Why I’m considering a career in educational games

Your honor, the prosecution would like to argue that the way the world is currently organized with regard to education vs. entertainment doesn’t really make any sense.

Exhibit #1: the award-winning strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a 2012 reboot of an old strategy game franchise. As of this writing, I have logged 94 hours of play on this game, much of that due to getting so addicted that I couldn’t quit even when I wanted to. As a result of playing, I have learned numerous pieces of utterly useless trivia. For example, I know that the easiest enemies in the game (sectoids) have three hit points on difficulties “Easy”, “Normal” and “Classic”, meaning that they can be killed with a single grenade, but they upgrade to having four hit points on “Impossible”. I also know that soldiers who are assigned to the “Sniper” class initially begin with the “Headshot” special ability. At the next level, one may choose between the “Snap Shot” and “Squadsight” special abilities, out of which the “Squadshot” special ability is clearly far superior. And so on.

Exhibit #2: the classical education system. Even when I have a genuine interest in the topic that I’m supposed to be studying, it often involves an active expenditure of willpower to get myself to do so. The human brain is most strongly motivated by frequent and rapid feedback, but traditional education tends to involve rather long feedback cycles. Maybe there are exercises that are due once a week, but it can also be the case that you’re required to spend a considerable time reading a book and listening to lectures before you’ll get a single piece of feedback in the form of your exam grade. Much of the education is delivered in a form that keeps the learner passive: lectures (a terrible way of learning) or books, rather than the kind of interactivity that would really be engaging. When there are exercises, they often feel pointless, boring and unfun.

Thus, games are doing a far better job of teaching things than the education system is. The defense is about to present witnesses who will argue that traditional education is slowly but surely reforming, shifting towards better methods of teaching. The defense will no doubt point out that the prosecutor himself is currently taking a university course based on the problem-based learning paradigm. The prosecutor hastens to grant these points. However, they do not alter his point, which is that such reforms aren’t taking things far enough. All, or at least most, of education could be done via games that were as addictive and enjoyable as traditional games.

Next, the defense will present arguments that educational games are all bad, and that you can’t really make a good one. I request that the honorable judge dismiss this argument as sheer nonsense. We have already shown that enjoyable games can teach quite a lot of things, such as the statistics of various aliens. I would also point out that I began being taught English in school around (I think) the third grade, but I never learned much in school that I wouldn’t already have learned from other sources, computer games being some of the most notable ones. Finally, part of my understanding of history comes from playing games such as Civilization, Colonization, and Europa Universalis. Games are already teaching us countless of things: it’s just that we might want to adjust the things that they are teaching us.

And let us not forget exhibit #3: DragonBox. About a month ago, I witnessed a kid who was around eight years old blaze through ~80 levels of the thing in just a few hours and have a lot of fun doing so, and afterwards she had no trouble solving the equation ax/5=a/b on pen and paper. Also, her older brother was complaining that he wanted to play, too, which was the first time that I’ve ever seen kids argue over who gets to solve first-degree equations. Before this, I also witnessed a four-year old solve about a hundred of such equations playing the game, though with considerably more coaching. This was the game that really opened my eyes for the possibilities of educational games.

But DragonBox, as fantastic it is for teaching the rules of algebra, does nothing to teach the reasons for the rules. It doesn’t impart a deep understanding of why math works the way it does. Because of that, it remains a useful tool for teaching algebra, but only a tool – it doesn’t work as a stand-alone teaching method. You can’t learn math from only playing DragonBox, the way I pretty much learned the basics of English from only playing video games.

What kind of a game would let you learn math only from playing it? Let’s cast away all modesty for a while, and think big instead. Why was math invented in the first place? Part out of intellectual curiosity, part for solving practical problems. Geometry was created to help with things such as planting the crops and building houses. A game which was really good at teaching math might put you in an imaginary world where no abstract math existed yet, and would task you with inventing ways for improving the world. You would invent math from the first foundations, for the same reasons people originally invented it – to solve the concrete problems threatening the kingdom. You’d see your people living in caves or primitive huts, start thinking about how it’d be better if they had some better homes, and then invent geometry for that purpose. Then, based on how well you did, people would start building better houses and you could walk around your kingdom looking for new problems to solve or new improvements to make.

