Avestra

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Entertainment Education. How games can help learning

When someone asks children, what they love doing most, the answer is – play games. And parents let them do it not only for fun, they also learn by doing it. It’s quite hard to force a 5 years old kid to sit still and “learn”, so parents and teachers simply have no other choice but to invent games for them, so that they would learn while playing, because that’s what is fun for them and they like it.

But as we get older, we gradually accept a thought that that learning is hard and boring. We know that we must learn even though we hate it. Because of this those students, who have more self-discipline, are learning, while others prefer to learn as little as possible and go to parties instead. After all, why should one learn, if that’s so hard and boring and often we see no use from it? But the same children, who hate learning, often like playing computer games.

So, what computer games really are? Basically – a repetitive learning process. The longer you play some game, the better you are with playing it. After having killed 100 virtual monsters you will be better at doing it than when you tried to kill the first virtual monster. The only problem is – knowing how to kill virtual monsters is quite useless knowledge.

But not everything that someone can learn by playing a game is as useless as knowing how to kill virtual monsters. There exists also such thing as educational games. Definition – educational games are games that have been designed to teach people about a certain subject, expand concepts, reinforce development, understand an historical event or culture, or assist them in learning a skill as they play. They include board, card, and video games. A good educational game has a balance between entertainment and fun (which we usually get when playing games) and learning some skill or knowledge.

By playing people actually learn better than with “traditional” learning methods, which mean that you must be bored to death while learning. So, what are the reasons, why we learn better with games?

1. Instant feedback and interactivity. Firstly it’s more interesting to do something, when you know how well you are doing with it. Secondly, human mind is wired for feedback. Here I’ll tell you about one curious experiment. Many cities have a problem with drivers, who exceed maximum speed limits. To make them slow down usually police officers or cameras with radars are used. If you get caught, you have to pay a fine. But once a different approach was tried. Under the road sign with the speed limit was placed another sign, on which your current speed was displayed (this is how it looks like – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Radar_speed_sign_-_close-up_-_over_limit.jpg ). Theoretically the driver didn’t find out anything new from the sign, after all he could see his current speed in his car’s speedometer. But it still did the trick – drivers slowed down, even though there was no punishment. There was simply some feedback.
The thing is that whenever people do something, they are interested in feedback and often they also take it seriously, after it is received.

2. Fun and a whole spectrum of other emotions. While playing games in different situations you can experience thrill, anger, disappointment, joy, satisfaction, surprise or simply have fun.  The thing is that people memorize much better these events, which are emotional for them. This is just how our memory works. For example, now try to recall one event, which happened last month and was very emotional for you, and also one event, which left you completely emotionless. Which one you can remember more vividly and from which one you can recall more details? I bet the one, which was emotional.

3. In games we can see our progress. That’s why games have points and next levels. When we are doing something and we see that we are getting better with it, then we have interest to continue doing it. But when it starts feeling that we are “stuck” and can’t improve at all in what we do, then we also lose interest in doing it anymore.

4. We are given a challenge. Solving problems and competing is interesting, because of the challenge. And of course because of that amazing feeling, which we get at the moment, when we have succeeded and won.

5. Intrinsic (inner) motivation. You don’t learn for a test, an exam, an otherwise angry teacher, making your parents satisfied… You play this game because you want to. And intrinsic motivation always works much better than simply being forced to do something. If we like what we are doing, then we are also much better at it than in these cases, when we simply have to do something we hate.

6. A possibility to experiment (without any bad consequences). Experimenting is very useful, this way we can actually get to some unexpected but good results. And there’s no risk to get into trouble or blow up something in case this experiment fails.

7. Repeating some actions. Like I said – a game is a repetitive learning process. You get to repeat some actions all the time with new actions being gradually added when you have learned the previous ones. And in Latvian there’s even a saying that “repetition is the mother of knowledge”.

So I have just listed some reasons, why people learn so well with games. But are these things working for games only? Not necessary. You can also make a learning environment, which does not involve any games, but still has all or some of the factors I just mentioned. After all there isn’t always a ready game available for any skill you might wish to master. Instead you can learn with your friends and discuss what you have just read/learned thus making learning much more fun. You can make learning into a challenge and compete with other people, who are learning the same stuff you do. You can experiment while learning (for example each artist experiments with paints while learning to draw). Choose to learn things, which are interesting for you and about which you are passionate, thus you get intrinsic motivation. Keep notes about your progress to keep yourself motivated. Ask for feedback.

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By the way, I don’t play computer games at all. A while ago I even was very skeptical about computer games or game based learning. I considered games just a waste of time. But some months ago I happened to have some conversations about this topic with a game programmer, who managed to convince me that some games actually make sense. With the stress on “some” because I still consider large part of games a waste of time. And now, even though I see why games can be useful for learning and I know all this stuff, which I just wrote, I still don’t play any of them. I’m that stubborn. OK, actually that’s simply because so far I haven’t heard about any game, which would be about themes, which are interesting for me. By the way, making me to change my opinion about some theme is quite an accomplishment. That’s just something I don’t do often, and it isn’t that easy to convince me about something. Though it depends on how good arguments are.

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