Games and Learning
[This article was written in 2007 at the request of Vincent Quah, then head of Microsoft’s subsidiary in Singapore, for publication, with two other articles, mentioned below, in the Newsletter of the company in that country.]
– I –
Cher Ping Lim, author of one of the two articles submitted to APAC, shows, in the beginning of his article, both from experience and from the literature, that electronic games (i.e., computer and video games) are profoundly “engaging” to young people (and to some older folks as well). “The gaming community has long been aware of the high degree of commitment shown by players to games”, he says. This engagement or commitment was already visible in previous generations of games (“simple two-dimensional arcade games”) and has increased considerably with the present generation of games (“the virtual reality three-dimensional multi-user role-playing game[s]”).
Lim’s next point (also from experience and from the literature) is that “in contrast, the learning activities in schools have not supported engagement of these gamers, who are often students in schools.”
This is very problematic, because, as Lim explains, by resorting to the literature, “learner engagement is paramount to learning success”, and “engagement entails intrinsic motivation, cognitive effort, mindfulness, and attention” (I slight altered the order of the terms). The key here is the question of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. “Intrinsic motivation”, explains Lim, “is generally defined as motivation to engage in an activity for its own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation refers to motivation to engage in an activity as a means to an end”.
The problem with school learning is that it relies basically on extrinsic motivation. The material that schools teach the students (and, therefore, the material that schools expect the students to learn) is not intrinsically motivating. Left to themselves, students would never want to learn it. Therefore, the “carrot” of grades and good results in standardized tests is placed before them as extrinsic motivators. Grades and good results in standardized tests as such, however, do not intrinsically motivate students. So another link is needed in the extrinsic motivating chain: good grades and good results in standardized tests are necessary for getting a good job and, eventually, for succeeding in life. Not many students believe in that. Therefore, school learning does not engage them.
Lim’s conclusion is that “findings suggest that schools may have failed to create a learning environment that is conducive to learning engagement among students.”
– II –
Even though the two authors fail to discuss this, it seems evident to me, and to everyone that ever watched young people play complex and sophisticated electronic games, that they learn a lot of things by playing them. Given the strong link between engagement and learning, there is no problem in theoretically explaining this empirical finding.
The problem is: what young people learn by playing games is not what schools want them to learn…
– III –
So, the next issue is whether it is possible to transfer to the school environment the engagement that one finds in the game environment, therefore making school learning more likely (given the necessary link between learning and engagement).
One way of doing this is to develop “educational games”, i.e., games that are focused on getting students to learn what schools want them to learn. These games are usually developed through a partnership between game developers and teachers.
The problem is that students do not show a lot of interest in educational games – clearly, not nearly as much as they show in non-educational games.
It is here that Marc Prensky’s article begins…
– IV –
Marc Prensky states the following thesis at the beginning of his article:
“. . . The next generation of educational games – the games that will truly engage and teach the students – is going to come from the minds of the students, and not their teachers.”
I agree with a few elements of this thesis and not with others…
What Prensky ought to have said, in my opinion, is:
“. . . If there is going to be a (new) generation of educational electronic games that will truly engage students and help them learn what schools want them to learn, it will have to come from students, and not their teachers”…
Exactly what changes did I make, and why did I make them?
First, the original thesis is built as a prediction – as such, it may or may not come true. My reformulated version makes it a conditional statement, not an apodictic assertion. As a conditional statement, it offers no guarantee that a new generation of educational electronic games that will truly engage the students and help them learn what schools want them to learn will appear, and that it will come from students, not their teachers.
Second, my reformulated version changes the emphasis from games that teach to games that help students learn. Learning is not always the deliberate result of teaching. We all know that but continue to speak as if learning were always the result of teaching.
Third, my reformulated version makes clear that the issue which Prensky faces is not whether electronic games help students learn (or teaches them, as he prefers) – of course they do! The issue is whether electronic games help students learn what schools want them to learn! That they learn a number of other things by playing electronic games is not in question.
Fourth, a minor point: I added the qualification “electronic” (i.e., computer and video) before “games” to make clear that it is with this kind of games that we are dealing.
I agree with Prensky that, if this kind of educational electronic games should ever appear, they will come from students, not their teachers.
– V –
The next important issue is the following: What reasons does Prensky offer for his statement (duly reformulated by me)?
