Games, and the entertainment value of play, have the ability to teach and transform.

We don’t think about that as children playing hide-and-seek in the neighborhood. We don’t acknowledge it during turns at charades or throughout the rounds of a board game. That’s because games are engaging and entertaining. And precisely because they are, research shows, they provide effective means to teach skills and transform thoughts.

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Learning today is a very different process than it was in the past, according to the Institute of Play. While 20th century education focused on rote memorization and acquired skills (reading, writing, calculation, history, science), much of the way we learn today is through the use of higher order skills, many experts believe. These include the ability to think through and solve complex problems, or interact critically through language or media. “Games naturally support this form of education,” the Institute says. So game playing is an excellent way to help wire our brains in ways that are crucial to the what, why, and how of learning needs for the 21st century.

More Than a Game

The unique structural elements of games build brainpower, the Institute says, because they:

  • Provide a platform for self-directed exploration
  • Deliver just-in-time learning
  • Use data to help players understand their progress, and what to do and where to go next in the game
  • Create a compelling need to know, ask, examine, assimilate, and master skills and content

Other aspects of games facilitate learning, including the state of being called play.

We never think about how play engages us while we’re involved in it, or how it teaches us by providing a “freeing” environment along the way. We simply enjoy the fun and entertainment value of games as we play them. But according to the Institute,

Much of the activity of play consists in failing to reach the goal established by a game’s rules. And yet players rarely experience this failure as an obstacle to trying again and again, as they work toward mastery. There is something in play that gives players permission to take risks considered outlandish or impossible in ‘real life.’ There is something in play that activates the tenacity and persistence required for effective learning.”

iSchool Faculty Research

The transformative power of games–and how they can be used in learning—are research topics for several faculty members at the School of Information Studies (iSchool). Several faculty members are looking at the elements of games, the processes involved, and the learning that can result from an individual’s engagement through playing a game.

Yang Wang and Scott Nicholson have teamed up to explore games as a principled approach to educate people about security and privacy risks. Their first proof-of-concept prototype will be a mobile game to teach users about Android application permissions. The learning outcome of the game is that players will understand what kind of permissions they have given their apps, how those permissions could threaten their personal data, and how to protect themselves from these threats. As players engage with the game, they will be changing the permissions on the apps so that after the game has been completed, the player is much safer from threats, according to Wang.

Carsten Oesterlund studies he game design process, with a focus on game pieces. He is looking both at  board game design as well as the process of translating board games to electronic media. He studies the process through participant observation and interviews with game designers, game publishers and play testers. Oesterlund says his research approaches game design as an expression of broader system design dynamics, where designers mold social and material structures to create specific situations for work, play or learning that involves particular configurations of people, places, times, materials, and activities.

Marilyn Plavocos Arnone, who teaches “Storytelling for Information Professionals,” uses a gaming module to expand the realm of digital storytelling. “Games … have the ability to draw gamers into a totally immersive experience like reading a good book,” she writes. “Game developers create settings designed to draw the player into the ‘environment’.”

Nicholson runs the Because Play Matters game lab at the iSchool and organizes the Game Designers Guild. His research is about  transformative games for informal learning environments (games whose forms of play are intended to change players.) His current focus is creating an online toolkit that will enable academic libraries to quickly generate an alternate reality game that will help users explore library resources. Nicholson also examines the gamification journey, which moves players from short-term, reward-based gamification, into meaningful gamification, he says. He has taught three courses on gaming: Gaming in Libraries; Adding Game Layers to the Real World, and Transformative Game Design. 

You can check out more courses at Syracuse University’s iSchool on the subject of gaming here.

Do you have a favorite traditional or electronic game experience? Did you realize it was helping you learn? Let us hear about your experiences in the comments below.