Learning the Right Lessons from Video Games

Screenshot from Lara Croft Go (iOS)

The idea of using games to improve education isn’t new. But over the past decade and change, it seems that interest in things like “gamification,” “game-based learning,” and related terms has been spreading, both in and outside of education. Take a look at these Google search trends to get a taste.

"Gamification" search trends since 2004.

“Gamification” search trends since 2004.

As Dan Meyer rightly points out, though, most attempts to “gamify” education are taking the wrong lessons from video games. In math education in particular, Dan points out some of these well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided attempts:

They import leaderboards, badges, customized avatars, timed competitions, points, and many other stylistic elements from video games.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These elements certainly might provide a sense of entertainment, competition, or urgency in contexts where these feelings typically feel absent. But for some of us who study games and learning, these attempts at surface-level gamification fall short of what Dan calls the more substantial elements of games. In a recent post, Dan hits on a big one – the idea of a (well-designed) game interpreting and responding to player’s actions. And at a talk in 2014, he highlighted a few other big ideas.

A few years before the gamification craze really started taking off, James Paul Gee outlined a number of key principles (36 to be exact) that videogames can teach us about learning in general, and literacy learning in particular. Full disclosure: this was the book that inspired me to apply for doc school, and Jim eventually served on my diss committee.

Inspired by Jim and Dan, as well as the work many other amazing folks in the field, I wanted to share a quick take on lessons from videogames that might help us improve our teaching. Echoing a caveat of Jim’s, it’s important to remember that videogames are not the only places these lessons can be found; they are often just very good examples of them. I first discussed these ideas with a group of high school students visiting our university last week for a local conference. What follows is a version of that talk.

1. Design for good learning, then get out of the way.

Starting screen of Super Mario Bros. (NES)

The starting screen of Super Mario Bros. (NES) Where is the tutorial text?

The first lesson we talked about was the power of good design as part of good teaching. And the example we drew from was the level design of the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Anyone who plays video games today might note the complete lack of guiding text, walk-through, or video tutorials on starting the game up. And yet, by virtue of the game’s design, we as players can figure out our own answers to questions like “What can I do?” “Where do I go next?” “What happens if I touch that block?” “What’s with these things with the angry faces?” New elements are introduced over time, and any many new wonderings that come up are pretty quickly answered.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be trying to help our students when they run into difficulties in the classroom. Nor is it to say that learning is an automatic, magical state of being that only we, as teachers, can lure students into. The important point is that the more time and effort we can put into really aligning what we want students to get out of a lesson or experiences, the ways we might interpret how they’re doing, and the resources they might draw on for support, the less we’ll have to explicitly hand-hold them through our lessons. In other words, the better we design, the less helpful we need to be. Will we have to explain things sometimes? Absolutely. But we might want to re-think when students need the whole walk-through, or just a nudge in the right direction.

2. Provide feedback that moves learners forward.

Screen from the original Angry Birds game.

Feedback loops in Angry Birds don’t just say “Do better” but actually give us the opportunity to try again and again.

Again, not a lesson unique to videogames, but one that is clearly illustrated in games like Angry Birds, as Dan has pointed out in the past. Like the stars and points in Angry Birds, school grades or test scores provide some feedback about progress. Comments from teachers on essays and projects might even provide more granular levels of feedback.

But what often sets games like Angry Birds apart from most assessment systems in education is the option to apply that feedback immediately and try for success no matter how many misses we might rack up. Players in Angry Birds can experience what went right or wrong, as part of this assessment loop. They get a rating that helps them fine-tune their understanding of these experiences, at least from the game’s perspective. And, most importantly, they get the chance to try again. Now, what might we do to put our students in a similar position?

3. Use simplicity to push toward complexity.

Screenshot from Lara Croft Go (iOS)

Lara Croft Go (iOS) starts of deceptively simple, but just a few levels later…

After probably way too much time spent geeking out on the virtues of Lara Croft Go (iOS), the students and I finally sat down for a playthrough to learn our final lesson of the day. Of course, there are tons of different ways to talk about helping learners move from the simple to the complex. For Ido Portal, it’s the “chemistry model” of breaking down the “atoms” of a physical skill, then building more complex “molecules” of movement patterns and skills. For Jim, it’s the principles of “simplified subset” and “incremental generalization.” Whatever we call it, good teaching comes down to really figuring out the basic fundamental “building blocks” of our domain, be it Algebra, essay writing, or historical analysis, and supporting students understanding how those fundamental understandings can be applied in more complex situations.

In the world of Lara Croft Go, we can see this in the increasing complexity of the level design, which starts with just a few simple elements – movement tracks, switches, and pitfalls – and soon leads to head-scratching puzzles and the deep satisfaction of solving them. In the educational world of content standards, textbooks, and pre-packaged programs, it can be tougher to help students find the signal in the noise. But the closer to we get as teachers to separating core understandings from peripheral trivia in our domains, the closer we get helping students do the same – even as things deepen in complexity. The social and intellectual worlds beyond the classroom are incredibly complex spaces. Why not give students a taste of that complexity in a safe and supportive environment?

Leveling-Up Our Teaching

As students in my sessions pointed out, there are a lot more lessons to be learned here. But the more I study this stuff and apply it my pedagogy, the more I realize that game-inspired teaching really isn’t about the bells and whistles, the carrots or the sticks. What it comes down to, I think, is finding ways to make our students’ experiences as meaningful, challenging, and impactful as experiences they might have in the worlds beyond – virtual or otherwise.