What teachers can learn from video games

I’ve recently integrated an Xbox racing game into my Year 10 science class. Students played Formula 1 2010 to learn about Newton’s laws (click here for more info). This got me back into video games. Over the weekend I started playing Fable II – an action role playing game (RPG) on the Xbox. I’ve always been a huge fan of RPGs, more than any other game genre. Whenever I play RPGs, I become totally immersed in the game. I can spend hours being totally focused on the game. Every time I tell myself to stop I’d say to myself “let’s just finish this village first” or “let’s just defeat this boss first”.

While many teachers think of video games as recreational activities or even ‘a waste of time’, teachers can learn a lot from video games. How can we transfer the elements of video games that make the player sit in front of the screen, focused on hours on end, into the classroom? I found myself pondering this whilst playing Fable II.

I think video games harnesses many elements of educational learning theories associated with cognition and motivation. Here’s three elements:

1)      Video games are challenging, but too challenging.

In Fable II you are presented with missions or tasks that you have to complete. The game gives you enough information at the start to get you going, but you have to work it out for yourself by talking to characters in the game and finding clues in the virtual world. It’s often not easy to complete the mission. However, the game provides you with enough clues that you can complete the mission in a timeframe that won’t make you quit the game for good. This sounds really familiar to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), where it is proposed that effective learning occurs when the learning experience is placed between what a learner can do independently without help and what the learner cannot do. Closely associated with ZPD is the concept of scaffolding, where hints and strategies are provided to help the learner bridge the gap between what they can do and cannot do. Video games often place the player at the ZPD, and guides them from what they can’t do initially to defeating that impossible boss, and level up! In Fable II, verbal and visual clues are provided to help you complete a mission.

2)      Choice and personalisation

Fable II allows you to choose to be male and female and to be good or evil. Throughout the game, you are presented with choices that give you points for being good or evil. Eg. When you find a missing bottle of wine in the village, you have a choice of giving it to an alcoholic or his relative who wants to help him with his alcohol addiction. Giving the alcohol will give you points towards being evil. Giving the alcohol to the relative will give you points towards being good. (I accidentally stole a toy from a chest at someone’s house and have gained some evil points). Fable II also gives you a choice to complete the main game or to go off and play mini-games in other worlds, then go back to the main game. It also allows you to choose your own clothes, etc, which gives you a personal connection to the game.

Student direction is one of the elements in the Quality Teaching Framework. I find that students will usually be more motivated to complete a task and be more self-regulated if they have chosen to do the task themselves. If they feel they have some ownership on the task, the more likely they’ll be engaged with the task. Like in Fable II, teachers can provide students with more choice in what they want to learn and more opportunities for personalisation.

3)      Ability to take risks

Video games allow you to take risks. If you do something wrong, you die, but you can come back and try again. In Fable II I know I can try out some new skills I’ve acquired in the game knowing that if I stuff it up, I can revise my strategy and have another go at it. In video games you are encouraged to adopt the strategy of trial and error and learn from your mistakes. In contrast a lot of educational tasks only let you take one shot at it. As teachers, perhaps we need to create opportunities that allow students to have multiple attempts at a task and encourage them to reflect on how they can improve on their previous attempts.

4)       There is a strong narrative

Fable II, like all other RPG games, has a strong narrative. It has a storyline that involves mystery and human emotions such as revenge. This is the main reason I like RPG games more than any other genre. Racing, fighting and puzzle games do not have storylines. I still play these games but they don’t glue me to the screen.

From personal experience I found that many students also like stories. Narrative is another element of the Quality Teaching Framework. By linking interesting stories with mystery and suspense, teachers can also glue their students’ attention to the lesson.

After finally being able to detach myself from the Xbox, I find myself wondering how can we as teachers create learning experiences that have the same engaging factors as video games? Or perhaps I just like video games a little too much.

2 thoughts on “What teachers can learn from video games

  1. I’m in your camp Alice … both liking games a little too much, and wanting to create learning experiences that are as engaging!! This is an interesting read, thanks!

  2. This is really interesting and could have been useful to me a few weeks ago, At the time of writing, I am currectly finishing off a dissertation for my Creative and Media Diploma Unit 6 Project. I chose to research the question “Can video games can really be used in Education?” I was finishing off the summary when a friend of mine from a forum told me about your experiment in the classroom with the Xbox. If only I had found this earlier, it would have been a great asset to my dissertation as most of the reports online about this subject are now outdated due to the advance in technology. From my research and experience I found a similar dilema, which I had to decide which was better: Educate students with a fun and immersive game which takes up twice the amount of time a well planned lesson takes whilst delivering the same amount of information or Deliver the conventional lesson in half the time knowing you could have made it more interesting and immersive.

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