What I Learned About Games and Learning

Alright the semester is over, I learned a lot, and I am burned out. There is a hint of laziness in the air, at least for a few weeks until the summer grind begins. The older you get the more of a toll this fancy book learning takes from you. Oh well, it is time to reflect on what I have learned in the Games and Learning class. I think I will put on some Cinderella while I put together this portfolio piece. Hey, don’t judge. Hair metal rules!

What follows is a sampling of the work we did this semester. Or maybe it would be more appropriate for me to say the play we did this semester. Play journals allowed us to explore games and how (or not) they provide a useful context for learning. We used Hypothes.is as a platform for our class discussions on our readings and student blog posts. This along with our exploration of affinity spaces touched on the idea that learning is a social endeavor. This has been an illuminating class. I had an idea of the value of video games for learning outside of the realm of entertainment. What I learned has validated that idea and expanded my understanding of how game, not just video games, can be effective tools for learning.

Playing to Learn

The play journals were allowed me to make connections between the design of commercial video games and teaching methods. For one of these journals, I compared the instructional elements of two games: Star Citizen and Neverwinter in a post titled Learning a Video Game: The Art of Tutorial. Both games are massively multiplayer games which can be rather complicated, especially for new players. Star Citizen is a sci-fi space simulation role playing game. There is little in the way of active instruction to guide the player through learning the controls and gameplay. There is a keymap graphic in the menu the player can reference, but that is it.

Neverwinter’s handling of teaching the player is on the other end of the spectrum. The game provides instruction from the outset and is incorporated into the narrative of the game. The player is actively playing, learning, and building upon each successive instructional element through the introductory sequence of the story. After that, the game opens up, giving the player more freedom to choose what activities they participate in. The game still provides instruction along the way when the player encounters a new mechanic, or gameplay element.

This scaffolding technique provides players with just enough information to achieve the task at hand while giving them relevant spaces to practice each new skill. For those unfamiliar with the idea of scaffolding, I pulled a good definition from The Glossary of Education Reform website.

Scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance.

Neverwinter does this well. I found that it made the experience less confusing, or overwhelming by letting me jump right into the game without the worry of not understanding everything from the start. You learn as you go, building on what you learn before and so on and so forth.

Play’s Well with Others

We had the opportunity to respond to others’ play journals as well. The diversity of games played by my fellow classmates helped me understand the broader context of games and learning. I feel that I learn more from a variety of other learners’ perspectives than I do from just reading a few texts.

This response to the question “what are the best ways of engaging a game player, while working through complex problems” was during the first week of class and I didn’t know what I was talking about.

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Figure 1. From student blog by Annie M.

Looking back at my poorly worded rambling bit, my ignorance is apparent. All I did was provide a conditional response. I don’t know about the best way to engage a player working through complex problems, but one way is to provide the player an environment where they can explore their own process of solving whatever problem it is they need to solve. A space where they can take risks free of the worry of failing. Probing a problem to test what doesn’t work is just as important as working to find out what does.

Another response touches on the issue of failure in video games. I was responding to a post about the new Zelda game: Breath of the Wild.

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Figure 2. From student blog by Robert G.

Apparently, the game is punishing, yet provides opportunities for experimentation in how you approach any problem, or situation. I love games that give the player a number of ways in which to tackle a problem, or ways to achieve a goal. I find that being able to fail without that worry of being judged on your performance, teaches me more about what I am supposed to be learning than having to operate within a rigid system of expectations.

A quote by another classmate: “perhaps there needs to be less focus on crossing the finish line and more emphasis on the race” stuck with me.

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Figure 3. From student blog by Mike B.

I remember when beating a game was an important part of the gaming experience. People would comment on beating the game, how they beat the game, etc., as if it was the defining achievement. “Hey, did you beat that game yet? I beat the game. Why didn’t you beat the game? My brother and cousin beat the game” and so on. Now games have variable difficulty settings and multiplayer components which alters the medium to be more of an experience than an object to be conquered.

Keeping the experience fresh and engaging is an issue as well. Being able to alter the difficulty is fine, but only for so long. The artificial intelligence of a game is only as robust and challenging as the developers’ code. Playing against others can alleviate this plateau effect as a person’s learning and assumptions can be challenged when interacting with others.

