Video games present a paradox for those of us in education. While there has been recent focus on the potential uses of “gamified learning” and “gamification” in educational settings, many organisations have highlighted the potential dangers of video games, focusing in particular on their excessive use.
The World Health Organisation introduced the concept of “gaming disorder” in 2018, and parental concerns regarding video games are often reported in the media. However, recent studies have found that playing video games can have positive impacts: for instance, Niklas et al found “a small positive relation between game play and well-being” and Pine et al concluded that “CVGs [casual videogames] may have promise for treating anxiety, depression, stress, and low mood”.
This paper examines what teachers can learn from the design of video games. Good video games are powerful learning machines, developing high-level skill and expertise through the recruitment of extended commitment, focus and drive. They also put players in a state of flow, recognised as a key component of human fulfilment and contentment and human flourishing.
Three principles of good video games and their relation to effective learning
Gee addressed the following question: “How do good game designers manage to get new players to learn long, complex, and difficult games?”. The answer, he argued, is that game designers are “practical theoreticians of learning” who have developed “profoundly good methods of getting people to learn and to enjoy learning”. Good video games facilitate effective learning, and they encompass thirteen principles.
I will focus on three: the development of player identity; the provision of information “on demand” and “just in time”; and the use of “sandboxes”. Three video games from my own teenage years which encompass these principles include Super Mario 64 (1996), Diddy Kong Racing (1997) and SimCity 4 (2003). I discuss these below.
Looking at Gee’s three principles, can teachers learn any pedagogical lessons from good video game design?
The development of player identity
Deeper learning in any setting requires long-term commitment, and “such a commitment is powerfully recruited when people take on a new identity they value and in which they become heavily invested”. SimCity 4 is known by aficionados of the series as the most challenging version of the game, and was infamous for its demands on computer memory. Nevertheless, it was the third highest selling PC game of 2003, and has generally received critical acclaim.
What made the game so compelling is that players did not just design cities by placing buildings in plots on the screen. Players became urban planners: they designed complex neighbourhoods, developed transportation networks and ensured that city inhabitants had access to clean water, energy, health and education facilities, and employment opportunities.
Noted city planner Jeff Speck stated that the traffic model of the game was “more advanced than what most traffic engineers use in real life” . For fans of the game, it was an immersive playing experience, characterised by high-quality learning.
Many other games (for instance role-playing or first-person shooter games) present characters that players can project themselves onto, becoming involved in the history and development of the character. The player, for the purposes of the game, essentially takes on or inhabits another identity, which deepens the level of investment in the gameplay and outcomes.
There may be applications of this principle in schools. Gee argues that “school is often built around the “content fetish”’, whereas learners “need to know how to take on the identity of a certain sort of scientist, if they are doing science, and operate by a certain set of values, attitudes, and actions”.
To take an example from my own subject of A-level politics, when exploring the nuances of constitutional theory I can imagine the positive learning impact of encouraging learners to take on the identity of a constitutional scholar themselves, to become a rival to A. V. Dicey, Walter Bagehot, or Ivor Jennings.
Rather than trying to learn a series of disembodied facts or set of arguments, this might encourage them to develop greater expertise and mastery of the content, and to learn and to cultivate the skills necessary to engage in high-level analysis of conceptual points.
The provision of information “on demand” and “just in time”
Video games that are too hard or too easy are not good learning machines. The type and timing of information provided to someone engaged in any activity helps determine the level of challenge required. In this respect, video games are highly interactive, and can provide instant feedback to players. A player can interact with the game before they receive lots of information to familiarise themselves with the environment, so that the information can be situated in a meaningful context.
The first level of Super Mario 64 allows players to wander around without any immediate goal, and the player then chooses when to approach characters that are designed to provide information to help make progress in the level. The same is true for many similar platform games, such as Banjo-Kazooie from the same era.
As it is the player in control of when the information is provided the timing of external interventions to facilitate greater progress is tailored to each individual player. This personal tailoring of information provision makes for good video games. It also makes for good learning, although it may be difficult to achieve in practice.
Gee suggests that students “need to play the game a bit before they get lots of verbal information and they need to be able to get such information ‘just in time’ when and where they need it and can see how it actually applies in action and practice”.
