Game-Based Learning: My Journey To The Unknown

These days, I have been thinking a lot about games-based learning (GBL). This is mainly because I have found myself involved in a project to design a game based on a book I am teaching.  I have to admit that my credentials for it are sorely lacking. I mean seriously, what do I know about gaming? To me, online games are all about blowing your opponents brains out or masterminding some ruthless plan to take over the universe. That’s what they say in the game reviews I read about in Digital Life anyway. I imagine gamers to be geeky young guys, totally glued to their computer screens with nothing that even remotely resembles a social life, weirdos with no fashion sense.…you know, the type of people you pray your children don’t become. I felt nervous, unsure and skeptical about the whole thing. Many people like me don’t see the connection between games and learning. They are chalk and cheese as far as we are concerned.  How is it possible to get the twain to meet? I don’t know, maybe I was being too close-minded and judgmental  After all, much has been said in recent years about the learning potential in games. Even Obama has got into the act. “I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up,” he said at a school last year where he called for more investments into educational technology. Perhaps it was time for me to find out more for myself before jumping to conclusions.

There is much information on the Net about games-based learning and some of it is really compelling reading. It is hard not to be persuaded by the fact that GBL really does have something to offer students that ordinary teacher-talk and textbooks don’t …or more correctly, can’t. One thing that struck me in particular was the nature of games as missions, where the player (or players) enters a virtual world and becomes part of a quest. Research has shown that many children (especially boys) are kinaesthetic learners, that is, they learn by doing or being rather than by reading or being taught about something. Thus, when they enter a virtual world in a game, they are actually experiencing life in that world. This sort of immersive learning gives them a deeper understanding of whatever environment they are in. Researcher James Gee gives the example of   “World of Warcraft” where the laws of physics come to life in a virtual world of fantasy and science fiction. The students don’t simply learn the theories, they actually live it. Besides, the competition element in the game makes the lesson all the more sweet.  We all know that for both kids and adults alike, winning is everything.

Besides making the pedagogy experiential, GBL allows for 21st century skills to be learnt…. subconsciously, of course. There is collaboration among players (in multi-player games), problem-solving and thinking of the bigger picture. Isn’t this what we teachers try to imbibe in our kids in order to prepare them for the big bad world? John Levin, a primary school teacher in the US, claims that students learn about ethics and social behaviour in games. According to him, Minecraft (a game where you use blocks to build your own world) teaches kids positive social behaviour. They have to be kind and fair to others if they want to succeed in the game. In other words, it really is about how you play the game. In a world where meanness rules (remember the recent case of the teenaged girl who killed herself because of Facebook bullies?), parents and teachers need all the help they can get in ensuring their young charges don’t turn into cruel, heartless monsters.

In our own backyard too, school administrators and teachers are taking bold steps in GBL. Canberra Primary, for example, has its Play as Pedagogy programme. The school has a 4D Immersive Lab where students can find themselves in a number of different environments with just a tap on the screen. I can’t help but envy those kids. In the good old days, we only had notes, pictures and our imaginations to rely on. Now you can immerse yourself in almost any world you are curious about.  It seems to me that the expression “been there, done that” has taken on a whole new meaning these days! All I can say is kudos to these brave teachers. They certainly are paving the way for the rest of us.

Okay, so now I was convinced that there is more to games than eating your opponents’ brains or annihilating entire cities. But that didn’t mean that I was any less nervous about creating a game of my own or more confident about how I was going to use it in class. For many of us trying our hand at this for the first time, it all boils down to one fact – that our students are experts at games and we are not. No one wants to look like an idiot in front of a class full of know-it-alls.  I didn’t want to proudly announce to the class that we were going to play a game only to have them proclaim loudly “This is so lame! Can we go back to reading the book?” Talk about being shot down in a blaze of glory. I am a pessimist and for pessimists, the worst-case scenario is the most likely.

Scottish teacher Ollie Bray talks about using games as a platform to teach certain things. He says that it is not the game per se that teaches anything, it is how the teacher uses it. He gives the example of “Guitar Hero”. The game itself does not offer much in the way of learning. He suggests that teachers base a music project around the game where kids are taught how to design CD cases and market the brand. Great idea, Ollie but I’m not sure if the rest of us lesser mortals can come up with ingenious lessons plans based on games like you. I mean, is it always obvious what the learning potential is in a game? Of course, a teacher could create her own game but for those of us non-gamers, it is hard to even envisage how a game actually works when we ourselves have never played one.  Yes, most of us have played casual games like Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies but I don’t think that really counts.

So, does that mean teachers have to suddenly transform themselves into gamers in order to use GBL? I don’t think I fit the profile and frankly, I would much rather sit down with a good book or catch up with friends over a meal than spend hours in front of the computer.  I discovered that, fortunately for us, there are people who can help. I met up with a guy who develops games and we chatted for almost 45 minutes about the various possibilities for the game. He’d created a virtual world based on the book I was teaching. I told him what I was hoping to achieve and he told me what was do-able and what wasn’t. It was now up to me to give him my educational input.

Believe it or not, teachers don’t really have to leave their comfort zones altogether when embarking on GBL. That’s what the game developers are there for. We might not spend our leisure time doing quite the same things but we can certainly share ideas and try to see things from each other’s perspective. They have the creative IT expertise and we have the pedagogy. Put these things together and amazing things might just happen.

Ah, but I am getting way ahead of myself. You might be wondering how this story ends: whether the game turned out well, whether my students enjoyed playing it or whether the learning objectives were met. Well, I’m afraid it’s early days yet. This is still a work-in-progress. Hopefully, I will have something positive to report in the not-too-distant future. Wish me luck!

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