How would that work in practice, given that math is fundamentally an act of creativity? How could there be a game that let players doodle around with math, experimenting with ideas, until they finally discovered the foundations of first geometry, and then the other subfields of mathematics? I don’t really know, but I do think that it could be done. For one, you’d want to equip the game with some sort of a theorem-prover, so that the players could experiment around with putting together various kinds of axioms and lemmas and see whether they produced interesting-looking theorems. Maybe an architect would suggest that it would be useful if you could prove some property about triangles, and then you could play around until you produced a statement that the game deemed to be logically equivalent with the wanted property. If you were running low on ideas, you would be given hints – perhaps in the form of taking a walk around your kingdom, until you saw something in nature that gave you an idea of an intermediate step or useful additional lemma, and the game would then give that to you as an intermediate goal.

Of course, there’s no reason for why this would need to be restricted to just mathematics. Inventing biology, physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, political science, and so on would certainly also be useful for your kingdom. The sciences are the easiest, since they have clear-cut correct answers that can be tested automatically, but one could also think about ways of teaching humanities in this way. History, for one, would be a natural fit, and the students could practice writing skills by composing essays and stories about what happened in the game.

School, then, would become a place where you went to play a fun game and talk about it with your friends and teachers afterwards. (I’m much inspired by the way an Australian teacher had his students by Plague Inc., after which they talked about the game in the light of the theory of evolution.) We could do away with the stressful and unfun exams this way – it’s obvious that we need exams for as long as school is stupid and boring and students won’t study unless they’re tested on the material, but with a game, you’re constantly proving your talents in-game. If we insist on giving kids grades – and I’m not sure that we should – we can do it by scoring their progress in the game.

Your honor, I submit that this kind of an organization would make far more sense. Maybe people would still need to spend some willpower to start playing the educational games rather than the entertainment games – after all, games that are optimized only for fun are likely to win in that department – but they wouldn’t need much willpower. And once they got started, they’d be hooked for a good while.

The prosecution rests. But not for long, because there’s still a lot of work to be done.

5 comments

  1. My initial reaction is to say that the feedback or studying takes the following forms: 1. Completing tasks, 2. noticing that you have learned something, and 3. Grades and other institutional rewards.

    I would say that 1 is fairly easy to have students feel as long as they have tasks to complete (e.g. homework and demonstrations in maths). It may be more problematic in, say, philosophy or the humanities.

    2 takes a certain amount of reflection, or alternatively assignments that actively show that the student has learned something. I do feel that 2 is a distinct weakness in current university teaching. Oral exams might help.

    (The layout of the blog prevents me from seeing the “post comment” button if the message is significantly longer than this, so continued on next reply.)

    • (Continued…)

      I have mixed feelings about 3. On the other hand, they do offer a kind of motivation, but it is an empty one, like that of getting more Facebook friends, or expensive items that show off one’s wealth. I have chosen to actively notice and ignore such fake rewards and focus on more meaningful ones. I think it is working to some degree. I assume this tendency is not universally shared among humanity, and trying to force it would end up badly.

  2. Great post Kaj. Finland has excellent educational reputation and game development industry. We are combining those. Fantastec develops educative multiplatform game world for small kids: Polar Heroes is at beta stage.Read more at http://www.polarheroes.com/fi/

    Best regards, Juha from Fantastec

  3. hi, well, dont hesitate to contact us if u re interested in seeing if we can do something together, jean

  4. I can’t believed it so far. Such an excellent piece of work. Is it really that teachers working so hard to give the best practice for schoolers? Excellent! It’s shame that our teachers in my Republic of Sakha (Yakutka) in my humble opinion not fans of teaching comparing with your thoughts :) Great!

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