Better learning through gaming

I think most learning and training professionals agree that games are effective strategies for learning. Making learning, or training, fun makes it more engaging and meaningful, thus more effective. The Wall Street Journal today has an article on the use of educational games in Japanese schools that basically says kids learn faster when they play games. The thing that is unique about the games is the platform – they’re using the Nintendo DS portable gaming platform. Any parent whose kids play any kind of game can attest to a child’s ability to quickly master games, even complex computer or console games. My 5 year old quickly learned how to play Wii sports and even beat me in a game of bowling within the first few games. Imagine that level of engagement and retention for teaching math or a foreign language.

In schools, games and songs have long been used to teach concepts to young children. I still “sing” my ABC’s. Anything you make fun just sticks in a child’s mind. My oldest daughter participated in a Science Olympiad this year. She learned a lot and had a blast. The events were essentially games, so the kids really jumped in and learned. The team placed first in the county competition, and it was the first year our school sent a team.

What’s frustrating is that when learning games are delivered via a traditional game platform, management balks. Why shouldn’t the Nintendo DS, or Wii, or PS3 be used as a learning tool? If you are going to create educational games, or training games, why not take advantage of the best tools – the game platforms? To me it’s just common sense that if you want to create a game then you create it for a game platform. We shouldn’t be stuck with Flash (which I love). The gaming industry has decades of experience developing compelling games and we should be tapping into that experience to create better training and educational products. I’m surprised more schools and training organizations haven’t contracted with game developers to develop better educational and training games. The game platforms are best suited to deliver games, why not use them to create real games for learning?

The argument against it is simple – if you give people a gaming platform then they will play games and not use it for learning. I call BS on that one. Anyone reading this blog has a gaming platform and you probably use it productively most of the time. Sure, people will play games if you give them a Nintendo, but they play games now on their computers and cell phones. Also, the primary purpose of most computers (outside of schools) is not for learning or training – it’s for work. We occasionally use our work tools for learning and recreational activities (how many people check personal email at work?) and for the most part some amount of personal use is accepted (even expected). Why shouldn’t have the same expectation for gaming platforms?

So if we buy grade school kids portable gaming platforms and give them educational materials, we should expect them to play Super Mario Bros as well. But think how much that kid will learn from the educational games (assuming they’re fun and developed well). I think they’ll learn more quickly and deeply by playing educational games and having that reinforced in class, and in life. The same is true for adults. Why shouldn’t a college or corporation buy gaming platforms for learning? They essentially already have by buying computers and corporate cell phones. Also, the Nintendo DS is relatively inexpensive, certainly much cheaper than a laptop.

Games and learning do mix, I think better than text books and learning. We just need to give them a real chance, and make them a real part of curriculum.

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One Response to Better learning through gaming

  1. Holly Maso says:

    “I’m surprised more schools and training organizations haven’t contracted with game developers to develop better educational and training games.”

    My sentiments exactly.

    My impression is that eLearning will head further in this direction in the coming years, as exemplified by the latest buzz created by Second Life. However, I think that the emergence of eLearning with modern gaming will remain dependent on practical issues, such as bandwidth limitations, speed of design and development, justification over other effective “lower tech” methodologies, and plain old cash constraints.

    Forward-thinking organizations such as IBM are pushing those frontiers, and it will be interesting to see how their efforts affect contemporary training methodologies.

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