Monday, March 22, 2010

Part 2: Winning through Game-Based Learning

Reading my previous post, you may have come to the conclusion that I am against the concept of winning in game-based learning.

This is not true.

Winning defines the majority of our lives: we’re always struggling to achieve our own definition of success, whether that means getting a B- instead of a C, completing a project ahead of schedule, or having the courage to push for a sale.

At its best, winning creates a sense of mastery; it shows what you are capable of achieving; it demonstrates you have the ability to develop and sharpen your skills.

Winning becomes a problem when:

A)    Winning becomes the sole focus of the activity
B)    The reward for winning is extraneous to the required action
C)    Your ability to win is decided solely through comparison with others

There must be a rational and significant link between what you do and how and what you win.

But does it really make a difference?

Yes - especially if you’re dealing with game-based learning.

Consider M.R. Lepper and D.I. Cordova’s findings as published on Carleton College’s website:

“1) If it is possible to "win" an educational game without learning, 3rd-5th-grade students will learn less than if taught traditionally, playing in a "rapid, repetitive, mindless fashion....

3) Students offered an extrinsic reward for finding the correct answer were less effective at problem solving and less confident.”

More recently, prominent thinkers such as Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink have spoken out strongly against the use of external and unrelated rewards for particular behaviour.  Just as Lepper and Cordova found in 1992, studies continue to show that external rewards can actually decrease your ability and achievement level.

You may object that winning a game is not an external reward, but rather it is a direct result of the player’s actions. Often this is the case; however, not every win is meaningful or relevant. Consider the example raised by Professor Jesse Schell where in the future a person could earn points for reading a book from cover to cover. How does the rewarding of points connect to the act of reading a book? If this future person were to have more points than all his or her friends (thereby “winning” the game), does this make them a better reader?

Playing a game, even an educational game, will not help learning if you are only focussed on an arbitrary end result.

What does this mean for On the Path of the Elders?

We had to think long and hard about what winning would look like.

One of the objectives we had in making this online educational resource was to promote leadership and positive self-identity in Aboriginal youths. It was not enough for the player to simply complete all of the role-playing games on the website: winning had to promote a sense of purpose, it had to reconnect the player with their past in a way that would create a sense of urgency about the present.

To win, the player has to complete a series of games, each of which is tied to one element of self-governance: security, health, economy, culture, education, and self-government. The games are designed to teach players about their culture and history, and to help them learn traditional skills. In order to succeed, the players must learn to cooperate, negotiate, share, and listen to their Elders.

We want players to understand how they play a pivotal role in their community.

Beyond “winning”, we hope that the players’ reward will be the conviction that they have all the skills needed to become a voice of leadership and change in their community.

Have you come across any games that have a good (or bad) reward? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Carleton College. Game-Based Learning.

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 Desch√Ętelets, 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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