• August 28, 2015

5 Teaching Tips for Professors—From Video Games

Learning is no game on today's college campuses. It's serious work that many students dread. Yet when those same students play video games like World of Warcraft, they happily spend hours on difficult tasks, and actually learn quite a bit in the process.

Granted, what those gamers learn is how to cast spells and fell dragons, which hardly counts toward a college degree. But Constance Steinkuehler argues that there's a good model of teaching in those popular amusements.

Ms. Steinkuehler, an assistant professor of educational communication and technology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, studies video gamers. In one recent case study, she noted how players in a chat room had used complex mathematics to argue for a certain plan of attack against some unruly beast.

"People were actually—no kidding—gathering data on things like the game monster's behavior, putting it in an Excel spreadsheet, and building little mathematical models to try to beat the monster," she told me recently. The game teaches complex problem solving and collaborative learning, Ms. Steinkuehler argues.

She is certainly not the first scholar to go down that road. But she is part of what I would argue is a new, more nuanced view of the possibilities of games in higher education. It is a view that contains specific lessons about what works and what does not.

Call it the third level of video games inside the ivory tower.

Level 1 could be called the Edutainment Years. The earliest educational video games leaned far more toward entertainment than education. Many people who spent hours as kids playing The Oregon Trail or Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego? now have no recollection of the factoids taught by the games.

The second level brought the label Serious Games, with scholars designing their own video games about the weightiest of topics and social issues. Award-winning titles include Darfur Is Dying, and Global Conflicts: Palestine.

The problem is that many of the games aren't much fun. That was the complaint of Will Wright, designer of the best-selling Sims games, when I sat down with him last summer to talk about the state of educational games. "Because they're serious subjects," he said, "there's a tendency to treat them too seriously—to say, Let's not be too playful or flippant about this." And isn't fun what makes games attractive to students in the first place?

Hence the need to advance to Level 3, which could be called Smart Gaming. Part of Smart Gaming is recognizing that games are often not the best tools in an educational setting, but when they are, they should carefully balance substance and sport.

At that level, it's possible to deconstruct video games, looking for takeaways that professors can try in their own teaching, whether or not they ever pick up a joystick or click "play."

Here are five lessons I gleaned from recent talks with several leading researchers involved in education and gaming:

1. Give frequent and detailed feedback. Just about every video game prominently displays a scoreboard. It can be incredibly detailed, with tallies of gold grabbed, enemies slain, levels won, shooting accuracy attained, and more. "What kids do in entertainment games," says Jan L. Plass, an associate professor of educational communication and technology at New York University, "is they say, 'I need to work on my stealth or my potion-making skills' or whatever," thanks to that detailed accounting. "It's part of that drive to know yourself—what you're good at and what you're not good at. We really want to know."

Professors in most college classes don't always give feedback as rapid or exhaustive as that. Sure, they return papers and other assignments with number grades and occasional comments, but that hardly resembles those score screens on an Xbox 360 game. "What if, for each of the aspects of the assignment, you got a subgrade," suggests Mr. Plass. "Students could see that 'in these parts I got an A, but in these other parts I got a failing grade.'" That might be more meaningful than a big red C at the top of a paper.

2. Test before going live. The big video-game companies use hundreds, even thousands, of beta testers before ever putting a title on store shelves. That has impressed Mr. Plass, who is a director of NYU's Games for Learning Institute and has worked with Microsoft's video-game group to see how the company tests its popular game Halo.

"One of their concerns is whether the game is too hard and you might die in places that you're not supposed to die," he says, noting that Microsoft runs testers through the game and uses tracking software to identify rough spots, like one area where players routinely fell off a cliff because they couldn't tell it was there.

Mr. Plass says he now tests his center's educational games in a similar way, though with fewer testers than Microsoft uses. "If we find in a particular game that there's a particular problem that most kids fail to solve, even though the problem isn't all that hard, we would try to figure out why that is," he says.

The same concept could be applied to testing online courses, even if they are not in game form.

"I'd freely admit that we don't do enough user-design testing in the online courses we make," says Jared Stein, director of instructional-design services at Utah Valley University, when I ran the idea past him recently. "We tried to implement that as part of our process last year, and we just ran into too many other fires that we had to put out," he says. But it is a good goal for any online program, he adds, and can be as simple as sitting one student down and observing her work through a course.

