Theorycrafting (and Mario) Wins Again

Posted by in Blog on Aug 16, 2012

Theorycrafting (and Mario) Wins Again

By Chris Jaech

Research Review #2: Part of a Continuing Series of Summaries of Current Research in Games and Learning.  A new paper profiles games-based learning in Scottish classrooms. It’s calledConsole Game-Based Pedagogy: A Study of Primary and Secondary Classroom Learning through Console Video Games,” by Jennifer S. Groff, Cathrin Howells, and Sue Cranmer. Here’s a summary of it.

Recently, in Scotland, education experts conducted a study on the potential effectiveness of console games such as Mario Kart and FIFA (a soccer simulation) as teaching tools. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Both teachers and students felt that the games functioned well as a hook. They also stressed that, as was touched upon in our last post, games are not a standalone magical education machine. Just like any form of media (e.g., textbooks, educational videos), successful integration of games into educational curricula depends largely on the teacher, the student, and the way time spent with the game is framed. Teachers in this study reported extremely positive reactions even to as little as 10-15 minutes of gaming time per student per week. In fact, “teachers reported that once the students bought into the story line, playing the game became superfluous and for most students much less interesting than the actual work of the project.”

This may be partially due to the other major use of video games in the classroom: providing the students a context which increases their engagement with the curriculum. Unfortunately, one of the issues with this paper is that they don’t provide detailed summaries of their methodology, although they do mention using Mario Kart in the classroom. Mario Kart is probably as far from a (deliberately) educational game as you can get, but when used as context for other activities in the classroom it becomes a valuable tool.  For instance, students may role play as race car drivers and all of the classroom activities could revolve around that role. Instead of doing math problems about two trains, students could determine what speed they have to average in order to complete the Rainbow Road level in time to beat their record. It sounds like a superficial difference, but that extra engagement with the material leads to extra motivation and usually better learning.

I am again reminded of theorycrafting, defined as “the scientific analysis of games to discover the best strategies and tactics.”  Another benefit of that extra engagement which the paper repeatedly mentions is also one of the major aspects of theorycrafting: discourse. Suddenly the students are interested in helping each other out and discussing the material in depth, and maybe even outside of class! Now math class becomes partially about social and leadership skills as the students discuss and argue about “real” problems like how to shave a few seconds off that fastest lap time.

Additionally, because students are more engaged with the material, they’re generally more interested in taking charge of their own learning experience. Games-based curriculum, especially the kind used in this study (again, sorry, they don’t provide good examples), seems to be extremely flexible. Students become interested in some aspect of the course and choose to pursue it of their own accord. Suddenly the role of the teacher is to gently guide the students rather than to lead them around by the nose. One teacher said “It has changed me as a teacher because I see myself far more as a facilitator.” Teachers even report having to learn from their students at times, because they tend to be more computer and video game savvy. For some, this role reversal is slightly uncomfortable, but most of the teachers in this study rose to the challenge. In fact, “Repeatedly, school leaders said their teachers had been enthused just like the pupils” and “One headteacher felt the additional creativity of these projects gave teachers extra motivation.”

And it’s definitely important that the teachers are just as excited as the students. Their engagement drove their efforts to cleverly integrate games into the curriculum instead of just throwing some game at the students and scratching their collective heads when it didn’t do anything. It bears repeating that the students in this program were only given 10-15 minutes of game time per student per week. That isn’t to say that a program with more game time would be ineffective (especially if the game were designed with this in mind), just that it worked because they had a clear plan. Games do not replace teachers. Games are a powerful new tool that we to get into more teachers’ arsenals.