Gaming and Learning

As a fledgling educator, I am very much interested in exploring teaching practices that can help make my classes seem less like “work” and more like “play” (both for my students and for myself!).  Although turning one’s classroom into a kind of “playground” might make some educators rather uneasy, the research does seem clear:  incorporating elements of play into the teaching/learning process greatly increases learning outcomes. Whether it be Prof. Smale’s Game On for Information Literacy card game, the University of Texas at Austin’s computer game Rhetorical Peaks (a mod of the game engine for Neverwinter Nights, adapted to teach students basic rhetorical concepts), or Lee Sheldon’s experiment in “gamifying” the entire structure of his class, each of these examples paved the way for a much higher level of student engagement. In fact, it could be said that, by trying out such experiments, we as educators begin to erode the binary categories of “playing” and “working” altogether, for nearly all games ask us to do things that would be considered “work” if we were required to do them in any other context.

I think Erica Kaufman poses a very important, fundamental question: how do we get our students to really be interested in their own learning? Aside from her attempts at using Makey Makey to inject interest in the writing process (which does indeed sound like a great deal of fun), I think she implicitly points out one of the main roots of student disinterest when she notes that in an environment where students are perpetually “on some kind of rubric quest,” interest can become secondary to grades and credit-mongering. This is one problem that I think games and play can directly respond to, at least in the structure of our classes. When one is playing a game, for instance, what you’re doing in the game doesn’t typically matter “outside” the domain of the game itself.  In other words, there are no “real” consequences to your actions in the game. One of the problems with tradtional pedagogy is just the reverse: it matters all too much.  An incredible pressure is placed upon college students to succeed and “achieve.” But by incorporating elements of play into our pedagogical approach, we could allow our students a sort of “zone of no consequence” wherein they could learn freely and without the counterproductive pressure and stress.

Although I could continue for quite some time to promote the benefits of bringing gaming into the classroom, I do want to note a potential obstacle that has lately occurred to me. As we know, any good and engaging game requires us to learn as we play, such that playing the game is equivalent to learning it. We learn what we need to by interacting with the system and seeing it evolve, instead of just being told everything at the beginning. Although this game design principle works very well for keeping players engaged, and could plausibly be adapted as a guiding principle for classroom learning, there could be some downsides to this as well. As Kahdeidra pointed out in a recent class, sometimes students simply aren’t told enough. Many students will go through their entire college careers not being told the important, practical things they need to learn. The “fend for yourself” attitude of gaming and the need to provide students with appropriate guidance should therefore be carefully balanced.

In general, I think gaming creates some very exciting new possibilities for our teaching practices.  However, these possibilities should be not be limited only to the classroom environment.  I think it also very important that we use what we learn from gaming to identify problems that arise at the administrative and institutional levels, for perhaps it is there that we could effect the greatest change.



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