3. Narrative can answer the question "Why are we learning this?" Stories are powerful ways to engage people, and an immersive story line is one reason players of World of Warcraft work so hard to solve puzzles in the game, argues Ms. Steinkuehler, the Madison assistant professor. On her blog she explains that the player who created the mathematical model delivered it in a playful way that fit the story line of the game, disparaging some spells and character types as he went, rather than simply stating raw numbers.

The idea that stories are powerful motivators drove a recent experiment at the Florida Virtual School, one of the nation's largest online public schools. Last year the school began offering a semester-long course in American history in the form of a 3-D online video game.

Players take on the role of a secret agent and walk around a futuristic city, trying to stop a shadowy group from overthrowing the government. The students collect clues (which take the form of articles about American history) and expose bad guys (the ones who state incorrect facts). "Everything students do is on target with the story," says Jeramy Gatza, a curriculum-innovation specialist for Florida Virtual, who previously taught history in the classroom. "There's no busywork, there's no 'you've got to do this because it's on the syllabus.'"

4. Don't be afraid of fun. Perhaps remembering the worst of "edutainment," many professors still shy away from the idea that a college course can be fun.

"There's an assumption that learning is supposed to be dry and tedious and painful and awful," says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. "If it looks like a game, it immediately gets written off."

That shouldn't be so, says Mr. Wiley. He's clearly not afraid to be playful himself, though. Last year he delivered a course about online learning that was modeled on a role-playing game (think Dungeons and Dragons, where the professor is the dungeon master).

5. Not every subject works as a game. There's a vast graveyard of serious games that have failed, commercially and educationally. "Blindly throwing games at an instructional problem is not a good solution," says Brett E. Shelton, an assistant professor of instructional technology at Utah State University, who has developed some educational games. "I'd actually consider myself to be more of a skeptic rather than an advocate of instructional games, believe it or not."

Educational games, in fact, are actually much harder to design than other teaching approaches because they have to do so many things well.

"It has to be a good game, and you want deep learning with assessment closely married to the learning," says James Paul Gee, who wrote a book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and is part of the Games, Learning, and Society research group at the University of Wisconsin. "It's a double challenge."


1. blendedlibrarian - January 27, 2010 at 09:21 am

We had a video game designer/developer give a lecture at our campus a few years ago. Another lesson we learned - about what makes video games so engaging - is that they are designed to immediately capture the player's attention and imagination - and to immediately immerse them in a succeed or fail scenario that gets them to be passionate about the game. If the designer fails to create that bond between the player and the game in the first 30 seconds - 1 minutes - it's a loser. So how do you do that in the classroom? By spending the first hour of the class reviewing the syllabus and all the assignments? Asking engaging questions or telling stories might be a way to do this - or creating a first day of the class challenge assignment is a possibility. I found it a lesson worth remembering.

2. history_grrrl - January 27, 2010 at 07:15 pm

A cardinal rule of journalism (and historical scholarship) is to quote one's sources exactly. The author conducted a taped interview with Will Wright, but then, for the article, added, deleted, and even changed Wright's words. The alterations may seem slight, but they did change Wright's meaning in one place. If you listen to the video while reading the quote, you'll see that Wright did not say "there's a tendency to treat [serious subjects] too seriously." He said, "very seriously." This sort of thing can damage one's credibility as an interviewer.

3. diogenesc - January 27, 2010 at 07:16 pm

I have no doubt that gaming has something to offer the profession.

However don't assume that hard-core gamers are typical students. That a bunch of people who spend inordinate amounts of the free time on-line fighting imaginary beasts use Excel to figure out how to do that better potentially means very little for average people trying to learn, say, American History.

4. dpn33 - January 28, 2010 at 08:37 am

There are ways to add simple games that drive home a point that don't have to be highly developed video games. Mind, I have a vision of a complex and beautiful (note that academic games are often bland-looking, unlike their entertainment counterparts and this can be a real turn-off, too) game that would work well in my field but I'm not a designer and would need a bucket of money to build this dream. But I have used games like find-a-word, Jeopardy, bingo, and a Boogle spin-off (with prizes for winners), that are intended to drive home particular points as well as bring a few moments of fun into the classroom. So far they seem to have worked both in making my point and in giving a pleasant diversion in a three-hour class.

