Gamers and Education — What we can learn from digitial natives!

This past weekend our 4 year old grandson spent two nights with us. He is your typical 4-year old in every way, obsessed with superhero’s and running fast — with one small exception —  he has his own Iphone.   To a 4 year old,  this is like Willy Wonka’s Charlie getting the Golden Ticket to the chocolate factory.  This was the very first item he showed me when I walked in from work on Friday. Super excited to show me his apps!  He excitedly showed me his games including his aquarium with all his fish that would die if he does not feed them every morning.  They are virtual fish but nonetheless he was adamant that he needed to feed them every morning.  Not only at 4 can he use the Iphone he knows how it operates.  He knows the App store to get games, he knows it needs a password, he can take pictures and surf the web and yes he is 4 and still has a tough time with the alphabet but is a whiz with everything electronic.  Without skipping a beat he can operate just about any electronic device.   He predominately uses the Iphone to play games.  All kinds of games and many of the same games you play like the super popular “Candy Crush or Plants Vs. Zombies.” He even teaches his younger brother.  I know some so called “experts” say he is too young for a smartphone, and on some levels I have to agree with that.  However, take a look around at almost any public space with kids and see them all no matter the age glued to a smartphone playing games or watching Youtube.   I really think they should just hands those out at restaurants instead of the three crayons and a coloring page since it is what kids would prefer anyway.

Michael is what they call a “Digital Native” and our schools are filled with them and they play games.  Lots of games.  X-box, Playstation, software games and our kids spend inordinate amounts of time playing games.  Games like Halo, World of Warcraft, Walking Dead, Madden, hours upon hours that force many parents to limit the amount of time spent playing these games.  Did you ever wonder how kids could spend all day playing games, barely stopping to eat, but cannot stay focused in school?  Cannot pay attention for longer than 10 minutes?  How is that games keep them engaged for days, months or even years?

What is so different about the game(s) and school?  They both have rules and strict ones at that, they both have structure, they both have to do list and task, and they both give grades and even post them as compared to other players often worldwide.  Regardless of the game as with school,  kids know where they rank as compared to there peers.  Tell a kid he/she has a choice — they could either play Xbox all day or go to school — odds are school will never win. Yet games require knowledge, require skill repetition, skill building,  require higher level thinking,  lots of planning, group cooperation and during the game kids fail a ton.  In fact, they spend tons of time failing.  Dying over and over again, failing to achieve the next level, or not making it past some task.  Yet they keep playing never tiring of the challenge.  Why?  

We know in school kids are afraid to fail.  “F” is a negative thing.  Nothing worse than getting an “F” and labeled a failure.  Failure is bad in schools, but in games the failure is instructive.  It is not judgemental.  It contains no value judgement, no ridicule, no scorn.  Unfortunately, schools too often use grades to punish rather than instruct. Grades become a tool of obedience not a tool to assist in the learning process.   If we treated failure like in games, students would simply learn from mistakes and try again and again without labels, judgements and scorn.

Games do not know the difference between my 4-year old grandson and me.  We play the same game and begin on the same level.  Very unforgiving to a 4-year old and the game does not adjust and never judges it simply lets you keep trying.  In fact, in more than one research study gamers over time have developed exceptional mental toughness.  Something that we in schools are just coming to understand how important “grit” is to success in life and school.  In this new era of Ohio’s New Learning Standards we are talking about perseverance and ability to stay on a task with multiple steps.  Something kids have not been able to do with regularity in schools but seem to manage just fine in a gaming environment.

We have much to learn from gamers and the game designers who hook kids and adults into spending money and time on playing a game that often is difficult. These same gamers get kids to read as well. Scouring the internet reading articles on strategy, hints, pointers, and cheats.  Imagine the power of getting kids to read a novel with such veracity.  So what is it about games?

Jane McGonigal points out that all games have four defining traits:

1. Goals

2. Rules

3. Feedback Systems

4. Voluntary Participation

The first three traits are in schools already.

Schools have goals that are specific and give students and gamers a sense of purpose and direction.

Rules are limitations on how players can achieve the goal.  However one key difference in a game as compared to school.  Rules in a game eliminate the obvious ways to achieve the goal forcing players to explore uncharted possible ways to achieve the goal unleashing creativity and strategic thinking.  Many of today’s games are extremely difficult and the answer is not obvious and the rules in a game often block the easy routes and force the player to think differently.  Rules in schools do the exact opposite they limit creativity and strategic thinking they presume one right way to achieve a goal and punish those who do not follow those rules.

Feedback systems in games tell the player how close they are to achieving the goal.  It is real-time very specific feedback and a promise really to the player that the goal is achievable and provides motivation to keep playing.  This feedback is precise and clearly gives the player the reason for failure and the pathway to achieve the goal.  Feedback in schools does the exact opposite.  It shuts kids down and often takes the goal out of reach draining the motivation to continue.  We see this time and time again in schools as teachers lament about kids lack of motivation not realizing it is likely our system that has sapped that students motivation to succeed.

The last trait speaks for itself.  Once a person decides to play the game they have already accepted the first three traits.  The real power in the fourth trait is the freedom to drop in and out of the game in a safe non-judgmental environment.  Believe me the games can me stressful, frustrating and challenging, but choice to drop in and out decreases that stress level and motivates the players to come back.   School is not a choice and for all students it can be stressful — but it lacks the ability to escape that stress like a game.  No choice to drop in and out at voluntarily.  I suspect this is one reason online schools have grown over time.  Freedom to choose and to drop in and out without time as a constraint.  Freedom to linger on a task or do it over without fear of judgement or ridicule.

As my grandson gets older and games become even more instructive and powerful,  I wonder if we as a school system can adapt or learn from games to better engage our students and prepare them for work and careers.  We could learn so much from those game developers who manage to capture our students imagination and consume there time and money willingly.  Imagine if we could just get them that excited about school!

And for all those who read my blog and think games are bad I encourage you to read Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. by Jane McGonigal.  

Click the link for more on Jane and her research:

Check out these Research-based Educational Games our of USC


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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