Gaming as Teaching Tool

At Educause, one technologist says the games that normally distract students from schoolwork could provide an ideal model for course design.
October 15, 2010

ANAHEIM — All work and no play makes a dull syllabus.

That is what Sarah Smith-Robbins, director of emerging technologies at the Indiana University at Bloomington, told a somewhat wary audience here at the 2010 Educause conference on Thursday. “Games are absolutely the best way to learn,” she said. “They are superior to any other instructional model.”

Smith-Robbins prefaced her remarks by reminding the audience that she was taking an intentionally strong position in order to stoke debate. But she nevertheless argued that games — as simple as tag or as complex as World of Warcraft — can accomplish an array of teaching goals that more traditional pedagogy says it wants to achieve, but often does not.

“Fundamentally, school is already a game,” she said. “It’s just a really bad one. The rules are not clear. The system works better for some people than for others. Not everybody has the same resources at the beginning of the game. We don’t start on a level playing field or with a shared goal.”

Using games, whether within a single course or across a curriculum, helps iron out these inconsistencies and motivate students, argued Smith-Robbins. Compare a typical course — particularly one where assessment is subjective — to a game like Chutes and Ladders, she said. “When you land on one of those slides, you go down. Everybody sees you go down, you know exactly what happened, you know why it happened. There’s no, ‘This game hates me, it just doesn’t like my ideas.’ It’s simple.”

Further, students are more likely to learn from their mistakes in games, since the stakes are lower than they are with, say, exams. Gamers often get multiple opportunities to try similar challenges over again if they fail. This makes students more apt to reflect on feedback and work through mistakes, Smith-Robbins said. Like practice problems — only, you know, fun.

The point of Smith-Robbins’s presentation was not to prove that gaming is a superior method of learning, but rather that good course design and good game design are based on the same factors: fair rules, clear goals, fair rules, and strong incentives to learn from errors and develop the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful. Judging by how many students choose games over coursework, it would appear course designers might have something to learn from game designers.

But some were skeptical. “What about efficiency?” asked one audience member. How can professors, teach students everything they need to learn in 15 short weeks via low-stakes, presumably time-consuming games?

Smith-Robbins argued that a well-designed game should in fact allow students to move through lessons more quickly. Most courses, she said, are taught in chunks that only make sense to students in retrospect. In a game, the skills are learned in a context that makes them seem less discrete and more like intuitive steps toward an explicit goal. “So you don’t have to artificially put things in groups of common topics, or by chapters in a book,” she said. “You can break them up into an order than makes sense to the learner, so they can soak them up as quickly as they can.”

Another big concern was whether the rigid rules and objectives inherent to gaming might stifle creativity in the classroom. This was a challenge Smith-Robbins said she and her co-panelists faced when running a decidedly meta pre-conference session earlier in the week, in which they made a game of teaching others how to design classroom games. “One of the hardest things that we had to confront in designing that game was that we wanted to allow the players to be extremely creative, but because we couldn’t anticipate what they could do, we couldn’t figure out how to evaluate that within the games system,” she said. The experiment was a failure.

But what if creativity was the key to winning? There are plenty of games like that — such as Pictionary, or Charades — where there is a goal, but no prescribed path toward achieving it, Smith-Robbins said. A classroom-based game might be designed such that creativity is rewarded, not stifled, she said.

Not every student or course is ideal for gaming, Smith-Robbins said, but there are plenty of courses and curriculums out there that could benefit from games — or at least some of the principles that make games so appealing. “We could certainly do with a dose of play in school, period,” she said. “I hope games can do that. But if we can get the playfulness without the games, that would be an improvement in and of itself.”

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