5. 11893310 - January 28, 2010 at 04:18 pm

It takes video games to learn the lessons every good teacher has learned long ago? Wonder how many of the teachers in Ken Bain's, What the Best College Teachers Do? used video games or learned from video games? Let's see, maybe we can learn from that engaging back alley game, craps. Or, perhaps, from Nascar racing, which certainly engages one's attention immediately, gets the hormones flowing and the pulse beating, tests before going live, isn't afraid of fun, etc. Nascar racing also has the advantage of being a focal thing, of sorts, and not part of the life-denying device paradigm (see Albert Borgmann for details).

6. robertvm - January 28, 2010 at 05:35 pm

I agree with much of what has been argued in this article, but do want to question some of the conclusions made that "serious" games take themselves too seriously and hence can be set up to fail in educating.

I think Will Wright's reference to the Twilight Zone is a good one for yes Sterling was able to tackle very serious issues in a way that resonated at a larger social level (and by the way yes the previous comment about the need for referencing properly is correct for a slight change here and there can overstate the position of the reference). BUT at the same time there is a flip side to this and that forms of media that try and be too clever/fun about social subtext can be seen, and critiqued, as something not to be taken seriously (hence going back to challenges found in point #4 above).

Yes, many serious pieces of entertainment based media have ended up in the taking themselves too seriously but there is an equal number of goofy pieces of social commentary regulated to the fringes of the public consciousness. It is a very line to walk, and there is an important place for both, and many times it comes down to the quality of production versus the level of “play” and “fun” (think Dr. Strangelove versus The Mouse that Roared, both very fun and actually good films but the overall quality of one outweighed the other).

Much more importantly, I think, we cannot overlook the importance of the serious documentary use of various popular media, for does the Twilight Zone really move and educate us more than say the superb documentary series such as Eyes on the Prize? Again, I think this piece raises some important issues and arguments, but I think this one core conclusion is a bit overstated, just as many on the other side overstate the lack of importance found in play, leisure activities, role playing, etc.

7. reishizuno - January 29, 2010 at 08:20 am

Using the Sims as a case study for Sociology, I would suggest assigning a few hours of The Sims every week as homework, then making students analyse the units' behaviour using sociological concepts. The final exam would then be to explain, using simulated reconstructions of humans, the sociological problems faced at the end of the world.

8. ceriness - January 29, 2010 at 09:50 am

I've used my own guilty pleasure experience in fantasy MMORPGs to explain features of warfare in ancient epic - why Hector takes Patroclus' armour in the Iliad, or the definition of /time/ as accumulated experience points, gear, and gold vs. /kleos/ as your legendary score board. My students get a quick laugh at how geeky their professor is, but they now remember concepts and think about the literary roots of the games they play in their spare time.

9. chesscubed - January 31, 2010 at 08:34 am

I think about Chess the same way. If it had more fun appeal, more students would play and benefit from the life-long game induced skills. Yet many feel that it should appear difficult and boring like a typical college course.

Chess players see 64 squares of possibilities and strategies, with unique tools to implement their magic. Both ideals will continue in parallel, the tough and boring alongside the fun easy. Younger students beginning with edutaining, will bring fun to the boring college.

I will be working on that Fun Chess idea, like three players at once.

10. tbyrne - February 05, 2010 at 02:48 pm

I would add one more lesson to the 5 stated in the article: keep group building and collaborative teamwork as authentic as possible. Groups (aka clans, tribes, or guilds) develop organically in most MMORPG's and result in true task-based collaboration. The goals (including the goal of just staying "alive") in many MMORPG's are designed to be impossible without serious teamwork, unlike many teacher-assigned group projects. Also unlike an assigned group project, group members in an MMORPG can leave a disfunctional group to find a better team to work with, and a group can kick out an unreliable or disruptive group member. There's a natural selection that allows players and teams to find their ideal partners. Leaders must be responsible to their team or risk losing their position or the group altogether. Imagine how that would change the nature of group work in a class if some form of these same conditions applied.

11. smithtk - February 27, 2010 at 11:37 pm

It would be a good idea to add a slightly different game environment to this discussion, Quest Atlantis. There was a comment that many edu games just aren't fun. My observations of kids using it in school place it as more than fun, it is engaging and real and gives kids an opportunity to try in new identities without weilding a sword or a gun. Instead they become scientists or artists or stats kids helping solve public problems and making commuunities better places. They do all of this as avatars and also have can attend self taight virtual building schools in-world and build on rental property. Pretty cool stuff. --Terry Smith

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