The problem, of course, is that what is “just in time” for one learner will be different than for another learner, and so providing information in this way in a classroom context is challenging. This balance of skill and challenge can also be linked to the concept of flow, stemming from the pioneering work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Well-designed video games provide players with regular flow experiences, which helps explain why players often report losing track of time when they play video games. Csikszentmihalyi outlines nine components of flow, one of which is the balance between challenge and skill. Too much information given to learners too quickly diminishes the challenge of the activity, reducing the effectiveness of learning as it may induce a lack of intellectual stimulation (or, indeed, boredom) in the learner.
Too little information and the activity requires too high a level of skill for the learner at that particular time, so the task becomes excessively frustrating rather than enjoyably frustrating. Gee referred to this point when he wrote that “learning works best when new challenges are pleasantly frustrating in the sense of being felt by the learners to be at the outer edge of, but within, their ‘regime of competence‘”.
If this principle can be achieved, we could improve the balance between skill and challenge for a greater number of learners. This could enhance learning, since, as Csikszentmihalyi writes, Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between one’s ability to act, and the available opportunities for action.
Use of “sandboxes”
“Sandboxes” are an analogy to explain the importance of providing an initial opportunity to explore a piece of content or practise a skill without risk or with the risks greatly minimised. This takes place at the very beginning, essentially acting as an introductory tutorial with clearly defined parameters enabling learners to develop an early sense of competence. This mitigates against the well-researched “fear of failure”, which has been broadly recognised as problematic in education and associated with anxiety, burnout, depression and stress (see, for instance, OECD, 2019, 188-189).
Video games regularly have an introductory tutorial which acts as a sandbox replicating the actual game but without the risk of “losing” or “failing”. Players can familiarise themselves with the controls and the environment, building an element of confidence in the game before entering a situation in which the stakes are raised.
Both Diddy Kong Racing and Super Mario 64 provide good examples of this, with an open space to play around and get to grips with the game mechanics. Importantly, the pace of the exploration is determined by the player themselves, and they are free to test things out without negative consequence. This points to a problem in formal education: “The cost of taking risks, trying out new hypotheses, is too high”.
Because learners sometimes have insufficient confidence before embarking on a task or activity, the fear of failure can act as a barrier to effective learning. Through sandboxes, video games help players “feel competent when they are not” (ibid.). Players will fail, of course: they will lose in a level or their character may die. They will have to try again until they have developed sufficient skill to succeed.
The main point is that failure is perceived as part of the fun of the game, not something that negates further progress. Huéscar Hernández et al define fear of failure as follows: “Fear of failure has been defined as the tendency to anticipate embarrassment under circumstances of failure … [and] is more likely to occur when an individual anticipates that failure is likely to be aversive and under those circumstances when the person delegates control to others, searches for approval, or fears disapproval from others.”
Fear of failure can be corrosive. If failure is correlated with embarrassment, it is understandable that individuals would avoid activities associated with failure. The use of sandbox activities in the classroom context could mitigate against this, encouraging greater risk-taking in learning and the exploration of more challenging concepts.
This is important because failure is a key part of learning. Maltese et al (2018) and Lottero-Perdue and Parry (2017) found value in failure as an opportunity for learning, persistence, resilience and perseverance. It is how failure is perceived that is essential: normalising and destigmatising it means it can be seen as a valuable aspect of learning.
As Gee argues, learners “need always to see failure as informative and part of the game, not as a final judgement or a device to forestall creativity, risk taking, and hypothesizing”. Video games present teachers with a potential tool in achieving this, through the use of sandboxes.
This paper has argued that the design of video games has educational benefits which can be illustrated by three principles in Gee’s work. These principles — the development of player identity, the provision of information “on demand” and “just in time”, and the use of “sandboxes” — have real relevance in education today.
Thinking creatively about learner identity in a task could facilitate more effective content mastery and engagement in higher-order thinking. Differentiating the timing of information provided to students helps personalise the scale of the challenge of a particular task to each learner. Sandboxes create an open space in lessons in which learners are encouraged to experiment and to be bold, to make mistakes and to learn from mistakes.