#36 - What can games teach us about the learning process?
Hello, and welcome to another free edition of my newsletter. I’m Shweta, I write about EdTech, Startups, and Products. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these areas, I’ll humbly offer actionable real-talk advice. 🤜🤛
“Mom, I set up my Minecraft server, why don’t you come and play on it?”. That’s my 10-year-old son, getting immersed in gaming as well as building games.
I decided to give it a shot. For the last couple of weeks, I am taking 60 min sessions on “How to play Minecraft” as a beginner from him to build up my gaming literacy. In addition to learning the game, I want to understand what is it that keeps them hooked on for hours at length and dive deeper into the game design theory. At GreyAtom, I had gamified the learning elements for adult learners, but the educator in me wanted to really see how can we make learning even better for our younger learners, and taking a cue from the massively popular games today.
I decided to dive deeper.
I realised that games are uniquely designed to put us in a perfect state between feeling bored and feeling overwhelmed. When playing a game we're fully focusing our attention - feeling optimistic that we can succeed but also curious because we're not sure. We are trying our hardest to get better, one teeny tiny micro skill at a time - whether we're climbing the mountain or breaking logs.
Games give you evidence that you are somebody who is not good at something the first time you try it, but over a period of time can get better through your own effort through your own attention, your own desire to grow. You can build skills, you can improve, and develop a growth mindset.
As I pick up Minecraft (much slower than anticipated and am being constantly reprimanded by the little teacher), some key things I realize that these video games are building in them.
#1 - Games are powerful self-esteem Builder
Kids get the experience of having to teach themselves. Nobody uses instruction manuals anymore, you just need to come flying to the game and you have to figure it out - things like 3 oak planks and 2 sticks get you a pickaxe will not come up anywhere in front of your Minecraft world - you have to use all the educational materials around you, whether it's going to a wiki or a forum or YouTube videos. It feels so good and they build so much self-confidence that it's the ultimate learning simulator and you realize that if you can teach yourself, then you can learn anything. It's project-based. Who doesn't want kids to feel empowered, to learn and improve on their own?
#2- Video games keep kids optimistic in the face of failure
What matters in video games is getting to the finish line and beating the game of killing the ender dragon, regardless of how many tries it takes.
Mistakes are seen as part of the learning process. Kids know that every time they fail, they gain insight into what they need to do next. Through trial and error, kids get really good and learn a ton in a very short amount of time.
Mark Rober, a former NASA and Apple engineer ran an experiment to study this.
He had 50,000 participants attempt to solve a computer programming puzzle. He assigned two different versions of the challenge:
In one version, if participants weren’t successful, they got a message that said: “That didn’t work. Please try again.” They did not lose points for failing.
In the other version, if participants weren’t successful, they got a message that said: “That didn’t work. You lost 5 points. You now have 195 points. Please try again.”
For those who lost points for failed attempts, their success rate in completing the puzzle was around 52%.
For those who did not lose points for failed attempts, their success rate was 68%. Participants in this group had nearly 2.5 times more attempts to solve the puzzle. On average, they learned more from trial and error and got better results.
A key takeaway from Rober’s experiment is that when mistakes are not penalized, people are more likely to keep trying.
He calls this The Super Mario Effect: focusing on the princess (the end goal) and not the pits (mistakes and failures), to stick with a task and to learn more.
When we frame learning challenges using the Super Mario Effect, kids actually want to engage. It feels natural to ignore the failures and want to get up and try again.
Instead of making grades the focus, let’s push kids to focus on the cool end goal, regardless of how many tries it takes them to get there.
#3. Games build skills transferable to real world
The number one thing that can predict whether your kids are going to reap all the gaming benefits or possibly be harmed by them is - are the kids able to talk about the real skills and strengths that they're building in the games as part of who they are, or do they see games as separate from reality, do they see them as escapist and completely unrelated. The worst thing you can do as a parent is to say to a kid, “Stop playing and do something real.”
Kids who play games with a purpose (that is, to spend quality with friends and family, learn something new, or improve a skill) are able to activate their gameful strengths in real-world contexts.
Parents should ask the following questions to kids to understand if games are having a positive impact on them
What’s hard about this game and what makes you want to try again?
What does it take to be good at this game?
What have you gotten better at since you started playing this game?
What’s the most challenging milestone you’ve achieved in this game and what did it take to do it?
In her book, SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal includes a chapter that addresses parents’ concerns regarding kids and video games. She conducted an analysis of more than 500 papers, trying to determine what causes video games to be beneficial or harmful for kids and young adults.
McGonigal found that the key determinant is the question of why kids are playing the game in the first place. Are they playing to escape real life, or are they playing to pursue a goal that matters to them?
Research shows that kids who play games to escape real life (that is, to block unpleasant emotions or avoid confronting real-life stress) have a very difficult time translating their game skills to real life.
Recently, we as a family have taken on to this board game - Catan
Amongst other things, at the heart of it, the game has a very simple auction mechanic, where players trade on various pieces of resources - sheep, hay, wood, ore and log. As the rounds go on, resources will become more or less valuable depending on the actions of the players — as more players get particular resources, the value of those go down and scarce resources are traded at higher odds.
This game doesn’t need to explicitly teach players about the laws of supply and demand — they can see these concepts in action, in real-time. The behaviours that emerge out of the simple mechanics of this game are a representation of real-world economies in general.
Gamification will be crucial for transforming education for kids. We must inspire the kids and get them excited about their end goals. We must let them make mistakes and allow them to get past them. Most people, products, and ideas, fail before they have a chance to achieve their goals.
So next time, you see your kid hooked on to a video game - resist the temptation to ask them to stop playing, rather ask them how did they better up this time!
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