Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Myth #2: Games Work Because They Capture Attention (The 5 Myths Of Game-based Learning)

Part 1:  Introduction
Part 2:  Myth #1:  Game-based Learning Is New

Eyes wide and focused.  Body oriented directly towards the screen.  An apparent inability to hear, even when being shouted at by mom.  If you have ever seen a person play a game that they really enjoy, you know that games have the ability to command complete attention.

Scientists tend to say things like this about the connection between attention and learning:

The assumption that attended stimuli are encoded more effectively into memory than less attended ones is straightforward and supported by substantial evidence (Sarter and Lustig).
or, more obtusely:
Neural models of perception and cognition have predicted that top-down attention is a key mechanism for solving the stability-plasticity dilemma, which concerns the fact that brains can rapidly learn enormous amounts of information throughout life without just as rapidly forgetting what they already know (Grossberg).
What all this means is what any teacher already knows -- attention is the key to learning.  Without a student's attention, it is impossible for them to learn.

Games, in particular, are noted not only for their ability to attract attention but to hold attention, often for very long periods of time.  That the player's attention does not waver despite the difficulty of the challenge or the fact that players often fail, makes this apparent superpower that games have over other media even more extraordinary.

Psychologists have a name for this phenomena -- Flow.  First described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, he defined flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies...Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Flow was first linked to games in 2000 and the concept has gained widespread popularity among game designers since then.  Jenova Chen, a game designer who actually made a game called Flow, describes the relationship between games and this ultimate psychological experience as something which has evolved over time:
"As the result of more than three decades of commercial competition, most of today’s video games deliberately include and leverage...Flow. They deliver instantaneous, accessible sensory feedback and offer clear goals the player accomplishes through the mastery of specific gameplay skills."
Flow derives from a balance of challenge and ability.  Too little challenge and the game (or other situation) is boring.  Too much challenge and the game or other situation) creates anxiety.  The chart to the right (taken from a 2007 article by Chen) graphically shows this relationship and how game designers seek to use this knowledge to design a better game.

Certainly other activities besides gaming routinely create a Flow-like learning experience.  Bailey White, an author and first grade teacher, claims the story of the Titanic can create much the same effect in the minds of her students:
"When children get the idea that written words can tell them something horrible, then half the battle of teaching reading is won.  
And that's when I turn to the Titanic.  The children sit on the rug at my feet, and I tell them the story.  It's almost scary to have the absolute, complete attention of that many young minds...
(The book the children use) is written on the fourth grade reading level - lots of hard words - so I tipped in pages with the story rewritten on an easier reading level.  But by the end of the second week the children are clawing up my pages to get at the original text underneath."
It is, however, gaming's ability to create this experience at large scales, for an extended period of time and (even) across generations that has created what I have come to call the "Magic Formula" of game-based learning:  Game = flow (or more commonly, "fun") = increased attention = increased learning.

If you look across much of the academic literature on game-based learning (and in virtually all of the popular literature on the subject), you will likely find some variant on this magic formula.  Moreover, given everything I have written so far, this formula seems to make a certain amount of sense.

But it is wrong.

It is missing an important element, one that everyone recognizes just as soon as I mention it but one that very few people include in any discussion of game-based learning.  This missing element goes back to the very definition of "game".

You need to look no farther than Wikipedia to determine that (much like the word "intelligence"...) there is still a good bit of debate as to what defines a game.  So you don't have to click, here is a sample:
"A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome." (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman)
"A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context." (Clark C. Abt)
"A game is a form of play with goals and structure." (Kevin J. Maroney)
My favorite definition, however, is by philosopher Bernard Suits and comes from his 1978 book, The Grasshopper:  Games, Life and Utopia.  According to Suits, a game is a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."  While undoubtedly glib, Suits has a point.  Jane McGonigal, who has been mentioned previously in this series, points to the game of golf as  a perfect example of this definition in action.  If the true intent of the game were to merely get the ball in the hole, there are many easier ways of doing so besides making people hit the ball with a stick.  As if this weren't hard enough, we actually strive to make the game harder by adding unnecessary obstacles such as sand traps and water hazards.  Surely it would be easier to simply walk over and drop the ball in!

