Was it “Chutes and Ladders”? “Battleship”, perhaps? How about “Chess” or “Uno”? Everyone had a favorite game growing up. What was yours? Maybe “Super Mario Brothers”? Go ahead, take a minute and think about it. Name that game you spent hours on, strategizing about, and maybe even cajoling others to play with you. Got it? Great! I knew you had one.
For many children, adolescents, and even teachers, playing a game, especially a videogame, is a preferred pastime. Something about a game keeps players engaged as they try over and over again to accomplish a skill, complete a task, or advance to a next level. The challenge can be all-consuming as players spend considerable amounts of time gaming, even seeming to lose consciousness of the world outside the game. Why do games merit such attention? It may be because games meet students in Lev Vygotsky's (1978) Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The difference between what a learner can do without help and what he/she can do with help, the ZPD exists between what is known and unknown, where classroom teachers attempt to meet their students with new knowledge, and new learning occurs. It is the instructional sweet spot.
Games intuitively capture a player’s attention at his/her ZPD, as initial rounds capitalize on a player’s prior abilities and skills, and each additional level forces him/her to learn a new skill or acquire new knowledge to be successful. Despite the glazed-over eyes and tears of frustration that can accompany a string of losses, the player returns again and again, each time with a little more understanding of the key to mastery.
But how is it that games feed a player’s engagement despite multiple unsuccessful attempts? Bruner Wood (1976) expanded on Vygotsky's work to suggest that supports, or scaffolding, within the ZPD can be removed as soon as skills become automatic. Wood referred to scaffolds as, “Those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence” (1976, p.90). One element of successful learning is the ability of the teacher to engage students in the content long enough to provide the scaffolds and supports needed for students to succeed in the ZPD.
To achieve engagement, games captivate players emotionally, enticing them with the quest to be played. Game designers hone in on a player’s desire to succeed or win by building the sense the player can triumph through fair play. This embedded emotional element mesmerizes players and leads to deep engagement and the acquisition of skills and content, and tickles the player’s intrinsic desire to succeed. The strong emotional connections of games further enhance a sense of engagement with their task. Fear, surprise, disgust, pride, triumph, and wonder all act as engagement keys for game play (Farber, 2015). “Designers can customise an experience best suited to unlock certain feelings” (Farber, 2015, p.60), making even stronger connections to the game and creating a commitment by the player to continue.
Both Vygotsky and Wood describe recognizable parallels to players that self-select games in their ZPD. Gamers learn rules using peers as supports, play, and soon--without help--experience gratification as they play, and even lose. As players develop, they select games requiring a variety of skills or, as skills become automatic, games that are more challenging. Games players find too easy or too hard lie outside the ZPD and lack the keys to engagement, causing players to become passive or give up. Ralph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design, points out, “The definition of a good game is therefore one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing” (2013, p.46). Koster asserts both the educational and entertainment value of games by writing, “Basically, all games are edutainment” (2013, p.47).
Games, almost in any form, are so good at engagement, maintaining attention, and advancing a skill that they also make terrific teaching tools and have led to the game-based learning philosophy. “Game based learning describes an approach to teaching, where students explore relevant aspects of games in a learning context designed by teachers. Teachers and students collaborate in order to add depth and perspective to the experience of playing the game” (EdTech Team, 2013).
Through game-based learning, teachers pair the benefits of games with learning in their classrooms. Andrew Garvery, a middle-level English teacher at Randolph Central School and professed “gamer”, is one teacher using the blended game design curriculum Zulama to bring the engagement of game design to his students. Andrew’s students are answering the questions, “What is a game? Why do we play them? Is a game a representation of society? How is society represented in a game?” (Garvey, 2016). His students are not using a traditional educational games approach to master vocabulary or key components of content, rather games are the engaging content in his class. Students in Andrew’s classroom are, by design, becoming game designers.
Games, through many of the strategies highlighted below and built within Zulama’s curriculum, become everyday pedagogical tools in the learning process.
Whether your favorite game is Monopoly, Minecraft or Mancala, when you are gaming, you are a student and learning is happening. Almost magically, the game has placed you in your Zone of Proximal Development and, chances are, you can’t get enough, even when you’re losing. Incorporating game-based learning strategies to instructional design can bring the magic of the game to the heart of learning in any classroom.
EdTechReview, Editorial Team. (2013, April 23). What is GBL (Game-Based Learning)? Retrieved February 25, 2016, from http://edtechreview.in/dictionary/298-what-is-game-based-learning
Entertainment Software Association. More Than 150 Million Americans Play Video Games - The Entertainment Software Association. Retrieved March 11, 2016, from http://www.theesa.com/article/150-million-americans-play-video-games/
Farber, M. (2015). Gamify your classroom: A field guide to game-based learning. NY, NY: Peter Lang.
Garvey, A. (2016, March 10). Zulama Webinar [Online interview].
Koster, R. (2013). Theory of Fun for Game Design. O'Reilly Media.
Vaillancourt, Beverly. (2014). Zulama: Game Design, Game Principles, and Emotional Design Elements. Used with permission.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.
By: Tim Cox, CA BOCES Instructional Support Services