How We Learn from Games

Entertainment Software Association did a survey in 2014 which showed that the average age for video gamers is 35 with 44 percent of these being females.  It showed that people are spending more time playing games and less time in other forms of entertainment such as watching TV, going to the movies, or watching movies at home.  Video games have become a multi-billion dollar industry since their development in the 1950s.  Games serve as a major form of entertainment but they can also be used as a tool in schools or businesses for training and learning.  The book Play This Learn That explained that commercial games are particularly good because these games have large budgets and a professional development team that bring layers of richness in a game.  They are ideal for teaching skills and concepts even if that game might be Grand Theft Auto V, which had a production of cost of $265 million and revenues that reached $1 billion in the first three days of its release.  The purpose of this writing is to explain how learning occurs in video games and how it can be used in an educational setting.

Games incorporate well designed principles that are conducive to learning (Puentadura, Game and Learn).  A fundamental principle is that learning occurs through play.  It has an advantage in that it contextualizes the learning. Players are given information and asked to learn and develop skills and concepts and use them as they were designed for the game. Learning is efficient in that it removes the need for extraneous information, which then puts less demand on the  brain to process and absorb new information. James Gee recommended that play be done first and follow that with content information related to the topic.  With minimal instructions, many online games follow this recommendation because much of the game mechanics can be learned through play.  When content related to the game is presented, players understand and apply the information more effectively.

In video games learning occurs gradually.  When a player encounters a new game, the brain is like a blank slate to take in, organize, and use information. As players gain more experience, new knowledge is gained by integrating and applying it with existing knowledge and skills. John D. Bransford stated that when there is a continuous building of knowledge, learners become experts in a subject. Experts share a pattern in the way they organize information and the thinking process used to analyze situations and solve problems. They  use their extensive knowledge, experience, and reasoning to recall knowledge in a manner that’s most useful for a particular situation. The same cognitive process can apply to games.  In chess, experts know in advance through recognition the different move possibilities that an opponent will likely make based on the way that the pieces are set up. Having extensive knowledge allows a gamer to reorganize the information in their brain so that they divert more attention on learning new patterns, skills, and unfamiliar situations because existing knowledge has been over learned.  It’s a method used by novices to reach expertise.  Researchers claimed that it would take about 10,000 hours to reach this level.

Games promote learning by adjusting it to the player’s pace and interest. Players come from different backgrounds in reference to game experiences and abilities in learning, and as a result they learn the mechanics at varying rates and a learning path that’s uniquely individual. Games give players choices, and they can spend as much as needed to develop and master particular skills or comprehend information. In the game Modern Combat 5 players are presented with a landing page that is loaded with information.  These include different stats, methods for playing, promotional events for a variety of categories, and customization.  Through choice and play,  players personalize the learning and begin to understand the functions, characteristics, advantages and disadvantages.

Landing Page – Modern Combat 5

Learning through games occurs through repetition. Games are special in that they are able to take a repetitive action and make it interesting or less noticeable through tools and techniques.  One is to use variable patterns, which allow the gaming experience to be different and challenging even if players re-play the same game or level.  Tetris is a good example where changing the shapes’ position and rotation affects play and outcome. Simulation and strategy games are also good.  These games allow players to plan and manipulate different variables leading players to a unique path to reach the end goal. In Clash of Clans players must consider the best methods for managing their budget and resources for building their offense and defense to battle other clans.  Having multiple variables increases the complexity and makes the patterns less predictable.  The unpredictability makes the game more engaging and one of the reasons why multiplayer mode online is popular.

Game designers graduate the level of difficulty.  The game starts out easy but it requires players to develop and overcome new  skills and challenges. Completing these impel the players to play on as result of a sense of satisfaction from reaching their objective.  In addition, they are rewarded through such things as points, bonuses, and gifts.  These can also be used as a way to monitor their progress, which can further serve as motivation to practice and learn.  Chapter 2 of Modern Combat 5 has 4 missions with the following skills to achieve:

Mission 1: complete the mission, score 3 headshots, score a multi-kill (explosives)
Mission 2: complete the mission, use a scout drone, score 5 headshots
Mission 3: complete the mission, score 5 headshots, 60% shot accuracy
Mission 4: complete the mission, kill the executioner (boss), score 2 multi-kills

Players are awarded a star after completing a skill.  These are accumulated to unlock the new chapters of the game.  Experience points and weapon points are also awarded to unlock special skills for a particular class of soldiers and weapon customization.  These serve as rewards and they play a significant part in getting players to practice and improve their skills.  In one YouTube video a player expressed his frustration because Gameloft (developer of Modern Combat 5) had lost all his data, which meant he would need to reinvest his hard work and time.

Multimedia technologies are essential to video games for several reasons. They help to tell the story by giving players audio and visual references to make connections in the game. They stimulate the senses using a blend of colors, images, visual, audio effects, and music to add layers of complexity to enhance gameplay. And in combination with the game mechanics, they can have an emotional impact on a gamer and thus make the activity enjoyable.  In Modern Combat 5 players may feel excitement, tension, relief, and fear. A player may be moving his character in stealth mode and all of sudden total chaos engulfs the senses through explosions and gunfire to startle and excite players. Tension can be created by not knowing if the enemy is coming from the left, right, or back. Games activate particular regions of the brains with chemicals like adrenaline and dopamine, which explains why some people are addicted to them (BrainHex).