The most important word in this definition and the missing component to the Magic Formula of game-based learning is, for me, "voluntary".  We volunteer to play a game and because we volunteer, we have an expectation that it will be enjoyable from the outset.

Expectations are powerful things.  We know, for example, that the subjective experience of pain can be manipulated simply by changing the expectations regarding that pain.  We also know that teacher expectations about an individual's ability to learn can drastically alter learning outcomes.

You can test this yourself.  Imagine being forced to play a game you know you hate.  How much attention are you paying to the game?  How much learning do you think you might do if that game were associated with an instructional objective?  Ian Schreiber, game designer and professor at Columbus State Community College, has a wonderful term for this kind of learning experience -  "Chocolate covered broccoli".

In short, games don't work because they capture attention; games work as teaching tools because they are voluntary activities that capture attention.

The good news is that "voluntary" is an analog condition not a binary one.  In other words, voluntary is not something that either exists or doesn't but, in fact, has degrees.  People will love certain games, hate certain games but, in general, will have a wide range of responses to the games they choose to (or have to) play.

I have seen this repeatedly in my own classes.  Every student inevitably has a favorite game and, equally inevitably, it is the lesson associated with that game that they most clearly remember.  Dealing effectivly with this problem leads directly to -- 

Myth #3:  I need a game that teaches...


Sharon Boller said...

You're missing something in this. Yes, we have to end up WANTING to play. However, I've seen people have initial resistance to playing a game (collective groans, looks of "I really don't want to do this." ) I've then seen the game pull them in - initial reluctance turned into an attitude of "Wow. This is really cool. I love this."

So it is NOT a myth that games work because they capture attention. They can and do.They are highly effective at helping people learn. You can also have someone start out as not wanting to play and then pull them into the experience.

Will everyone love every game? No. But you have an opportunity to create a game where you had previously had a lecture, a video, or some other form of delivery method and find that the game works much better than another method.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


I think we are saying the same thing but to different audiences. If you have lots of experience with game-based learning (and your comment suggests you do) then "voluntariness" becomes a sort of assumption. You know you have to have some sort of buy-in (even if it is grudging) for the game to work.

I think with people new to game-based learning, there is an expectation that the mere fact that you are using a game to teach is enough. I also think this view is inherent in much of the criticism of games-based learning. You know, the ol' "What, I am just supposed to throw a game at them and they will learn? Nonsense!" defense.

My point is, then, the same as yours -- games do work because they capture attention but a necessary precondition for capturing this attention is that participation in the game be, to some extent, voluntary. I think this precondition is ignored too often and is particularly ignored by teachers who are new to game-based learning. I also think that the degree to which someone is voluntarily participating in a game affects the quality of the learning.


Tim West said...

I think there is a "readiness" aspect to your "voluntariness" that also comes into play but not reflected in your discussion. The mind has to be ready to engage new experiences; i.e., learn something. This is beyond the simply nature of being voluntary. Surely you have witnessed the following, if not in yourself but with others. You “volunteer” to play a game because it looks fun, other people have said its fun, or you’ve been snared by the marketing. After a short while you disengage because it’s not fun; but, weeks or months later, you try again only to fall prey to the siren “flow”. What changed? I contend it is “readiness”.

The same applies beyond the gaming world. I voluntarily took Calculus and Differential Equations early in my learning career because I thought I wanted it, not because it was an academic requirement (which it wasn’t). The traditional approach with lectures, chalk boards, and homework was the norm. That early learning experience was not so much fun and, quite honestly, I didn’t learn squat. Yes, I wanted to take the classes but I don’t think I was mentally ready for them (I don’t mean lacked requisite skills).

Twenty years later I volunteered to retake that math series again to include starting with basic Algebra – I needed to start over because my math skills were so atrophied and inconsequential. Lectures, chalk boards, and homework were again the norm. I excelled. I loved it! My job didn’t require it, need it, or use it. What changed? I think my “readiness” coefficient changed. The best part is 15 years later I can still help my kids with their high school math homework -- most of the time!