From Angry Birds to Minecraft, gaming holds extraordinary potential for today’s students

gaming-educationGaming. It’s more than a buzzword in today’s schools, but it still sometimes carries a stigma–is gaming really an effective way for students to learn?

The answer, according to computer science teacher Douglas Kiang: Games are powerful motivators.

“As teachers, we need to learn how games do what they do, and how we make that into productive learning by using those game dynamics to accomplish our purpose,” Kiang said during an in-demand ISTE 2014 session.

Students frequently walk away from homework when it is too difficult, but difficult games are another matter–kids walk away from games when they’re too easy. Difficult games present a positive challenge for students. A challenging task “stretches” a student’s brain, and the more a person expects his or her brain to do different things, the more pathways that person’s brain will develop.

“Choice is a really important part of this equation, and gaming embodies choice–games are open-ended, and that’s part of the reason they’re so engaging for kids,” Kiang said.

(Next page: How gaming challenges students in positive ways)

“How do we get kids to walk out of our classrooms and continue to think about what they’ve done in class?” he asked.

Games give students an “endless list of things they have to complete–but the difference [compared to homework] is that they’re making the list,” Kiang said.

The top five most addictive games, Kiang said, are:
5. League of Legends, because of its large social element
4. Civilization V, due to its flexibility and multiple ways to solve problems and meet challenges
3. Plants vs. Zombies 2, for its progression dynamic and encouragement factors
2. Angry Birds, because the game makes it OK to fail–to be successful, players have to fail a lot
1. Minecraft, due to its vast open-ended nature as a “sandbox” game–players play and build whatever they want with no game-specified completion goal

There’s a great amount of power in the open-endedness of Minecraft as a learning environment, Kiang said. Kiang’s students create a world in Minecraft as part of their learning, and in doing so, Kiang said it’s important for educators to know their students and know their students as gamers using the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology, which describes four gaming personalities: explorers, achievers, socializers, and killers.

“When you know who your kids are, it makes a huge difference in how you see them–you can’t expect kids to fit in one mold,” he said. “Take time to know them for their individual strengths and what they’re particularly good at.”

Kiang described the five gaming dynamics that engage students and make it easier for educators to integrate gaming into their instruction:

1. Appointment Dynamic: Players receive a bonus for being at some point in the game at a particular time. In Farmville, players collect points and bonuses harvesting crops, which grow in real time and will die if they aren’t watered and cared for.

2. Failure Dynamic: “We want to allow kids to fail early and fail often,” Kiang said. “Failure is a big part of the game, but it creates opportunities for exploration and trying different strategies to succeed.”

When students save their progress in a game just before trying to solve a big challenge, they know their progress won’t be lost, and they’re more apt to explore. “Where’s the equivalent of the ‘saved game’ in education?” Kiang asked. Often, once students have an “A” average, they play it safe because they don’t want to lower their average–but, as Kiang pointed out, this means they won’t take risks.

“In my class, I don’t necessarily want to create ‘A’ students–I want to create kids who are confident risk-takers,” he said.

3. Flexibility Dynamic: This is the idea that a game provides multiple paths of representation for students, enabling them to succeed in different ways. When Super Mario 64 was released, Kiang said, it was revolutionary at the time, because players don’t have to complete every part of a level to advance to the next–they only have to complete 3 out of 5, for instance, and they still know where they are in the game and where they need to be.

In any good online course or system of interaction, users should always be able to see where they are at a given point, know where they’re going, and see the path that will get them to their goal.

“When you see those things, you’re free to explore,” Kiang said. “When you’re afraid to get lost, you don’t take risks. And if you don’t see the path, you don’t learn anything.”

4. Progression Dynamic: Educators should scale challenges so that they are challenging enough to make students want to continue, but not so challenging that students become frustrated and, in turn, discouraged.

“Expect students to get stuck and unstuck–that’s critical thinking, and that’s very important,” Kiang said. “You want them working at the ‘point of struggle,’ when a game is challenging but within their skill level.”

5. Construction Dynamic: This gives students something to care about, and gives them purpose within the game. Educators can embed gaming in their classrooms in various ways, but the games should be open-ended and give students freedom and choice.

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Laura Ascione
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