Play It Smart: what we can learn from games (and why they should be used to teach us)

Along with two other members of the Games Research Network, Dr Chloe Germaine Buckley and Dr Paul Wake, I was privileged to be part of the “Play it Smart” panel discussing the educational possibilities of games at Tabletop Gaming Live on Saturday 29th September. For those who couldn’t make it, you can enjoy the (slightly clearer) synopsis below.

Serious games are games which are used for outcomes other than entertainment, and with the increasing popularity of gamification to improve everything from marketing campaigns to personal fitness we now encounter them more frequently than ever. Yet many games historically have had a ‘serious’ component, from the use of counter games to educate children in mathematics through to their application in strategic military training. We already know that games are more interesting than listening to someone talk at us for hours, and offer a safe environment to experiment compared to real world action. So can games overcome the boredom of learning and the danger of practice?

We think so!

We suggest that games offer multiple ways of learning, through creating promising learning spaces, embedding didactic themes, or as a methodology for philosophical research.

Games as Learning Social Spaces

Establishing ground rules for gameplay represents the creation of a particular sort of social space, one in which a large number of existing rules are suspended. With the introduction of centred attention, turn-taking, and agreement to abide by shared explicit rules we temporarily set aside many of the ‘normal’ rules associated with our everyday roles (such as our family or work positions). While we might be quite competitive, we also (mostly) agree that such game spaces are free from real-world consequences. The frequent sporting adage, “It’s not the winning but the taking part” conveys this message regarding nonconsequentialism and also foregrounds the non-seriousness of the abstract ‘win’ conditions in any given game. The same phrase draws our attention to the fact that it is in what happens during taking part in the game, rather than at its completion, which seriously matters.

Inside the game context, this ‘magic circle’ where the rules of behaviour are different to normal, there are extensive opportunities to experiment with different types of behaviour, using alternative strategies, or testing out new skills. This openness to experimentation and lack of serious consequence sets up a great social environment for learning, requiring only that the objectives of play be appropriately challenging in order to be engaging. These conditions match closely with those processes outlined by learning theorists such as Vygotsky and Piaget as ideal for constructing new knowledge.

Existing games frequently embed a need to learn and develop competence in order to become a sufficiently capable player, and in doing so they promote the development of specific skills according to the nature of the game. Deduction games develop skills in logic, Storytelling games develop skills in memory and creativity, Resource management games develop skills in planning and strategising and Pattern recognition games enhance spatial awareness. The scale of the game and nature of competitive or cooperative play also provoke development of communication and negotiation skills.

Beyond mechanics which enhance skill competency, concentrated gameplay can also provoke feelings in response to play actions; such as loyalty, resentment, outrage, affection and more. Such feelings are important markers for reflection and learning points, both in terms of individual development and play style, and in connecting to larger ongoing issues which the game may represent. In this sense, playing the game can deliver a similar experience to examining a problem with a fresh pair of eyes (or from a ‘naive’ perspective). It can provoke awareness and learning about issues that we simply cannot see when taking them ‘seriously’. To make the most of this type of learning opportunity often requires making time for reflection outside of the game, either with pre-planned questions or with an external ‘discussion coach’.

Games as carriers of thematic information

Two members of the GRN, Dr Paul Wake and Dr Sam Illingworth, have developed a free expansion on the topic of climate change for the popular game Catan, published by Asmodee. Carefully exploring and testing modifications of the game rules which represent the latest in climate change science, and having this peer reviewed by a range of experts in the field, this amendment of the Catan gameplay introduces consequences which follow from particular resource management strategies. This adds a specific theme to the existing negotiation game which builds on the existing resource management and social development thematic narratives in Catan.

One key element of the expansion lies in the initial decision to be made by players; whether they will accept a ‘tragedy of the commons’ outcome whereby the land will be destroyed but the player with the most resources will ‘win’, or if they must all negotiate to maintain a stable environment in order to succeed. This key decision results in two very different play styles, and highlights some of the political difficulties in negotiating real-world Climate Change policies!

The consequences which follow from resource exploitation and agreements to pay or not pay a ‘green tax’ also facilitates a game that provokes discussions around some of the broader issues of climate change, including foregrounding the need for self-discipline and collaboration between different communities to maintain a habitable island. Designed primarily for play in learning environments such as schools, this highlights how a theme within a game can ‘carry’ educational elements explicitly (as in the expansion), or implicitly (as in negotiations in the original game).

Gameplay for humanities research

Because engaging in gameplay results in the creation of special and different spaces, playing games in unusual spaces or in unusual ways offers a chance to reconsider the meaning of that space and our relationship with it. Dr Chloe Germaine Buckley has been exploring the consequences of that practice for our philosophical understanding of the reality of the world and our perceptions of it. Through looking at horror LARP, she outlines how this exposes our willingness to engage with a reality we know to be fraudulent; populated by excessive and uncertain, unsafe and fake game objects.

Outlining how challenging thinking about a philosophy inspired by material uncertainty can be, she suggests that by engaging in play we can use the potential of the ‘magic circle’ to explore the unsafe philosophical territory beyond simple approaches to understanding what is real. Such approaches could be key to identifying our core assumptions and considering how these inform our research objectives when studying complex and chaotic phenomena, or philosophy.

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