What are we learning from games?
I do like a puzzle. From crosswords, Sudoku, quizzes and number patterns, I like to get out a pen and paper and rack my brain on something other than the more pressing, income generating activities of the day to day. Of course, the pen and paper is hardly a pre-requisite for the ardent puzzler. Now I can play these games online, on the move on my phone or tablet, or on my PC.
One particular puzzle I always enjoyed is available on my PC and – in dull moments and long train journeys I occasionally pit my wits against the computer. When I became the proud owner of a tablet, I found there was (as there always seems to be) an app for that and so it was downloaded. Except, the way the game works is not the same.
Now, instead of building my overall win percentage and striving to complete in fewer moves than the previous attempt, I am being timed. The number of moves is still factored into to some mathematical process which provides me with a score, but the objective is to complete the puzzle in the fastest possible time, the accumulated score of wins and losses is no longer relevant – it is pace, speed of decision making and my digital dexterity which determines success or failure.
It is an interesting experience. Now when I get stuck instead of looking for the backtracking and working out where I could unravel a mistake – an exercise in solving problems of my own making – I instinctively look to the bottom of the screen for the timer. If too much time would be required to unpick past moves, then I may as well quit and start again. There is no reward for being right – only for being quick. In fact, when I went back to the computer version, I found I had lost the ability to examine previous moves and backtrack to reach a successful conclusion. By playing against the clock I had become more stupid.
What had happened is that I had responded to the rewards the game provided. The objective had changed and my behaviour altered accordingly. The motivation is hyped, intentionally so, by the ticking of the timer and the pressure of the clock. What gets measured gets done – even in the world of on-screen puzzles.
Last Monday evening, I listened to My Teacher is an App – the final part of a three part series examining the increased use of digital technology within education from primary school to University. The debate ranged from the dystopian world of PE reduced to laser gun battles in the woods and classes of 80 supervised by a teacher with a dashboard and the serried ranks of (cheaper) teaching assistants providing the right answers to those who had become stuck, to the utopian world of flipped learning supported by intense tutorials in small groups with highly paid, excellent teachers properly rewarded for a difficult, demanding but potentially fulfilling job.
One feature of the discussion, which seemed to be unchallenged, was that 21st Century digital natives learn rapidly from games. Games, it was said, are inherently motivating, creating a level of emotional engagement only to be imagined in the traditional classroom. Individuals learn at their own pace as the game adapts to the learner’s capability. Gameplay serves up just the right amount of challenge at the right point in the game. Failure is unimportant and through highly motivated repetition, performance improves. The discussions imagined opportunities to experience the Battle of Hastings, games to solve maths problems as you navigate towards the surface of a distant planet, and new worlds in which students will make decisions and solve problems using toolsets and rationed resources. Heady stuff. And yet…
My own experience is hardly scientific, the game I played hardly from the top drawer of the game makers art. It is a simple puzzle, though pretty close to the educational games experience when limited budgets prohibit the development of an educational version of Grand Theft Auto. But even in this simple game, the design developed a set of behaviours which changed simply because of the way in which achievement and progress were recorded. As for learning? The lowest number of moves in which I solved the tablet version of the puzzle was the very first time I completed it. The fastest time achieved was within the first week or two – I have been singularly unable to replicate such stellar performance since. As a learning tool – even within the context of its own measurements – it seems that not all games teach us very much.
Robin Hoyle is a trainer and writer. His company, Learnworks Ltd helps companies of all sizes build training programmes which support behaviour change. He is the author of Complete Training published by Kogan Page
Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He has a long track record of strategic L&D leadership and materials development and design - working for a wide range of organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors in the UK and throughout the world...