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10:53am on Monday, 3rd April, 2006:

Games and Learning


I'm not a great fan of educational games. This isn't because I don't like education or games; neither is it because I don't think the two can go together. Rather, it's that they're almost always designed by educationalists who have no idea how to design a game, nor realise what games can and cannot teach.

The logic is that games are fun, education is unfun, therefore combining the two will lead to fun education. In practice, it generally leads to unfun games.

The trouble is, educationalists who want to teach something in a game will too often try to make the thing they are trying to teach be the central mechanism of the game. If they want to teach people how to add up, then they make the game have addition as its core mechanic. It's possible that this can work (although easier to do in puzzles than in games), but it's missing the point. This is somewhat ironic, because missing the point is the best way to learn in games.

Yeah, I'm going to explain...

Iceland, UK, Eire, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Andora, Monaco, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Vatican City, San Marino, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzigovina, Serbia &Montenegro, FYROM, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Belorus, Cyprus, Malta. Maybe Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

I can name all the countries in Europe not because I ever sat down and learned them, but because I've played so many games which featured Europe that I just picked it up through osmosis. I didn't even have to learn new ones when Yugoslavia and the USSR split up, because I was already aware of the Baltic states and the geography of the Balkans. None of the games I played that taught me this geography were trying to teach me it, it just came as a side-effect.

Things you can learn:

All games that contain facts teach you those facts. Facts are the easiest things to get across in games. Anything you need to learn by rote can be taught in a game, simply by making it be involved in the gameplay. My kids can tell you every capital city in Europe because we play a travel game I designed which involves moving between capital cities in Europe. OK, so maybe they don't know what Ljubljiana is capital of, but they know it's a capital and whereabouts on the map it is. The game isn't about capitals, though, it's about travel; capitals are just what you happen to travel between. The game would be just as much fun if I'd made up the cities; my kids would still have learned the locations, but this way what they learned has some real-world relevance.

Not all games require skills, and when they do they tend to be called sports. People don't tend to like playing games that require skills they don't have, because they don't get to win very often. Indeed, often they don't like playing games that require skills they do have: I don't know offhand what 123*123 is, but I do know that I can work it out in my head, and I also know that I wouldn't like playing a game where I was required to do that. Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of game that educationalists aim at, because they want to teach people skills. This is why so many of their efforts are so miserable. The thing is, though, you can teach skills in a game, you just don't make it that those skills are required. Rather than building the gameplay about maths, so that the person with the best mathematical skills wins, you build it about something fun and make the mathematical skills merely incidental to the gameplay. I'll come back to this shortly.

All games that aren't entirely random teach you meta-skills (ie. problem-solving skills). These are the best kind of skills that games can teach you, but they're also the most non-specific. You could design a game that would teach a particular kind of problem-solving skill if you wanted (eg. divide and conquer), but what you really want is for the player to have a whole armoury of meta-skills at their disposal. This is the kind of learning espoused by game-savvy educationalists such as Jim Gee's group at the University of Wisconsin, but it really riles the traditionalists who don't just want to use games to teach, they want them to teach particular things. When it's the case that any decent game will teach problem-solving skills, well, that's grudgingly accepted, but it doesn't help when you want to teach 7-year-olds how to multiply.

Actually, it does.

What's a skill? A skill is a process that you have managed to automate to the extent that you don't have to think about it. If you have to think about it, it isn't a skill. When I started to learn to drive, I had to think about everything I did: pressing the accelerator, moving the gearstick, looking in the mirror, ... . After a while, I managed to internalise some of these actions ("change into third gear" rather than "move the gear stick to the right and then up") and eventually I internalised the whole process: I now just "drive". By practicing the individual skills based on primitive actions I could "just do", I ended up with a new skill that I can also now "just do". I know how to drive.

Now when I was learning how to drive, I had to bring to bear my meta-skills. Thinking involves the application of meta-skills. Some people are better at this than others. It might be argued that since meta-skills are skills, you can teach people to be "intelligent", however I feel there's probably a limit to it as meta-skills are also reflective: if you think about how to think, you're still limited by those primitive "think" actions that are ultimately available to you. Anyway, the point I'm making is that playing games improves your meta-skills, and allows you to internalise other actions as skills. Skills are, in this sense, little more than facts. Games are good at facts.

Teaching 7-year-olds how to multiply: imagine a game played on a 40*40 grid of squares. It's for two players, and you start off with 10*10 block of squares in diagonally opposite corners. The idea is to claim unclaimed territory, so the players will use different colours for their claimed blocks. Expansion is one rectangular block at a time, where the dimensions of the rectangle are deteremined by rolling two 10-sided dice, twice. You choose one of the rectangles so defined, and add it to the grid so it touches some of your existing territory somewhere (orthogonally, not diagonally). When you can't fit either of the rectangles in, you're out of the game. Your opponent keeps playing until they have the same problem, and then the winner is determined by adding up the total areas of their territories; whoever has the most wins.

The gameplay here is to trade off the blocks that will capture the most territory against how they'll restrict your options towards the end of the game. Basically, then, it's a knapsack-filling problem, and you can play it without any arithmetical ability beyond being able to count squares. Nevertheless, choosing whether you want to go with the 7*8 block or the 6*9 block is partly informed by knowing which one has the greater area, and so it's in your interests to figure it out. You don't have to figure it out, as it's not a requirement, but you probably will figure it out because it helps you with yout strategy. What's more, when you've rolled the same number a few times, you'll just know the answer from having worked it out before: you won't need the squares.

Does this game teach a skill? Well, sort of. It teaches the 10 times table, and in so doing conveys an understanding of the underlying mathematics, but the players end up regarding multiplication as a fact: 6*9=54 is the same as capital(Finland)=Helsinki. Internalisation occurs, but it does so in order to bypass the skill entirely (you learn the answer so you don't have to do the multiplication explicitly). If you wanted to teach a skill that doesn't yield so easily to turn-it-into-facts, such as long multiplication, you'd be in for a torrid time. Games work by teaching incidentally, that is by missing the point; anything you can't do incidentally is problematical for game design. It can be made more fun by providing a context and turning it into a puzzle, but if you want a game out of it, good luck...

So my advice to educationalists looking at using games to teach people stuff is to concentrate on facts. Games are good at facts. They're also good at meta-skills (and at other things entirely, eg. breaking the ice at parties), but if you want to use them to teach, well, facts is where they're strongest.

As a final demonstration, here's a picture of a crater in Africa. Go on, take a look. I'll give you its name shortly, but the chances are you've never heard of it before. However, when I do tell you its name, some of you will immediately recognise it, and you'll remember it for ever more. OK, maybe not the exact spelling, but probably the basic sound, and certainly the fact that it exists. It's the Ngorongoro Crater of Tanzania. World of Warcraft players who thought that the name Un'Goro was made up: now you know it wasn't. And now, when in 20 years' time you're on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and they ask you which of these four national parks in Africa contains a large crater, you'll be able to answer.

Referenced by Places I'd Like to Visit #7.

Referenced by Places I'm not all that Fussed about Visiting #3.

Referenced by Promiscuously Arranged.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).