What we talk about when we talk about games

We carry around really idiosyncratic and sometimes competing notions of games. When we hear someone talking about games, some of us think about children’s games. Some of us think about board games. Some of us think about sports. Some of us think about card games. Some of us think about collectible card games. Some of us think about dice games. Some of us think about d20 games.

I think that our experiences with games are as varied as our experiences with school. Moreover, our experiences with games produce really visceral reactions when we’re asked to think about using games in the classroom.

Some of us think of games as rewards, Some of us think about games as sub plans. Some of us think about games for learning, but because we have such different notions of what good learning looks like, we have different notions of what good learning games are. Somebody comfortable with a Jeopardy-style review game might not be ready to teach an entire economics unit – first time through – using just Monopoly. Somebody comfortable with teaching an entire economics unit through Monopoly might not be comfortable with letting students compose an informational text inside of a video game engine using sandbox tools. Somebody comfortable letting students compose informational texts inside of one video game might not be comfortable letting students write a book report or critical essay on the single-player plot or multi-player politics of some other video game.

We can make such distinctions based on teacher experience and professional sense. Teachers who don’t look at games as learning aren’t likely to use them as such. Teachers willing to use games for learning aren’t likely to use games with which they’re unfamiliar. Teachers familiar with many games useful for learning make choices about which to allow in the classrooms depending on their curricula, students, purposes, and community standards.

Moreover – and there’s no nice way to say this – teachers who don’t like their students or who disparagingly equate engagement with babysitting won’t use games – or any other form of authentic work or radical differentiation – for learning.

That being said, let me share with you what I’m talking about when I talk about games for learning.

Primarily, but not exclusively, I’m talking about video games and sandbox or toy-like apps.

Specifically, I’m talking about games that allow and encourage players

  • To set their own goals.
  • To discover their own problem-solving strategies through trial and error.
  • To establish their own conditions for success.
  • To communicate with specific vocabulary about their accomplishments and frustrations.
  • To teach one another – in pro-social ways – new behaviors that help in mastering the game and/or creating and learning with it.
  • To evaluate their decisions, other players’ decisions, and programmers’ decisions.
  • To learn the cause-and-effect relationships between in-game objects and their behaviors.
  • To learn basic programming with sandbox tools and visual programming platforms.
  • To draw comparisons and distinctions between the game and real life.
  • To form their own opinions about real-world problems and events depicted in-game.
  • To engage in inquiry-driven reading and writing before, during, and after game-play in response to the learning associated with the game.
  • To demonstrate learning through the creation of something new or mastery of a specific game mechanic.
  • To learn to read a variety of in-game interfaces as informational texts giving them feedback on what they need to do to accomplish their goals.
  • To provide in-game evidence of self-directed learning following a design document written and workshopped as a kind of experimental design before game-play.
  • To provide post-game evidence of content-based learning through writing.
  • To wonder how to read code.
  • To wonder how code is written and transformed from text to experience.</li’>

That’s a big list, and I hope that some of my past and future posts provide clearer examples of what I’m talking about, I hope also that this list inspires you to ask questions and bring recommendations to the comments below and to our March 21st #engchat.

Gaming for learning is a design process that unites the enjoyment of mastering a game with the enjoyment of mastering learning.

Gaming for learning isn’t about letting kids play Angry Birds on their smart phones during class so long as they’re quiet (unless, you know, the kids are plotting parabolae or something), and it shouldn’t be dismissed as such, either,