Games as a medium for education

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Photo by Filios Sazeides on Unsplash

I think most of us can agree that if we look at the current education systems all over the world, and compare how they fare against the fast-paced technological evolution of our societies, we will easily see that they are slowly but surely becoming outdated.

The basic format in which children and students are engaged in the act of amassing knowledge is wholly centered on one thing — memorizing; and let me tell you, from the perspective of a millennial, the experience sucks.

Surely you’ve heard students say: “Oh, but why should I learn anything when I have Google?”. It’s one of the stupidest statements to make as there are plenty of counter-arguments to it, but if we are to be sincere, we have to admit there is a hard truth in it.

Since generally, the education system is meant to have students memorize as much information as they can and then officially consider that ability “intelligence”, then if we bring Google into the equation, isn’t it that anyone can be “intelligent” given a few seconds?

Therefore as a reaction to the evolution of our societies, and our newly acquired technological capabilities, the world, with the corporate environment at the forefront, has shifted towards valuing more another form of intelligence — creativity.

But creativity is a force in itself, which when related to intelligence is not essentially bound by education. So what the world values more now is a mix of intelligence and creativity, which takes form in different aspects as a result of education — things like wit, cleverness, cunning, perception, intuition, talent etc.

The problem is, many schools or companies try to instill these new forms of education through various methods of the same process — still by memorizing. But there are two areas which claim to make progress on this matter — Gamification and Educational Games; one of them is a trend mostly coming from the corporate environment, while the other is the institutional answer to the matter of improving education.

But before we continue, I want to tell you a quick story — during the 20th century in Romania, artists and writers were imitating French art and literature in order to “lift Romanian culture to the same level as the world”. Some claim it was the right thing to do, while others criticized it harshly. It did give us a few works of art but ultimately, the trend served best as the seeds for a counter-reactionary trend, which underpinned Romanian tradition and culture into its modern society.

One of the most important actors of that emerging trend was a man named Titu Maiorescu, which in 1978 has published an analysis of Romania’s modernization process. In his analysis, he coined a powerful syntax that has caught deep roots into our culture, and is common knowledge today. He framed the modernization process as “shapes without background”.

What he meant by this was that we can see anything in the world, ideologically, as shape, and as substance/background. What the artists and writers of 20th century Romania were doing by imitating the French culture was to create works of art and write novels that had a beautiful “shape”, but little to no substance.

Think of the shapes as the intellectual knowledge we gain every day, and the background/substance part as the experience that underpins with wisdom what we learn.

Essentially, we have the same problem today in our education systems and even more in the corporate environment. Memorizing information in school creates a lot of shapes which are not bound in substance by experience — so what happens is that students quickly forget what they learn once they pass the test.

And then in the corporate environment, the whole “best practices” methodology creates a standard for operations in all companies, no matter their differences or size, which comparatively, means doing the same thing that Romanian writers and artists were doing in the 20th century.

So then, in all of the aspects of the world’s educational landscape, we have a system that focuses on students and employees superficially memorizing information and rarely supporting those with defining experiences that internalize the newly gained knowledge, as to not be forgotten.

But in a system that makes students and employees stay at a desk for several hours per day and almost demand of them to become better, more knowledgeable, more skilled, how is it possible to support what they learn intellectually with experience?

Well, that is a matter which is best addressed subjectively by each entity according to their capabilities, but what I will do, is to show the way in which compelling experiences are best created. And as you may have expected from the title, the key to achieving this is found at the core of all the best modern video games.

In order to create the best learning experience one needs to enter a psychological process called cognitive flux. I cannot praise this effect enough, as in my opinion this is the greatest achievement of video games.

Cognitive flux is a state that our brains achieve, which is described as “energized learning”.

It should be of no surprise to find out that video games do this best, since every video game nowadays has a set of rules to be learned, and progressive increase in gameplay difficulty, in order to have players constantly adapt their play to new challenges. After all, video games are expressly created to offer an experience which at the same time immerses, challenges and teaches the player.

Video games have people enter the state of cognitive flux by creating a well thought ludo-narrative system of gameplay, which aims to keep the players in what is called “the flow channel” for as much time as possible.

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Now while the trick is to keep them there, giving them a streamlined experience where the challenge matches the player’s skill perfectly can prove unappealing and boring, as players come to expect and foresee the pacing at which different aspects of events progress.

That’s the reason why the line inside the flow channel has ups and downs. The highs are moments when the intensity of gameplay rises (along with the challenge), and the lows are moments when the gameplay relaxes so that the player’s newly acquired skills can sediment.

Moreover, the highs are usually marked by moments characterized by ludic gameplay — meaning more action-oriented events; while the more relaxed parts are characterized by narrative moments, reinforcing the emotional connection with the game’s story.

The challenge is just right so it’s actually challenging and conquerable, but not big enough so it becomes annoying, while the relaxing bits are rewarding and further the story in a compelling way towards the next challenge.

An organic flow of events balancing the gameplay between these two characteristics leads to full immersion into the game. It matters that the players continue to keep playing/learning in order to become more skilled, as ultimately, thought immersion, they get into a state of fast learning.

The more they are challenged, the more skillful they become, the more they are challenged again, and so on. Sprinkle narrative and itemized rewards inside this loop, balance them, and you have a great game which will keep players immersed for hours and hours and hours…

So here is my proposition — what if we can extrapolate these core elements of gamification and integrate them into our education systems? To organize the learning process in schools/universities on the premise of engaging students to help them get immersed into gaining knowledge, by teaching and challenging them at certain steps.

What I mean to express here, is that play and learning are interrelated in the deepest biological sense — the first things every being learns are through play (bold statement, but yes, more or less; just Google “why do animals play”).

We know how play looks and helps children, and we know that’s how they learn, so the parents role is to teach the child — that means letting them make mistakes, or get hurt, which makes the experience of learning real. This is how parents engage with the basic system of play that children express.

But now video games have arrived at a point when they can exemplify how a complex system of play engages with our more complex biology. And it seems to have the potential to greatly enhance the process of learning and growing.

When done right, play immerses us into a subject and keeps us in the flow.

So why do we stop developing this biological framework of play as we grow up, to the point it is regarded as simply, recreational?

Written by

Game Designer. Millennial Philosopher.

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