The Unbroken Line between Games and Education

University learning is often like a game.

Let’s play a game: I’ll set the rules.  Your goal: to perform various complex and skilled tasks in an adventure-style first person game involving personal quests, team cooperation, and writing, speaking, and recall tests.  Your goal: to achieve a sufficient level of accomplishment in each task to advance to future levels, with the ultimate goal of leaving the game.  Points are earned by passing tests or performing set tasks.  Extensive instruction is required to accomplish each task, and more time will be spent absorbing the instruction than actually performing the task.  Failure is severely punished, and results in setbacks to your progress in achieving the task.  There are no shortcuts, and the schedule of tasks is predetermined.   There may or may not be rewards for participating.

How many of us would wish to play this game?  Well, this is exactly what we ask students to do throughout their university careers.  Education is very much a game—if we understand a ‘game’ as a competitive activity with rules to test various skills and produce outcomes, such as winners or losers.  But gaming is associated with play, diversion, recreation, and less so with learning.  Nevertheless, because university learning is a poorly designed game, it does not do a good job of motivating people to learn.  The point system (marks) is often inconsistent, punishment is too severe, and too much time is spent absorbing information and not enough time is spent in applying the knowledge learned.

This can result in an inordinate focus on extrinsic motivators, which psychologists tell us can actually reduce initiative, creativity, and intrinsic motivation, which are all necessary to learning.  As Jane McGonigal points out, well-designed games work to enhance these traits, by using a feedback system that lets players know where they are in the 101433076process, setting up rules or limitations (sometimes unnecessary ones) that offer meaningful stakes, and allowing for ‘fun failure’ (spectacular failures that actually reward effort).  Frequent feedback and active learning techniques are already widely acknowledged as effective teaching strategies that enhance both motivation and deeper forms of learning.

Well-designed games allow players to progress at their own speed, with an awareness of how they compare with others, and foster social connection that helps players identify their contribution to a larger project.  Admitting that education is a game is not pejorative, neither is it to say that education should only be reduced to a game and nothing else.  Nevertheless, admitting that the game elements of university education tend to make it less motivating seems only a statement of fact.

Further Reading: Jane McGonigal Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World Penguin, 2011