Why videogames are good for learners

As a gamer – to some extent, not entirely, but enough – you’re master of your own fate, and when you’re not, you can find help. You’re not only in an environment, you’re in an experience too – one that changes as you work and conquer problems and keep getting better. So it’s progressive but self-paced – but also social, so less boring than purely self-paced. There are rules, but they’re like artistic constraints; they give the experience structure and seem to serve you, not just everybody, or at least they’re serving the learning process you and everybody else has bought into. Wow, what if school were like that? “People learn best when they’re actively engaged in designing, creating, and inventing, not just passively receiving information,” according to the operating principles of the Computer Clubhouse (after-school program created by Prof. Mitch Resnick and others at MIT). The other three big motivators are collaboration, working on something one cares about, and working in an environment where everyone’s work is respected (making everyone feel comfortable with experimenting and taking risks). But why are videogames such good environments? Arizona State Prof. James Paul Gee gave 10 reasons at the Learning & the Brain Conference last month, according to KQED.org.

But school and videogames may not be as far apart as we might reflexively think. Even a college drop-out, Seth Priebatsch (who’s also founder and “chief ninja” of Google-backed mobile game app developer SCVGR), called school “the best real-world implementation of a game that’s out there” with motivated players, rules, rewards, leveling up, etc. – in his keynote at SXSWi (the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin last week). It’s just “kind of broken,” he added. Easier to fix things than to start from scratch, eh? [I was in the audience, but here's CNET's coverage.] Priebatsch challenged the audience to a real-world game at the end of his talk, and we won! Our collective prize was a $10,000 donation by SCVGR to the World Wildlife Fund, the point being that we’re all motivated when doing meaningful problem-solving or working on something bigger than ourselves, as discovered at MIT’s Computer Clubhouse and by game designer Jane McGonigal, who calls this “epic meaning” (see this). See also Mills College education professor Joseph Kahne on “Is the Virtual World Good For the ‘Real’ One?” at the Huffington Post and Ta-Nehisi Coates on “The Littlest Schoolhouse” at The Atlantic.


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