Friday, May 7, 2010

It's Easy - All You Need is the Holy Grail

The first two books I decided to read for my post-graduate studies were A Theory of Fun for Game Design (by Raph Koster) and What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy (by James Paul Gee). I chose these for two reasons: First of all, they both deal with the very fundamental basics of why people play games and what games can give us, and well, they were available through the university library as ebooks, while the rest of the books I wanted to read were not. Anyway, no matter the reason, they turned out to be really good reads, and I can recommend them to anyone slightly interested, especially the first one since it's really short, lightly written but has a lot of good points. Gee's book is a bit heavier, but still easy to read and not too long.

The main points are related to learning, which for the second book should not be such a big surprise. In the first book, Koster takes the view that games are fun because we are learning when we play. It is at least very hard to deny the learning part. Gee on the other hand writes about how good teachers games (and game designers through their work) actually are. The claim that we learn things when we play games is hardly revolutionary. Most games are not in fact easy. And quite a lot of them are actually very complex, so when you pick up the controller for the first time, you can't just suddenly do everything in the game. Actually, you might need to learn more things to play some particularly heavy games than you would need to pass a high school course of any given subject (I'm going to give an example in a later post, for now just take my word for it).

Of course, the problem from education's point of view is that games mostly teach skills that are only relevant inside the gameworld (and probably in gameworlds inside the same genre). Although this is not exactly true, as there are several very common abilities that playing games can enhance, there are a lot of school subjects that you really cannot learn from modern games. Of course, educational games can be, at least in theory, created for any subject. However, and hence the title of this post, it is often seen particularly difficult to disguise the learning in such a way that the player doesn't feel he's studying some boring school subject while playing, but just happens to need those skills to proceed in the game. That's the Holy Grail of educational games in my opinion.

If you read through Gee's book, you'll find that we don't actually need this Holy Grail to combine the way games teach us to learning something that is actually useful (I'm not going to argue about the usefulness of school subjects). Gee introduces 36 learning principles that we could just take and try out in school education. I'm not going to repeat them, but one of the general impressions you get from them is that games are effective in teaching how to play them because (at least good games) put all the information into a relevant context, and they allow us to safely explore options and make choices, as well as form opinions. And when playing games, the best performance can only be achieved by understanding how the game works, and by forming connections between facts.

So what about Koster's claim, games are fun because we learn when we play? From the above we can definitely conclude that we are learning, and actually really efficiently, while playing games. From experience or just statistics we can conclude that games are indeed most likely fun. Not always easy fun, but there has to be something going on, because games are so popular. Games are not just passive entertainment. Playing a good game and improving in it gives a sense of achievement, which is also the high point of learning. Not convinced? Well, you just have to read through both of these books and decide for yourself.

So bottom line? Teachers and usability researchers should take a good like at game design. This is one of the central things I'm going to explore in my studies. Finding that Holy Grail, I'll probably leave to others.

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