Video games as learning tools

Richard Brown

Richard is in charge of educational content at PlayBrighter, a provider of customisable online educational games that students actually enjoy playing. Previously he taught at a challenging technical school in one of those Parisian suburbs where they burn cars.

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Eat chocolate and ice cream for a balanced diet! Be universally popular by saying exactly what’s on your mind! Pass exams by playing computer games! If you think this is fantasy, then you’d be right – 66.7% of the time.

It’s the computer games claim that’s not fantasy. As early as 2002 a group called Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia produced a report which was consulted by the Department of Education: it showed how even games without an explicitly educational content could develop a range of critical skills in children. Last year a survey by researchers from Michigan State University was presented to the Third International Cognitive Load Theory Conference, which confirmed that Internet use and video games significantly help young adolescents who are struggling with literacy.

Numerous games designers have striven to harness the power of games for education – and the result is products such as PlayBrighter, Mathletics, Education City, I am learning, What2Learn, and many others.

So, let’s see why it’s not wishful thinking.

Teaching is quite a subversive activity. Secretly, it tries to indoctrinate children into the belief that learning is fun, and to create a Pavlovian relationship between disentangling French verbs and a pleasant reward. Stickers, certificates of achievement and book tokens sit at the stereotyped end of this process.

The idea is probably as old as education itself. Medieval religious instruction for the masses was often carried out by means of theatre, and the pill was sweetened still further by the inclusion of jesters and performances on quite different topics, often rather ribald.

One reads accounts of school textbooks in nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary, where the Emperor’s life turned into a penny dreadful, complete with riders on white horses riding to the rescue when he is seconds from death. I myself have a Victorian schoolbook in which the economy of South America is presented as an exciting travelogue through the pampas.

Computer games are just the latest episode of a centuries-long campaign for educational improvement. So what makes them different?

Well, firstly computer games are things students actually do play in their spare time. So teachers are dangling in front of students a reward for learning that they’re known to enjoy. If educational games can be made to replicate the graphics and gameplay of ‘mainstream’ games, then the Pavlovian response is all the more effective.

Secondly they make differentiated learning easier. We all know that it’s good to treat students as individuals, to set each one work appropriate to their level, but when you’ve got a class of 25, that’s 25 homework assignments you’re condemned to inventing. But games are available with ‘dynamic difficulty’ – that is, they recognise when a student is struggling and needs gentler questions to cement the basics, and when a student is excelling and needs to be stretched.

Lastly, marking. Questions set by computers can mark themselves. As a former teacher writing for teachers, I’m sure I don’t need to dilate on the advantages of this feature.

So, that’s video games turned into an educational tool. Now to work out how to remove the calories from chocolate and ice cream...

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