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Is “making a game out of learning” bad for learning?

Two MIT professors argue for more playful educational games

Photo of Chris Berdik

Tech Smart

In MIT’s Education Arcade, classic game consoles line the office corridor, rafters are strung with holiday lights, and inflatable, stuffed and papier-maché creatures lurk around every corner. When I stopped by recently, the Arcade’s director, Eric Klopfer, and creative director, Scot Osterweil, talked enthusiastically about the surging interest in educational video games, now used by nearly three quarters of America’s grade-school teachers, according to one survey.

But these optimistic, play-loving game gurus have come to despise the biggest buzzword in their field: gamification. According to Osterweil and Klopfer, both MIT professors, gamification too often means “making a game out of learning,” in which players win points, magical powers or some other reward for practicing math, spelling or another school subject. Klopfer and Osterweil argue that the best educational games capture what’s already fun about learning and make that central to the game. Gamification undermines what they see as the real opportunity for games to radically, albeit playfully, transform education.

People play video games at a New York game arcade in December 20, 1981. (AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett)

People play video games at a New York game arcade in December 20, 1981. (AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett)

The Arcade, part of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program, partners with schools, gaming companies and nonprofits to make educational video games. The staff also trains teachers to make their own games and to weave them into lesson plans, via on-campus courses and a new MOOC (massively open online course), “Design and Development of Games for Learning” that launches today.

“If somebody comes to me and says, ‘I want to make math fun,’ I don’t want to work with that person,” said Osterweil, “because they don’t think math is already fun.”

In gamified math, equations are often wedged into high-energy video worlds with wacky characters, points and player rankings, and maybe some explosions. It’s a model used by many popular educational games, such as Math Blaster, which has sold millions of copies and been reissued several times since it was introduced in 1983.

In Math Blaster, players fly a space ship while math problems appear on the ship’s console and numbered asteroids hurtle toward them. If the console reads “15 – 7=?” and the ship’s laser guns fire at asteroid 5, nothing happens, except a red cabin light flashes to indicate a mistake. When correctly aimed at asteroid 8, the guns blast it out of the sky. Osterweil and Klopfer call games like this “drill and practice,” or “shooting flashcards.”

“This game isn’t telling you why you got a problem right or wrong or asking you to think about what arithmetic is,” Osterweil said in a video in their new MOOC. “If you’re good at arithmetic, Math Blaster’s fun, because it reinforces that you’re good at math. If you’re not understanding arithmetic, you’re getting nowhere with this.”

Back in the Arcade offices, Kopfler said games that “make math fun” typically don’t require players to use math in any real sense. Instead, he said, “it’s ‘do some math so you get to shoot some asteroids.’ ”

Whenever the Arcade team brainstorms a game, by contrast, they start by finding people who are passionate about math, history, science or any other subject and ask what drives and engages them.

“Maybe they love solving puzzles with math or experimenting with science,” said Klopfer. “Maybe they like how understanding math and science make the world seem different, or more comprehensible. Tap into that thing people already find interesting, and enhance it in the game.”

For instance, the Arcade is now piloting “The Radix Endeavor,” a free, multiplayer, online game designed to supplement high school math and science lessons. Based on conversations with working scientists and engineers, the game has players explore a fictional world called Ysola that’s ruled by evil, science-hoarding overlords called the Obfuscati. Players encounter Ysola’s beleaguered citizenry and embark on various quests while evading the Obfuscati, such as finding a cure for a deadly disease or using math to reinforce dangerously weak buildings.

“It’s not about solving this math problem, so you get a magic wand that can make this building stronger,” said Klopfer. “It’s figuring out how to learn the math, so you can use that understanding to keep the building from collapsing.”

A few years ago, Osterweil distilled what he calls the “four freedoms of play,” including freedom to experiment, freedom to fail, freedom to assume different identities and freedom of effort (meaning the ability to mix full-throttle effort with periods of relaxation and disengagement). For Osterweil, these freedoms are about more than good game design.

“I argue that real learning happens in moments of playful exploration,” he said, “and all those freedoms should be present.”

Schools overemphasize the learning of facts and formulas, and the right answers for standardized tests, he said. Rather than changing that educational model, “bad ideas like gamification replicate it.”

The problem isn’t just the drill-and-practice design of many games, according to Klopfer. It’s also that teachers predominantly use games as a reward or reinforcement, rather than a starting point for learning.

“The game should be an experience, where kids get to explore and problem- solve,” Klopfer said. “Then a teacher or a peer can help them make the connection between the game experience and concepts that can be generally applied.”

Along with games, the Arcade creates optional lesson plans, and online forums, blogs and one-day teacher training sessions, all to help bridge game learning with other classroom instruction.

Mark Knapp was teaching biology in the Boston Public Schools in 2012 when he heard about the Arcade’s plans for Radix and volunteered to be one of the teachers who helped with the game’s development. Knapp said Radix isn’t a substitute for the science curriculum he covers. What the game does do, he said, “is get kids interested in how scientist think and solve problems.” Since 2014, Knapp has been teaching kids with special needs in grades six through 12, and continues to use Radix in class.

“There are so many little skills, like dealing with frustration, that these kids are also getting from this game,” he said. “I can see kids becoming less frustrated with stuff they don’t understand. That’s really important for any student.”

Klopfer doesn’t think games should be the only way kids learn in school. “There are lots of other things to do in school: Dialogues with peers, solving problems, building things. Sometimes, even lectures are helpful,” he said. “But there are aspects of good games that work well in school, even if they’re not part of a game.”

“I agree,” said Osterweil. “There should still be rigor, and kids should be guided to explore topics they may not have known they were interested in. But, learning should still be damn near all play, all the time.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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Chris Berdik

Chris Berdik is a science journalist who has written about a wide variety of topics, including the intersection of science with ethical issues and the… See Archive

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