Report from the intersection of Games, Learning, and Society

What have you done to change the world today? Believe it or not, you probably need to play more games.

Gary Gardiner of Idea Foundry and Dream Flight Adventures shares his reflections from taking part in the annual Games, Learning, and Society conference last week in Madison, Wisconsin.

Nelson Mandela once said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and this week some of the most intelligent researchers, academics, and thought-leaders in the world convened to discuss how games can be one of the most powerful tools for improving education.  It all came together at the Games, Learning and Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  Thanks to Working Examples and the generous support of The Sprout Fund, I had the honor of presenting at GLS, and now I’m here to make an impassioned plea to get up and play.

This year marks the tenth year of GLS—and learning games have been around much longer than that.  But even so, the use of games for learning and teaching isn’t nearly as widespread as its research-backed benefits would warrant.  There are lots of reasons for this, but I’m not one to linger on the problem—especially when there are so many simple and accessible solutions at our disposal.  Instead, here are some practical ideas and arguments from GLS to help you get through the roadblocks that stand between you and learning or teaching through games.

Roadblock #1:  I don’t have time to play games.
As Jessica Lindl, General Manager of GlassLab would say, “There’s always time for a game.”  This isn’t to be dismissive of the concern, but rather to highlight that games come in every shape and size.  In addition to the usual suspects of video games and mobile apps, don’t forget about board games, card games, sports, puzzles, brain teasers, make believe, storytelling, and unstructured play.  Play doesn’t have to be something new to add into your already busy schedule—it can be a different approach to things you’re already doing.  Show up in costume, incorporate humor in your conversation, frame hard work as challenges and chances to win.

Drew Davidson speaking at GLS10Roadblock #2:  It’s hard to find the right games.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the slew of resources to find good games like Graphite and BrainPop, but it’s also important to note that games don’t have to be a perfect fit to be worthwhile.  Games offer benefits across many dimensions, so try to focus on what you’re gaining through play rather than what a particular game is missing.  And as one GLS presentation reminded us, don’t let perfect stand in the way of progress.

Roadblock #3:  I’m not good at making games.
We’re seeing a strange phenomenon in the world today:  “game designer” is a job title.  But as Colleen Macklin, Associate Professor at Parsons The New School for Design and Director of PETLab reminds us, “all kids are game designers.  Just look at a playground.”  The ability to transform ideas into play is something that’s inherent in all children, so release your inner child, or—better yet—hand over the keys to children and let them design their own games.  Colleen Macklin also notes, “The best thing I’ve learned about creating a game to teach is having the players teach you.”

Roadblock #4:  Games don’t cut it.  Learning is supposed to be hard work.
Games are hard—in fact, if they weren’t challenging they wouldn’t be any fun.  As I overheard on Twitter at #GLS14, “Students don’t mind hard content to further story. They DO mind wasting time.”  Games can encapsulate a tremendous amount of rigor and depth, but because it’s not drudgery players are actually willing to do more work in pursuit of those goals than if the work was simply assigned., a player-generated site focused on the game World of Warcraft, is one of the largest wikis in the world.  And don’t forget the famous quote by Fred Rogers:  “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children play is serious learning.  Play is really the work of childhood.”

Roadblock #5:  It’s hard to assess the impact of games.
This indeed is a challenge.  One of the key takeaways from GLS this year was the urge for game developers to spend more effort on capturing and reporting the learning that their games facilitate.  Fortunately the situation gets better each year, and the recently-announced will soon provide a suite of tools to make it even easier for game makers to track this data.  Even so, as GameDesk so eloquently put it, “Kids should always be put in the position to articulate what they are learning through games.”  Put some of the onus on the kids’ shoulders.  Ask them to explain what they’re learning and let them rise to the challenge.

There’s a vast treasure trove of other useful insights that stemmed from GLS this year, but there’s not enough time to cover them all here.  Hopefully these few morsels will help you make games a bigger part of what you do—and in turn enhance our collective learning and society.  I’d be happy to spin more yarns from GLS, so if you’re thirsty for more just grab your favorite board game and we’ll chat while we play.  Until then, I’ll close with a wise snippet from game guru James Paul Gee:  “Games are pieces of the mind, set free.”

Published June 19, 2014