Monday, March 22, 2010

Part 1: Winning through Game-Based Learning

You may remember my first post discussed how game-based learning gives students freedom from failure. 

So I think it’s time we talked about winning.

Gaming vs Reality

Jesse Schell, Professor of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University, gave an impassioned and compelling speech at the 2010 DICE (Design Innovate Communicate Entertain) summit. He argued that the divide between “real life” and gaming is becoming increasingly blurry: games are “breaking through into reality.”

Even if you haven’t played them, you’re probably familiar with some of the past year’s most successful games, such as Farmville, Mafia Wars, Club Penguin, Webkinz, and Wii Fit.

Prof. Schell argues that each of these games crosses the boundary between reality and fantasy. The player is encouraged to invest money, compete with friends, or perform physical activities to play the game.

Most significantly, Prof. Schell mentions a case where Lee Sheldon, a professor at the University of Indiana, gives his students “experience points” instead of grades. Consequently, Dr. Sheldon has seen increased class attendance and participation and higher quality work.

In other words, gaming increasingly affects our actions in real life.

Prof. Schell goes on to imagine a future where, thanks to improved technology such as sensors, every action in our daily lives has become incorporated into a game. You could get points for:

•    Brushing your teeth for the right amount of time
•    Eating the right type of cereal
•    Taking the bus instead of driving
•    Getting to work on time
•    Reading a book from front to cover

In each of these imagined scenarios, you would gain points for performing the desired action, and your points would be compared against your friends’, thus causing you to repeat that action.

In the meantime, of course, you’re also being encouraged to buy the right brands, perform your civic duties, act environmentally responsible, or whatever it is the organization or company wants you to do.

But ... this is not game-based learning. This is window-dressing. 

To be clear, Prof. Schell’s speech was not intended to be about game-based learning. However, if we’re moving towards a future filled with games that intentionally change our behaviour, we need to question what type of learning is occurring at the same time.

For a speech about the future of gaming and technology, and that contains so many intriguing ideas, Dr. Schell gives a very limited vision of gaming.

Essentially, Dr. Schell’s vision of the future is a society motivated by the desire to earn technologically-enhanced carrots.

Consider those students in Lee Sheldon’s classroom, who are being rewarded experience points instead of grades:    

•    Will this encourage them to be intrinsically motivated to learn?
•    Does this experience encourage deeper thinking? More sophisticated analytical skills?
•    What kind of society will these students create in the future?

Maybe the answer to all of these questions is yes! Or, maybe the answers don’t matter as long as the students are performing better in this class!

But before applauding the short-term benefits of replacing grades with points, or moving towards a society immersed in competitive games, these are the types of questions we need to consider.

Let’s not depreciate gaming.

We should not conflate gaming with competition. Consider David Williamson Shaffer’s (How Computer Games Help Children Learn) definition of a game:

“What makes a game a game is neither ‘fun’ or ‘winning and losing’ but rather the fact that it has some particular set of rules that a player has to follow” (23).

Remember when you were a kid and you would play games like “house” or “school” or “firefighter”?

Mr. Shaffer writes, “In playing games, children are doing explicitly, openly, and socially what as adults they will do tacitly, privately, and personally. They are running simulations of worlds they want to learn about in order to understand the rules, roles, and consequences of those worlds. They are learning to think by examining alternatives in play.” (25)

You don’t earn points by playing “house”, but you do learn about what it means to be a mother, father, child, aunt, uncle and more.

I’m all for a future that openly celebrates gaming

I am looking forward to new technology that incorporates new and innovative games into our lives.
 I think that games like On The Path Of The Elders will be excellent and influential resources for tomorrow’s youths. 

The best games go beyond the narrow definition of “competition” and “winning”. In particular, the experience of immersive, role-playing games – such as On The Path Of The Elders – is an experience that encompasses much, much more.

Shaffer, David Williamson. How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.
Schell, Jesse. “Design Outside the Box”. DICE Summit. 2010.

Collette Jackson, Content and Marketing Specialist at BlackCherry Digital Media, is writing on behalf of On the Path of the Elders, a free online educational resource that explores Cree and Ojibway history and culture, and the signing of Treaty No. 9.

On the Path of the Elders launches March 24, 2010. Check it out at

For more information, email us at

Created in partnership with BlackCherry Digital Media, Archives Deschâtelets, the Doug Ellis Collection at Carleton University, Our Incredible World (Pinegrove Productions), the Mushkegowuk Council, Neh Naak Ko, the Archives of St. Paul University, Carleton University,  and Wendy Campbell, Educational Consultant (Learning Methods Group).

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Strategy. Created with additional financial assistance from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Inukshuk Fund.

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