Posted in EFL, English Teaching

Learning from games

Who am I?

My name is John, I’m an English teacher, an MA student, a musician/composer, a part-time astronomer,  a philosopher that doesn’t exist, and a gamer. I have been teaching English for over ten years now, working with a wide range of students and levels. But as all teachers, I try to carve out my own identity within this context by integrating my interests and passions.

John the Gamer

I’ve always enjoyed games, especially computer games. It all started with the arcades in the early 80s, which fired my imagination. Because consoles and computers were quite expensive at the time, I used to draw out sprites and level designs on paper. I specifically remember creating a small book of ninjas with frame by frame animation in my French lessons. My French teacher often left the room crying due to our bad behaviour and disinterest in the subject. Anyway, since then I have owned most of the consoles from the Atari 2600 to the PS3. I have indulged less in PC/Mac games and online MUDs. My concern is that I’ll be sucked into a virtual world and neglect my real life. Despite this, I have signed up to the trial version of World of Warcraft and completed a few quests just to see what all the fuss is about. Anyway, I’ve recently decided that perhaps it’s time to apply my continuing gaming experience to teaching.

So, What’s in a game?

Six Features of Games

Jull, J. (2005, p.36) defines games using the following six features:

  • Rules
  • Variable, quantifiable outcomes
  • Valorisation of outcome
  • Player effort
  • Player attached to outcome
  • Negotiable consequences

Four Traits for Defining games

On the other hand, Jane McGonigal identifies only four defining traits for a definition of games. She sees these traits as ‘the defining features’ of games, with other features, such as narrative, simply enriching their qualities.

  • Goals
  • Rules
  • Feedback systems and
  • Voluntary participation

(McGonigal, J. 2012, p21).

Why should teachers be interested in the essence of games?

Over the last year or so, I’ve made various attempts to get students to engage in collaborative tasks/projects online. I set up wikis, blogging communities, edmodo/facebook groups and encouraged students to participate in creating knowledge and sharing ideas. To my dismay, I found that few students made time to engage in these activities. In contrast, it’s known that people are prepared to spend incredible amounts of time and energy engaging in complicated time-consuming video games. So, why is this? Is it points, challenge, fun? I mean, in education we have goals, feedback, voluntary participation (with adult learners), and certainly rules in the classroom. So, what’s so special about games?

Gee claims that video games are effective learning machines due to the fact that they have evolved in response to consumer demand (Gee, J. P. 2005). He believes that we can learn from their emergent design to redesign learning in education (ibid. 2005). He identifies some of the features of games that make them powerful learning machines.

Empowered Learners

  • Co-design
  • Customise
  • Identity
  • manipulation of distributed knowledge

Problem solving

  • Well-ordered problems
  • Pleasantly frustrating
  • Cycles of expertise
  • Information ‘on demand’ and ‘just in time’
  • Fish tanks
  • Sandboxes
  • Skills as strategies

Understanding

  • System thinking
  • Meaning as action image

(ibid. 2005)

Power to the learner (and the teacher, please)

Language teachers have always had to design their lessons or courses, or at least adapt the material to their learners needs. This is usually informed by research into SLA, which often discusses issues of motivation, personalisation, learning in context etc. After reading Gee, it is clear that there is much to learn from good game design too. Especially in the department of empowering learners; with active agency, customisation, ownership, identity investment and the manipulation of tools for learning. This is an area that is especially relevant to teenage learners who are given a sense of control in video games that’s often lacking in school and other areas of their lives. I would also add that empowerment is essential for the well-being of teachers too (or almost any profession), enslaved by prescriptive syllabi, course books and/or misguided learning management systems.

The sound of inevitability

Gee admits that if we are to implement these positive features of games into our schools, significant restructuring will be needed (ibid. 2005). He also suggests that modern technology may even dictate this change, whether we like it or not. Despite this claim, Gee doesn’t go into the details of why this is. Perhaps he is speaking of the normalisation of web 2.0 technologies and the empowerment it might bring for students to choose what, how and when they study. Or the fact that learners will become ever less dependent on teachers to provide them with answers and look to games instead. Nevertheless, a video game doesn’t make itself (unless it’s procedurally generated), someone needs to make the game. Could this be a new role for teachers?  Even without teachers becoming fully-fledged game designers, Gee’s checklist for good learning is an interesting alternative view on how to design more engaging lessons and courses.

References

Gee, J. P. (2005). Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines. E-Learning, 2(1), 5. http://doi.org/10.2304/elea.2005.2.1.5

Juul, J. (2005). Half-real: video games between real rules and fictional worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McGonigal, J. (2012). Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. London: Vintage.

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