I will quote three of his paragraphs, merged into one:
“Why? Because try as they might, the grownups don’t fully understand the minds of today’s students. ‘Quite often, educational games or games for education created by educators or textbook publishing houses smell too much like school,’ says Professor Cher Ping Lim [author of the other article]. ‘Although various gaming elements such as narratives, point system, and challenges and levels are integrated into the virtual environment, the environment is often a replication of the existing power relations in the school where teachers and textbooks are the fountain of knowledge and students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Students are not empowered to make decisions and take actions about the political, cultural and social fabric in such environment.’ The students put it much more simply: ‘Don’t try to use our technology,’ says one, ‘you’ll only look stupid.’ An entire generation of educational software – the stuff known as ‘edutainment’ was either (literally) dumped into holes in the ground, or sold off at a tiny fraction of its original cost. Why? Because the students had no input into its creation, and the stuff came out cute to the adults, but boring to the kids.”
This quotation shows that on this very important issue the authors of the two articles concur with each other. The main justification of the thesis is that adults do not understand the mind of younger folks and, when they try to design educational games, these “smell too much like school” (in the words of Cher Ping Lim)– therefore alienating, not engaging, the users. In special, in these games (still quoting Lim), “the environment is often a replication of the existing power relations in the school where teachers and textbooks are the fountain of knowledge and students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge”.
According to Lim, the games that do engage students are those in which they are “empowered to make decisions and take actions about the political, cultural and social fabric in such environment”.
This is, it seems to me, the main issue. And here I totally concur with Lim (and with Prensky, who quotes him).
– V –
Prensky asks whether students can design and build games. His answer is an unqualified “yes”.
He asks next whether students can design and build (educational) games that help them learn what schools want them to learn. His answer here is considerably more qualified. He says: “The answer appears to be yes, as well, especially under the right conditions.”
What would those “right conditions” be? In other words, given that students, as everything seems to indicate, can design and build this kind of games, the crucial issue is: “Why would they want to? And what kinds of games would they want to, or should they, build?”
Prensky answers: “The answer to why they would want to, I think, has to be ‘because we give them an incentive.’” And he adds: “And the incentive doesn’t necessarily have to be cash.”
Prensky elaborates on his view.
“Often just being allowed to do something that is not a usual part of school learning, and/or being recognized for doing something clever, or beating your peers, if rewarded properly and in public, will suffice. Of course additionally offering students pay, prizes or other monetary incentives will help motivate students, just as it does their teachers.”
Prensky, unfortunately, leaves the matter at this point and proceeds to discuss more technical issues: the difference between “mini vs complex games”.
Lim, also, unfortunately, abandons the issues with which he began his article and goes on to discuss a number of technical issues.
I find this unfortunately for two reasons:
First, because Prensky does not seem to realize that the “incentives” he mentions, even though they go beyond money, are extrinsic motivators…
Second, because both authors, not pursuing what might be intrinsic motivating here, neglect to discuss what, in my view, is the most important issue: ought students be extrinsically motivated to design and build games that get (other) students to learn what schools want them to learn, even though they, themselves, are not intrinsically motivated to learn this material?
In other words: developing educational games that help students learn what schools want them to learn is another form of trying to extrinsically motivate students to learn…
Will it work? It might… If – and this is a big “if” – students can be effectively persuaded (i.e., intrinsically motivated) to design and develop these games.
– VI –
I find that this “if” – that describes the antecedent clause of the thesis – is not likely to materialize.
Most serious educators (distinguished here from school system bureaucrats) are convinced that most of the materials that schools want students to learn are not worth learning. A lot of it is useless. Some of it is clearly pernicious. Schools ought to be preparing people for life – for life in the twentieth-first century, a century know as the “knowledge age”, the “information society”, etc. And yet, they keep trying to get students to learn, through teaching, material that students can easily find on the Internet, whenever they need the stuff. They fail to help students to develop the simple and especially the higher-order competences and skills that will make them competent and autonomous beings, workers, citizens in a society that suffers from information overload, because information (often more than we need) is always at our fingertips.
So, the main challenge is to change the nature of schooling, not to design and create educational games that will extrinsically motivate students to learn what schools want them to learn, but their perfect “sense of life” tells them that it is not worth learning.
If the nature of schooling is changed in the direction that I point, then one will not need to extrinsically motivate students to develop educational games. Learning will become engaging, without electronic games. The “game of life” is enough to engage anyone living.
Salto, SP, June 22nd, 2007
Eduardo Chaves is retired professor of philosophy of education at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), in Campinas, SP, Brazil, and a consultant (to Microsoft, among other companies) in the area of education in technology. He is also a member of the International Advisory Council of Partners in Learning, Microsoft’s global initiative in the area of K-12 education. He lives in Campinas and Salto, in Brazil, and can be reached at email@example.com.