Engaged students, motivational gaming and the epic future of education

You're unlikely to ever see a child more engaged than when s/he is on the verge of what game designer and researcher at The Institute for the Future Jane McGonigal calls an "epic win." As she defines it, an epic win is "an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it; it was almost beyond the threshold of imagination, and when you get there, you're shocked to discover what you're truly capable of." While you might hope that this sense of purpose and achievement is related to education or self-actualization, it really comes in the midst of what society may have wrongly been dubbing simple frivolity: gaming.

Education Technology

New discoveries in learning point to gaming

"Your brain is important," says Dr. James Paul Gee, an authority on literacy and educational games at Arizona State University, "but it's not that important." In this quote, referenced by Tina Barseghian of KQED, Dr. Gee is referring to a growing body of knowledge about the way we learn. He is specifically addressing the idea that learning is based on experience, not so much on the rules and repetition of traditional education. That is, it's the well designed experience that helps you learn.

By this new way of thinking, one can look at classical educational methods as almost accidentally producing relatively well designed learning experiences because the focus was not on the learning experience, but on the knowledge-gaining itself.

Dr. Gee has found, researched and validated several reasons why using educational video games as a teaching tool may provide a better learning experience than a traditional classroom.

  • It feeds the learning process. Gee notes that the best learning experiences have the following characteristics: motivation, clear goals, interpreted outcomes and immediate and copious feedback -- all of which are present in gaming environments. In online and multi-player games, there are also social aspects, like the sharing of tactics, experiences and explanations. This in turn pushes students to teach what they've learned to others, which requires understanding and a certain level of competency.
  • It eliminates traditional testing. "If you design learning so you can't get out of one level until you complete the last one," says Gee, "there's no need for a test." The very fact that a student has made it to the highest levels of performance proves his or her proficiency in a subject. Testing only belies a lack of faith in the teaching methods used, says Gee.
  • It builds on experience. In gaming environments, old skills, knowledge and experience are constantly reused and built upon.
  • It entices kids to learn. Some popular games are incredibly complex, but the games are so motivational and the goals gamers are given are so clear that kids take on some pretty onerous tasks. Thanks to elements like instant gratification when a task is completed, kids are compelled to keep playing -- and learning.
  • It encourages risk taking in learning. You simply aren't allowed to fail as easily or repeatedly in school as you can in a game. With multiple lives, students are encouraged to explore and take risks; they rethink goals and change tactics when things aren't working.

In an article about video games in the classroom, Sara Corbett of The New York Times notes, "At its best, game design can be an interdisciplinary exercise involving math, writing, art, computer programming, deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills. If children can build, play and understand games that work, it's possible that someday they will understand and design systems that work. And the world is full of complicated systems." The trouble, though, is that these ideal games aren't always what kids are playing.

Virtual virtuosos: are the kids all right?

When it comes to kids and screen time, Jane McGonigal makes some interesting observations. She notes that "it's so satisfying to be on the verge of an epic win all the time that we spend all our time in these game worlds; it's just better than reality." When we break it down:

  • A researcher at Carnegie Mellon University found that the average child in a strong gamer culture will have played 10,000 hours of video games by age 21.
  • If you had perfect attendance, you would spend 10,080 hours in school from fifth grade through high-school graduation.
  • In his book "Outliers: The Story of Success," Malcolm Gladwell looked at some cognitive science research and theorized that if you can master 10,000 hours of effortful study of something by the age of 21, you can be a virtuoso at it, as great as anyone has ever been.

These three things taken together show that we have an entire generation of gaming virtuosos, young people who have spent as much time gaming as they have learning everything else. McGonigal calls this group of individuals "a virtually unprecedented human resource" -- if we can figure out what they're so good at. She declares that "gamers are super-empowered, hopeful individuals" and are developing:

  1. Urgent optimism (or extreme self-motivation)
  2. Social fabric (or community)
  3. Blissful productivity
  4. Epic meaning
While it's true that gaming can take away from valuable sleep or study time at home, it seems like we're seeing a new age of learning, productivity and problem-solving develop right before our eyes. The question isn't whether or not children should be playing video games, but ultimately, whether parents and teachers are giving them the right ones.
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