Games mirror the way the human mind was designed to learn. They motivate players to take risks and actions, persevere through failures, set and achieve increasingly difficult goals, and devote attention, time, and effort to acquiring knowledge and skills. All this while the game is tracking the player’s actions and assessing the player’s achievements and skills. Isn’t this what we want from education?
Lev Vygotsky coined the term zone of proximal development. This is the sweet spot for learning; it’s the area between what a person can do without help, and what they can only accomplish with help. These are the skills that a person can develop with guidance, persistence, and encouragement.
Carol Dweck is the Columbia, and now Stanford, professor who wrote Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dr. Dweck pioneered the growth mindset paradigm, where individuals view themselves as evolving, and therefore persist and iterate in order to increase their proficiencies and abilities.
Research suggests that video games offer a synthesis of both a growth mindset and zones of proximal development. Given that 99% of boys, 94% of girls, and 62% of teachers play video games, that there are over 180 million active gamers in the US alone, and that the average gamer averages 13 hours a week playing games, isn’t it a relief knowing that they may actually be learning?
In Playful Learning: An Integrated Design Framework, Plass, Homer, and Kinzer point out, successful games tend to aim toward a player’s zone of proximal development, where a player can succeed, but only through effort and some struggle. Games therefore have to measure player skill, and then provide an appropriate response (feedback, consequences, next actions) based on that information.
Games allow for graceful failure; game designers imbed failure into the game mechanics without a lot high-stakes negative consequence to encourage balanced risk taking and exploration.
Games are complex problems waiting to be solved in a way that is both fun and challenging. Kris Mueller, an eighth grade teacher writing for Edutopia, wrote: “A well-designed game leads players through carefully-leveled tasks that prepare them to succeed in bigger challenges.”
A huge factor to learning through games is the time spent on task. Not surprisingly, the more time spent playing, the greater the gain in skills and knowledge.
Tobias, Fletcher, and Chen, in an article to be published later in 2015, Digital Games as Educational Technology: Promise and Challenges in the Use of Games to Teach, report that those who learn using games, “tend to spend more time on them than do comparison groups.” While the learning is incontrovertible, no one knows whether game based learning is due to the increased time on task or increased efficiency in learning or both.
In the Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools, Shernoff and Chikszentmihalyi note that enjoyment and interest during high school classes are significant predictors of student success in college, but that this is a rarity in US schools.
On average, high school students are less engaged while in classrooms than anywhere else. Students are found to be thinking about topics entirely unrelated to academics a full 40% of the time while in classrooms. Alternate approaches are needed in order to provide what is most lacking: greater enjoyment, motivation, and opportunities for action in the learning process.
High engagement is observed when students focus on mastering a task according to self-set standards or a self-imposed desire for improvement. Engagement (enjoyment and interest) is represented by heightened concentration and effort in skill-building activities along with spontaneous enjoyment from intrinsic interest and continued motivation.
This is exactly what happens when kids play engaging video games.
SRI, in research on GlassLab STEM games for K12, found that, for the average student, learning achievement increases by 12 percent when game based learning augments traditional instruction, and if the “game” is a simulation, achievement increases by 25 percent.