Games Can Be The Textbook, But A Teacher Is Still Essential

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.

Is “Good” Design Worse for Everyone?

 (A personal background note:  I was raised by an engineer and a linguist. Two persistent frustrations I face in life are poor design decisions and misuse of language.)

As we design technologies to be more “user-friendly,” we demand less of the user. This means the user needs less knowledge to use the product. Those who used computers in the 1970s-1990s needed some measure of understanding of the computer to use it. In today’s point-and-click interfaces, everyone can use the computer without understanding a thing about how it works. This is the kind of democratization that leads to ignorance.

There are two ways to open something up democratically: 1) Elevate the populace to meet the entry standards, 2) Lower the entry standards so that more people can meet them in the people’s current state. The enthusiastic talk about how digital technologies democratize is not necessarily encouraging because it is often another way of saying that people need to know less in order to participate. All that means is the average participant is more ignorant.  The great hope is that digital technologies can be used to challenge and educate the populace rather than to coddle and welcome their ignorance.

The Premise is Always Implicit- So is Every Possible Premise.

Something that makes people suspicious about soft sciences is that they are largely constructed by observing some data and then crafting a story to explain what is observed. “Why did people vote this way in the election? Why did consumers buy those products? Why does this man feel an aversion to bodies of water?” What troubles some people is that there are often multiple plausible explanations for a poorly understood, vaguely or partially observed phenomenon.

The same troubling reasoning is the same reason some writing is unclear. Good (but not great) writers often omit their premises and get straight to the interesting parts of the argument, such as the conclusion or the response to the conclusion. They often feel that their basic premises are implicit within their writing, so it is a patronizing waste of time to explicate fundamental principles which seem obvious. However, while it is true that for any valid reasoning, the premises are always implicit in the conclusion, it is also true that all possible premises are potentially implicit until the field of premises is restricted and identified.

In claiming that “Abu should not have murdered Igor,” I may well be resting on premises that murder is morally and legally wrong. If Abu provided materials for Igor’s suicide, I may be further employing a premise that Abu’s actions constituted murder. It may seem so obvious to me that Abu murdered Igor that I jump to the evaluation of that action. The premise that Abu, in fact, murdered Igor may not be so obvious to my audience.

The trouble is that there are some premises that we take as so fundamental that they do not need to be explained or discussed. However, that set of fundamental axioms is slightly different for each of us. Conveying information (say, in the business world) can be difficult when we aren’t sure how much the audience/recipient already knows.

Five Practical Lessons From League of Legends

1) Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts. At least weekly, I see a game won by the team with fewer kills—and sometimes with fewer turrets. Often, I hear players with the most kills on their team assert their excellence at the game as they deride others (often on their own team) with fewer kills. Yet there is no record kept of who bought the most wards. There is no quantification for ward placement turning games around, or the timing of a stun that won a teamfight. Stats are fun to look at, but they can never tell the full story. Despite the fact that the game is played on a program based on mathematical algorithms with pre-specified parameters, the experience cannot be reduced back to numbers and raw data.

2) Five Ingenious, Great Plans are a disaster; One Moderately Good Plan is usually a Victory. Some of my worst gaffs have occurred when I have had the most specific, clear plans in my mind—and when the rest of my team had their own specific, clear plans, too. It is not rare enough that one person wants to retreat while the other leaps in to attack while another feels it is important to sneak around for an ambush from the side, etc. Each plan is clever and well-reasoned, but each ends in disaster because everyone is carefully trying to execute their own incompatible plans.

3) It is easier to tell people that they “suck and should uninstall” rather than provide any useful, helpful advice. People talk a lot about being “team players” with “communication skills” on resumes and in interviews 90% of the time. These skills are actually displayed in LoL about 10% of the time. Proper, useful, effective communication is more difficult than people think. Expressing displeasure is easy (most teens, even children, know a good collection of four-letter-words—for that matter, even babies can cry). Being helpful, constructive, and positive is a real skill that takes effort and thought and does not come easily or naturally to most people-especially if they feel frustrated or discouraged at the time. Games in which teammates encourage and build one another up are both more enjoyable and more likely to result in victory than games in which players focus on one another’s failings. Despite the fact that everyone knows there is a post-game chat available in which you can spend hours dissecting and analyzing and blaming, people would prefer to do that in-game while trying to play. It is no accident that directors and coaches give notes on how to improve after a performance or competition. League of Legends reinforces the value of saving some feedback for later.

4) Trajectory Is Predictive. Most games are won or lost in Champion Select: if people are arguing and fighting each other before the game starts, there is a good chance there won’t be good teamwork in the game. Once the game starts, if things start to look bad early (maybe with a few early kills against us), they will get worse if frustrated players spend more time blaming than playing. (Press BLAME to lose.) The larger lesson is to remain focused on working towards goals and not allow yourself to be completely derailed by setbacks.

5) We play for the Experience, not the Outcome. I like victories, sure. But what makes the game fun is the experiences that happen within the game. I really don’t remember my wins and losses, but I remember the time I was Garen and I chased Vayne all over her jungle with her entire team in pursuit, and how my heart was actually pounding by the time I caught up to her and ended her 23-streak killing spree. I remember the time I was Nidalee and I ran an entire lap around the map while getting chased, juking in and out of brush. I remember wining a 1v1 against a Caitlyn as Nami, and how excited and proud I was to win that underdog fight. There are dozens more of such memories. There have been plenty of games I’ve won, but still felt annoyed or frustrated or bored: winning doesn’t mean the experience was satisfying. And I’ve had plenty of losses that I would happily play again because the game was just fun, whether because my team was a lot of laughs to play with, or I had a really cool play I was proud of, or something else that made it a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

What should I do with all these books?

 I have amassed a small library of books over the years. I relocate and travel often. Also, I have more books than I have the time to read (especially as the list of books grows longer while my time grows shorter). Quite simply: I just can’t read all of them! Especially because I can hardly read more than 5 pages at a time before I get too involved in the ideas and want to put the book down and go think about what I’ve read.  I have to wonder: Would it even be worth it if I could read all of them? What would I gain from reading them? Do I really need to keep them- won’t we have digitized copies of pretty much all works soon enough? (And they might be ctrl+F searchable!) I want the knowledge in those books, certainly, but I ask: 1) Is that knowledge really worth the effort required to get it?  If it is a work in the subject of technology (comprising a large chunk of my library), books over 5 years old feel outdated and quaint- and possibly no longer correct. 2) If reading is no longer worth the effort, how can I improve my mind and expand my knowledge? What should I read instead? How shall I learn and grow?

My mother (a baby boomer) recently told me that she felt an increasing alienation from books as they move onto digital formats that are foreign to her and difficult for her to use. She feels some sense of growing illiterate- of leaving half a century of enjoying many, many books, into a future where reading is difficult, arduous labor once again. Academics sometimes talk about “digital literacy,” but they often mean being able to comfortably use digital technology to achieve goals. Digital literacy might be taking on a new meaning as we become a world in which merely knowing words and having a background in literature is no longer enough to “read.” What a paradox: for the tools supposed to help us grasp information to alienate us from knowledge!