ISTE keynote: Gaming has huge educational potential

Opening keynoter Jane McGonigal addressed gaming’s educational potential.

Gaming–educational gaming in particular–has supporters and skeptics. During the ISTE 2013 opening keynote, speaker Jane McGonigal, a gaming researcher and author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, laid out a vision for how gaming can help boost student engagement.

Calling game designers “happiness engineers” and experts in making difficult tasks engaging, McGonigal said that educators and policy makers should leverage game designers’ wisdom as they try to address important challenges in today’s world.

The number of gamers worldwide recently topped 1 billion, McGonigal said, and while skeptics might “think about games as being a waste of time, to avoid being a productive member of society, 1 billion gamers is actually the best news you’ll hear all week—it’s good news for parents and teachers, for learning and education, and good news, most of all, for anyone who wants to help pitch in and solve some of the world’s most epic challenges.”

(Next page: What does gaming do for gamers, exactly?)But gaming stereotypes are hard to beat–gamers have collectively spent 300 million minutes playing Angry Birds, which amounts of 400,000 years of playing time. The average Call of Duty player spends 170 hours every year playing the game, or 1 month of full-time work.

A 2012 Gallup Engagement poll showed that 71 percent of U.S. workers are not engaged in the workplace and don’t see meaning in their jobs, and this costs companies about $300 billion each year in lost productivity. McGonigal noted that the same poll shows that the longer U.S. students spend in school, the less engaged students are: eight out of 10 elementary school students said they felt positive and excited about learning, while only six in 10 middle school students reported the same thing, and by high school only four in 10 students felt positive about learning.

Incorporating gaming in schools can be part of the solution to student engagement challenges, because video games are “spaces of maximum engagement,” where players join together to meet goals and solve problems.

The gaming gender gap has narrowed, as well, McGonigal said, with 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls playing games regularly. In fact, anyone born from 1980 on is considered a good gamer. Ninety-two percent of 2-year-olds in the U.S. are already playing games regularly.

But what is it that gamers get out of gaming that makes the hobby so appealing, and how can we give that to students in classrooms? In McGonigal’s 12 years of gaming research, she said, 10 emotions are regularly associated with gaming: joy, relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe and wonder, contentment, and, most of all, creativity.

“These positive emotions…have a really powerful impact on us,” she said. In fact, gamers, she continued, are “super empowered hopeful individuals.”

Gaming also has a positive impact on brain activity, stimulating memory and retention, “feel-good” areas, and engagement, as well as boosting motivation through their goal-oriented nature.

Gamers spend 80 percent of their time failing, yet still have positive experiences and retain positive emotions despite those failures. Why? “When you’re able to fail 80 percent of the time, and you’re able to draw on those positive emotions, you’re able to get to the positive place you want,” McGonigal said. Letting students try and fail in school, and leveraging games’ motivating factors, can boost student engagement and also teach students one of today’s most sought-after skills: problem-solving.

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Laura Ascione
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