Why education doesn’t pick up games as a learning tool (Think:games blog #8)

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you want to or are already using games in education. But in a vast majority of schools, playing games as a regular part of class is little more than a fantasy. If you’re lucky, you can experiment with it in your own classes or even get support from the school, but still many schools ignore or even reject the idea that games can have a meaningful contribution to learning. This is why I dedicate this blog post to some of the reasons games may not be picked up by a school, and provide some counter arguments to them.

Games are more expensive than books
Let’s just cover this practical objection first. It’s fair enough, because schools are often on a tight budget.

So first of all, let’s get out of the way the idea that all games are more expensive than all books. Sure, you’ll pay full price for the new FIFA or MADDEN. But there are lots of games out there that are free, or cost very little. In my last blog post, I covered Minecraft: Education Edition, which is free, Gone Home, which costs 20 Euros, and Plague, Inc. Evolved, which costs 15 Euros. On sale, you can get those for half price, and they’re the more expensive ones. Small scale evolution simulator Gridworld costs 0,99 Euros, many other narrative focused games can be found under 10 Euros, and the games in which you can practice teamwork as I discussed in an earlier article are plenty (Smite and other MOBA’s, for example) and often also free.


Gridworld: it’s great, and it’s 0.99 Euros!

The key here is to convince those who need to be convinced that games are a valid learning tool. Say you use Gridworld for a biology class, and you cover it over four lessons. It will cost 1 Euro per student, or even less if you have students work in pairs or groups, and even less than that if you can get the games on laptops which you can reuse for other classes or for later years.

The problem with some games is that they require hardware that not everyone has at home. A few months back, I covered Fallout 4, and it is a great game, but admittedly it requires some serious gaming hardware to run. You will then have to look at the facilities your school has. If it works with laptops, you’re in luck, if it has a computer room, less so but it can still work fine. If your school has neither or in too short supply, then intregating games into lessons will be pretty hard to do. Consider this something of an infrastructure problem. If a road is broken up, it doesn’t mean that your car is an invalid means of transport. It just means you (the school) need to take care of some preparation before you can get going. It is the 21st century, but sadly technology doesn’t always extend to where it is needed, and that includes schools. But be sure to know the difference between what isn’t and what shouldn’t.

Playing games takes up too much time
Then there’s another one that has some truth to it. Playing games can take time, and you could spend that time differently.

I think this boils down to the difference between efficiency and effectivity. Effectivity being the characteristic of achieving the best result, and efficiency being characteristic of achieving the best result relative to a limited amount of time and resources. Schools ask for efficiency, and understandably so, because they have limited budgets and often operate with strict and extensive schedules, weekly, monthly, yearly… Although maybe it shouldn’t, a good result after a test doesn’t count. However, schools have goals for their students that are or at least should be measured in terms of effectiveness. A school can choose to replace teachers by digital learning tools, and that may be efficient (students learn a lot relative to the money spent on the tools), but at the end of a term or year, the question is what students have learned, period, not what students have learned relative to the amount of time and money spent.
I’ll freely admit that games will rarely be the most efficient way to achieve learning goals. Fitting games within the specified amount of hours students are supposed to be in school, like a regular class, will never work, because games are not a regular class. They do not work the same way, and neither can you measure their results the same way.

But although games may not be efficient as a teaching method, they may still be effective as a teaching method. There is not much research out there yet, but the research that has been done points to the fact that “game-based learning” -a broad term- (a) scores high on students’ retention of new information, (b) does a good job of engaging students who have trouble with “traditional” forms of learning such as reading and making exams and (c) works well in training group cooperation skills. See for example sources:

But there is another reason to adopt games as teaching tools. This is that although games may take up much of “school time”, when students enjoy them, they will sometimes continue to play or plan and evaluate their play outside school time. If the “fun” part of the game coincides with the educational (and of course it does not always, that’s why teachers should always carefully select games), the process of learning will span a longer time and have more repetition, which generally causes students to retain information better. Actually, it’s not much different from books.


Minecraft is a pioneer in games for education, but students also love playing it at home! Image credit: BBC.

Games distract from learning things that matter
And I can’t really write a blog like this without at least discussing this objection that troubles the project of games in education as a whole, basically: the conviction that having fun with games cannot coexist with learning.

I’ll be short about this, because it’s utter garbage. It’s not that people will actually support the broader claim that you cannot have fun and learn simultaneously (case in point: books), but because they regard games as lower forms of culture than, for example, books. This is a personal opinion, and the strongest counter argument will be to point out that it is just that, and not a fact. As I pointed out earlier on this blog: of course, you’ll learn very little from playing Candy Crush, but you’ll learn just as little from reading pulp novels. “Games” has become a category as broad as “books”, and there is just no use treating it as one thing. We’ll have to look at games one at a time, and ask for each one: does this game contribute to my educational goal? That is the way in all of education, and for games it’s no different.


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