Theorycrafting Works at Work

Posted by in Blog on Aug 6, 2012

Theorycrafting Works at Work

By Chris Jaech

Research Review #1: Part of a Continuing Series of Summaries of Current Research in Games and Learning.  Nordic DiGRA is a conference on games, culture, and society presented by scholars in the “northern countries.”  In June 2012, the conference was held in Tampere, Finland.  J. Tuomas Harvianinen, Timo, Lainema, and Eeli Saarinen presented a paper called “Player-reported Impediments to Game-Based Learning.” Here’s a summary of it.

The whole idea of games for learning used to cause people to raise their eyebrows and say “Huh?” Games were not considered an acceptable educational tool.  But now, it seems, games are the answer to every educational prayer.  Not so, say these (and other) game scholars.  They warn that perhaps the game-bashing pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and now corporations think if they have an employee training problem, the best thing they can do is throw some game at it.

Nowadays corporations like to use games and simulations for training employees in things like management, sales, and product distribution.  That’s okay, because games have been used as educational tools since the dawn of time (3000 years). Games can be especially useful in risky fields that can benefit from the use of a risk-free environment to practice in. For instance, simulations are used to train nuclear plant workers.

However, there are problems with games-based learning. Because games are viewed by society as inherently competitive, players feel the need to apply “game-based logic” in order to “win the game” even if that logic doesn’t match up with real world situations at all. Another problem is that there’s a tendency to assume high performance within an educational game correlates to high teaching effectiveness, when this might not be the case.

What games are especially, reliably good at, though, is getting people interested and motivated to learn.  “Motivating games are exceptionally good at prompting out-of-game information seeking and learning. Even if nothing formal is learned, players may pick up things such as etiquette, group management and social skills.” What tends to happen is that players talk to each other about how to win the game, and excellent learning is the by-product.  The massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft provides a model.  In World of Warcraft, millions of players post in forums and have discussions about how to kill the difficult bosses—the passionate practice of theorycrafting. This is how players learn from each other and get really good at the game.

It stands to reason that at work, theorycrafting can make people better employees.  While games and simulations offer significant advantages, essays and interviewees in this study caution against “uncritically accepting” that these advantages will be present and functional in every learning game. We should all be careful to evaluate what games are really teaching and be realistic about what games are good at, and then use games wisely.