How can we bridge the gap to make the best elements of game play for “fun” work in the classroom? For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that engagement equals fun. The hard truth about “fun” is that it’s very difficult to produce on demand. In the best of circumstances, children enter the game space in search of fun with little coaching via social cues: seeing others who are playing smile, laugh, or model playful behavior lets them know it is safe to play. Players can bend games to their own desires and create organic, unstructured activities that foster self-motivated exploration with a very low risk of failure.
In the game space, the concept of failure has been completely, and powerfully, redefined. Players who are working toward mastering a skill can attempt to do so with few consequences for repeated attempts, and they are eventually rewarded with a true mastery of the skill they have feverishly pursued. Their motivation is purely intrinsic and, indeed, creates a magical moment.
Introduced into concepts of any game play, this naturally attracts other players. When the individual is safe to try—and even fail—with little to no risk, players become more creative, communicative, and more likely to collaborate with others—all of which are invaluable 21st-century skills. And despite a general heightened knowledge that now exists about early socialization, only recently have we begun to see how very powerful these tools can be—both inside and outside of formal learning settings. The pursuit of fun is intrinsically motivating, and tapping into that motivation can yield some very powerful results. Highly engaged players want to play for the sake of play itself. For those players, anything else is gravy.
Engagement in the game space is often heightened by eye-popping graphics, exciting plots (many with fantasy elements), and the ability to choose and develop an avatar, all the while discovering the secrets of an expansive and immersive reality, with the assurance that with relentless pursuit, players will progress at a reasonable rate—and the quality and enjoyment of their play will increase as they progress, despite persistent challenge.
Players will endure the frustration of repetitive attempts because finally achieving mastery is intrinsically motivating. That motivation keeps players coming back for more. In many games, players earn experience points that gauge the progress of their avatar. This is strongly contrasted against the traditional grading system, where students begin with 100 percent and only have one way to go—down. Experience points not only enable players to earn new abilities, tools, strength, and status, but also to access side-quests and other challenges. New threads are frequently introduced into the narrative, and thus the quest for knowledge, power, mastery, and eventually, autonomy is never-ending.
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Examples of this can be found in massively multi-player online games. The most notable of these is “World of Warcraft,” which has about 10 million subscribers. In this gaming community, players enter into a self-motivated, non-linear narrative as novices and work their way up by taking on self-directed quests, building collaborative guilds, and working toward common goals—and eventually mastery over the environment.
Notable here is the fact that the game space is player-centered, not system-centered. As players explore the realm, they are surrounded by places to explore, missions to fill, dragons to slay—as well as a fountain of information to draw upon in order to sustain them along the way. Knowledge and solutions to challenges are everywhere and are acquired in a number of ways: through narrative, preset cast members, and from more experienced players that one meets along the way. Additionally, onlookers are very quick to provide “just in time” coaching. The latter two are strong examples of peer-to-peer teaching, which is accepted with great appreciation and, very frequently, paid forward.
In such game spaces, information is sustenance, and players actively and aggressively pull it from various resources as it’s needed and actively employ it to progress. This is in stark contrast to the traditional classroom model, where information is selected by the system and pushed upon the students. In the game space, users play in order to learn the game—as opposed to learning first and playing later.
So how do game and educational software developers serve up authentic fun and impart actual knowledge to students? Transforming instruction into a game is not a simple task or a frivolous pursuit. Despite the challenges, and amidst what could be described as a revolution of sorts, some are finding a median that is yielding very hopeful and positive results.