Layering a story adds to the gameplay and allows players to take on the role of a character. It contextualizes the game and makes it more meaningful. The depth of the story depends on the game but unlike books, it allows players to interact and make decisions as a character. Games can have multiple outcomes and even allow co-creation of a story. Researchers at the Pericles Group stated that role play allows players to learn through situated cognition by being and thinking like the character.  When players are immersed in a story through role play, it preoccupies the brain so that repetition is not as noticeable. The virtual world of Mysts of Eyr in Second Life is an example of an in-depth role playing game.  The site provides a supplemental website that explains the background of the island and how the competing factions became a part of the it.  Participants are instructed on the rules of role play that are specific to the world but also on the general rules. Players interact both in character and out of character.  The role play here is more advanced because players create the characters, its attributes, and interactions that are unscripted. This means that players use the game as a medium to communicate with each other in character. Traditional video games do not do this.

As a communication tool Second Life emphasizes socialization. Members can explore multiple virtual worlds that are both realistic and imaginary and along the way chat and befriend others that they meet. Friends can collaborate and participate in virtual worlds together. They can split up to gather information to share later on for discussions.  Like many traditional games, video games are a social activity.  Not only is it more interesting to play with other people, they can also learn from each other. The internet has expanded this possibility so that gamers can play together from different parts of the world 24 hours a day.  Players set up communities to make teams and learn from one another.  Users can expand their learning and connect to additional resources on the internet to further explore topics.  It reinforces the idea of learning a topic based on personal interest and pace but also in making learning a social activity.

Finally there’s motivation which acts as driving force to learn and improve, and thus determines outcome. John Keller talked about motivation in terms of attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction (ARCS).  These principles apply in games but differently as a result of Kelley’s theory on motivation being based on instructional learning while games are normally thought of as a recreational activity. Motivation in games are relevant because it determines the amount of time and effort a player puts into it.

Many of us have fond memories and positive associations with games and  so the idea of playing a game is receptive.  Leisure time is when we connect socially with family and friends and as result people value and are likely to have an interest in games (video games, board games, sports, party games, etc.).  Like many commercial products, video games are brought to our attention through peers, advertisements, and reviews.  Kelly described relevance as usefulness and having a need.  In context of a school, is a subject worthwhile to learn?  If the answer is yes, it creates motivation.  Some schools do implement games as part of the curriculum, and in those situations they could be examined using the criteria outlined by Kelley (Kelley ARCS and Play This Learn That). Games, normally thought of as entertainment, do not have a need because they are an optional activity. Instead a game’s usefulness is determined by its gameplay and preferences. Games have different categories, which require players to think and react in different ways. Playing a game and having the desire to continue determines it’s usefulness. Game designers help players gain confidence by gradually increasing the level of difficulty. As players complete missions and develop skills this increases.  Satisfaction is gained by a number of different factors including game design, gameplay, and making progress.  If the game becomes boring or too difficult, then motivation to play will stop.

Two important factors, not mentioned in Kelley’s ARCS, are competition and the desire to win.  These two aspects of motivation drove Kobe Bryant to practice shooting all day the day after he missed the winning shot of a playoff game.  When there’s an end goal to be the best in a craft, it fuels effort, and it’s during this period that players assess, develop skills, make mistakes, and learn.  It’s a cyclical process until the player reaches the end goal, which then gives players confidence, pride, and satisfaction.  The fact that video games are a social activity with a concept of winning and losing and embedded with tools to measure progress, competition and the desire to win is a logical consequence.  If a player decides not to compete or win, it may be that the ideal game has not been found or the player has accepted defeat.

Games and Education: Learning that occurs in games is similar to many other disciplines. It occurs through experience by applying the knowledge, tools, and skills into an authentic or simulated context. It takes hours of practice to develop expertise and much of this is driven by motivation.  Many of the underlying principles found in games are also in an education system and so games can serve as an effective tool for learning.  Fletcher and Tobias reviewed 42 research papers which showed positive outcomes for a number of educational goals.  These included facilitating performance and learning, positive effects on cognitive processes, and transfer of skills into real-life tasks (Puentadura, Game and Education). A high school teacher in Connecticut changed his Latin class into a year-long alternative reality game.  Their mission was to role play, locate an ancient Latin book, and translate the text that was needed to save the world today. (Game-based Learning).

When using games for an educational context, one should consider the learning objectives or standards and see how the game could address those requirements.  This could be done through tangential learning and direct learning. Direct learning is knowledge gained from playing the game.  In Modern Combat 5 students learn about the different classes of soldiers such as: assault, recon, and heavy (fire power).  They read about the specifications used to rate weapons and the add-on features for customization. They can test the weapons in different urban environments to learn about their advantages and disadvantages.  These can serve as the basis for further analysis and cooperative learning and play.  One idea is to use the game mode capture the flag and  have groups of students form a squad and play against each other.  To add realism, students would not be allowed to respawn after death.  Prior to starting, students could study the map to plan and strategize their offense and defense.  To supplement this with tangential learning a teacher could prepare resources that students could view on tactics for entering a rooms and methods for covering teammates in combat zones. Students could read about the U.S. war in Afghanistan and examine a case study of a mission to get additional insights from the perspective of a soldier on aspects of the combat not covered in the game. Through the experience students can reflect and discuss their findings and extend their learning either organized by the teacher or intrinsically.

Additional Resources:

Game Index: site dedicated on methods for using commercial games for learning

Plague Inc. for learning: lesson plans to developed for second language learners to build skills in TOEFL and skills.





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