Friday, March 21, 2008

Games can be used to teach specific skills or knowledge

I've been meaning to start a blog for a while now, but I decided it was time because of a desire share my opinion on a post on my sister's blog. I thought it might go long, and didn't want to clutter her reply page.

The gist of her post, if I read it correctly, was that educators are excited to try and use games to teach children. But this can backfire when the 'game' that the children are playing isn't fun. The children, having been expecting something fun because it was called a game, now rebel, and don't have fun or learn anything. And so it perhaps is better if we shy away from using games, and stick to research proven methods of teaching children.

First, I think we need to define what a game is a little better. Defining a game as an activity that is enjoyable works a lot of the time, but it's a little too subjective. I tend to think of a game as a system of rules, with a goal, and it may or not be fun. Most of the games used in mathematical game theory are very interesting to look at, but wouldn't be much fun to play.

Using this definition of a game, games always teach. Given a system of rules, and a payoff, an intelligent agent will always find the most efficient way to use the rules to maximize the payoff. This is used a lot in AI, where you have to be careful about how you structure the rules and payoffs, otherwise your agent will end up doing something other than what you want, while maximizing the payoff.

Similarly a person, given a system of rules, and an appropriate incentive will learn how to work within the system to get the best results. This often leads to exploits and game breaking behaviors when there are errors in the game, but that's a discussion for another time. The point is that a person will learn the best way to get the best results from the game.

We can use this by creating games that mimic real life systems, then as the players learn the principles needed to maximize their results in the game, they will also be learning skills and principles that are applicable to the system that the game mimics.

For example, we could create a game that simulates running a small business. By simulating the different aspects of running a real business, players would gain an intuitive feel for how to run a business. Combined with traditional classroom study of the subject, games could provide practical experience applying the things that are learned in the classroom, and improve both comprehension and retention.

The trick then, would be to present such activities as learning activities, not as games. Because they could be pretty enjoyable when put next to other learning activities, but when compared with other games they wouldn't be nearly as fun. By presenting them as learning activities rather than games we wouldn't have to worry about the students rebelling, instead of being forced to play a boring game, they are being allowed to do a fun learning activity.

So games have the ability to make very good learning tools, but we probably need more research both into learning strategies, and into game development to find the proper ways to teach through gaming, and the best ways to combine gaming with traditional classwork. Until then, don't discount the possibility too quickly.