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Figure 4. From student blog by Paul Z.

As you can see from the last few images, I began to post my thoughts directly on my classmates’ blogs after a few weeks rather than commenting in Hypothes.is. These are their public spaces and these spaces deserve publicly visible comments. Annotating with a browser plugin is fine, but not everyone will see the discussion. When people take the time and effort to compose and post something on their website, it is nice to have another post a comment to that post. I know I don’t care to see my posts go comment-less.

Proving a Hypothes.is

Discussing the readings with the class via Hypothes.is annotations helped me understand the material better and provided me with perspectives and ideas that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

When I first started this program, and was confronted with all the ideas about learning theory, I was confused. The subject matter was new to me. It was challenging to grasp and to get in that head space. I am more comfortable with my thoughts about learning design and the myriad of ways people learn. This Games and Learning class went deeper into the nature of how we learn and different ideas on how we can design more engaging and effective learning experiences. I grew to make connections between the jargon I learned earlier on and learning in practice. These discussions with my peers were a great vehicle for understanding.

The Affinity Space Adventures

I joined the World of Warcraft forums for our research into affinity spaces, or communities of interest, and how learning takes place within these groups. I put together my final video assessment of the space in a post titled The Affinity Space Adventures. To be honest, I never really paid much attention to these spaces. I just played games and looked up some tips every now and then. Affinity spaces are a great resource for learning. Common interest and support encourages participation. The class engaged with a variety of communities from gaming to teaching to fantasy football.

I found from hearing from my classmates’ experiences that an affinity space can only be an effective learning environment if it has an active and supportive community of members. One project pointed out that there was a lack of participation within their space which dulled the experience. These are some of the insights I found while exploring everyone else’s projects:

“I couldn’t see any community thriving without that foundation of support.”

“From your rundown of the structure of the space, it looks like a site that could be rather useful had there been a culture of participation.”

“I think it would be great if students were encouraged to get in on the discussion about their education rather than it just being an exclusive debate where only adults are allowed to participate.”

“That’s the great thing about these communities, brainstorming anything becomes less of a chore. You are usually able to, at the very least, glean a hint of an idea.”

“…that members of any affinity space need to acclimate to the pace and dynamic of change within that space.”

“Play, create, and share (the slogan for the game Little Big Planet)—I think that slogan is great and not just in relation to the game, but for learning in general.”

The main take away from our time exploring various affinity spaces is that active participation and support are the foundations of an effective learning community. Interacting with and learning from others outside of the classroom environment would provide students with more perspectives and ideas about the subject of interest than they would get from the classroom group itself. That participation could also encourage students to engage more deeply with the subject matter. They wouldn’t just be learning. They would also be sharing what they know. That kind of give and take can deepen a student’s understanding of what they are learning. In the process of articulating a thought, new realizations can become apparent as well as new connections to related material. Every time I think I know something, I get slapped in the face by reality when I try to teach someone else that thing that I thought I knew so well.

Proposal of the Future!…?

So, what can I do with this new knowledge? It’s probably too early to unveil my plans to take over the world. That being said, I will use what I now know about games and learning to design a simple course to teach students about 3D modeling. This will not be a course on how to use any specific software. I will use Minecraft as the starting point to teach the general ideas of creating digital 3D models.

Minecraft can serve this purpose well. The environment is customizable and students can freely explore a 3D environment, design using the simple cube building block that makes up the game, and they are able to alter, or design the landscape. These actions mirror those taken in any 3D design software. The artist starts with simple shapes like a cube, sphere, cylinder, etc., and uses them to create more complex objects and scenes.

Playing Minecraft can ease students into the mindset of a 3D artist without being confronted with some complex interface with buttons and controls glaring back at them. One cool thing is there is third party software that allows you to rip a portion of the environment from the game. You can select the area you want and export it to any 3D design software. This bridge, I will call it, would be the next step for students where they can begin learning how to use that software to create 3D models using an asset that they are already familiar with as a starting point.

To Conclude

There we have it—my time with games and learning. I don’t know if I am more pleased with what I have learned itself, or that the ideas we explored validate my love of playing video games. Either way it has been a most valuable and excellent class.

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