Only a villain would argue against the education of children, as a social policy. But despite all of the arguments about which curriculum is best or how to approach learning or education as an institution, there is little debate given to the fundamental issue of why we educate our young, and what it means to educate them. Presumably, it has something to do with nurturing or cultivating their intelligence. There are different theories of intelligence, different theories about the importance of intelligence, and different theories about how to increase intelligence. Some people also think that “increasing intelligence” is the goal of teaching. How we interpret the educational value of games reveals a lot about how we think these concepts (“teaching,” “learning,” “education,” “intelligence,” etc.) work.
Many of the educational games I played as a child were terrible. Not only did they fail to amuse or delight, but they also did a bad job of teaching me anything. Games can serve to educate both as the instructor and as the text. In the first case, we learn by playing the game alone. In the second case, we learn by sharing the experience of the game—often, by teaching it (or debating the method of play).
1) Games Teaching Us: Learning From Games
As Tycho put it: All games teach—it’s just a question of what they teach. Games can teach on three levels. At the surface, the strict content of the game is educational. Most of the “Educational” “Games” I’ve played are terrible because they think this is the only level at which learning can occur. A game can take, as its subject, biochemistry or European history, and present a great deal of material in an interesting, interactive way. However, games are generally more fun when they are more than merely clicking to turn the page of a storybook (though the storybook can be quite good). At the second level, games teach through the mode of interaction. This is the level of puzzles, challenges, and problems. This level requires observation, data processing, critical thinking, and everything else that games are nearly universally good for emphasizing. Often, playing a game at a high level requires excellence at these skills, and the best players will focus, carefully and deliberately, on honing these abilities. The third level is more personal, emotional, and meta. Games can be the medium through which we learn about patience, creativity, teamwork, persistence, and ultimately our own strengths and weaknesses. Each of these three levels connects with at least one serious theory about intelligence, and can cause students to develop transferable skills and mental prowess to be used outside of the game.
2) Sharing Games with Others: Learning From Ourselves
Inspirational posters have told me that people learn best the material that they teach to others. Those fuzzy animals may or may not have scientific backing for their claim, but it seems to be true in my experience. One reason may be that I have to think carefully about what I know in order to articulate or demonstrate it to my pupil. In the case of games, I have to think about how I execute a maneuver or why I make a particular decision. Sometimes, the teaching is more of a group therapy session—such as talking about horrible trolls and teammates after a game of League of Legends. The social interactions of games teach us valuable tools for interpersonal connection, both as we come in conflict with adversaries and as we communicate constructively with allies.
Conclusion: Gamification requires an excellent instructor.
There is an emerging trend in education called “gamification.” Skeptics assert that this is just an excuse for kids to be lazy and play mind-rotting, violent games in place of going to school. I think the best approach for learning through games involves incorporating them into a larger discussion and seriously reflecting on the experience of playing (or teaching) the game. Because games involve processing data, problem solving, and some social dimension (e.g., competition and/or cooperation), games are poised to be an excellent tool for education and instruction—if, and only if, their powers for holding the focus and attention of the pupils can be harnessed and directed by a skilled teacher.