Witcher is that the choices won’t be particularly optimal anyway, they’ll just be different. We’ll have to wait and see what is delivered there, the danger is that the decision-making proves inconsequential.

    Chess is a marvellous example for many things. One excellent game that is sometimes compared (at a strategic level) to chess is Laser Squad Nemesis. It’s a squad-level turn-based strategy game played on an isometric map (or rather, one of many). Different units, much like different chess pieces, can do different things, and only through mastering them as a united force can you master the game. It can be played head to head and comes with a very simple map editor.

  3. Frost June 25th, 2009 2:02AM

    What is your definition of a game mechanic, as it seems what you are pointing out are not a mechanics, but elements in games. Also a clear outline of these elements would help the discussion of these, as it is very vague. Interesteing nevertheless.