Games, Learning, and Motivation

I remember playing adventure games as a child on a clunky gray Tandy which, like myself, was made in the 1980s. The Tandy was the very first computer in my family home. We had inherited it from a family friend because it was outdated to them. My sister and I, on the other hand,  were elated by this technology that was so new to us and we quickly figured out how to use MS-DOS to play the hand-me-down games on floppy disks. We would scour thrift stores and occasionally found games that would work on our prized machine.

Tandy1000HX

At the time, the adventure games we played were those created by a company called Sierra. My favorite was Gold Rush in which I controlled a pixellated man who was on a quest to go to California and try to strike gold. As I had no access to the Internet, I had to figure the game out on my own.  I spent time exploring the fictional, virtual world, learning about the characters, and the ins-and-outs of the game. Since it was a text-based game , I also typed and read a lot.  Through playing games I learned how to touch type. I was motivated because the games were fun. When I was in middle school, I took a class about typing which was no fun at all! In retrospect, my time spent with the video game was more well-spent than the time I spent in class. I had much more fun learning how to type through playing a game and was more incentivized to practice. I also learned much more than just learning how to type. I followed the narrative of the main character and traveled to the West and risked certain death! I learned how to save often.

Gold Rush_1

I have been thinking about the education system that I am most familiar with and how the system correlates with gaming.  From elementary school, to middle school, to high school, I sat in classrooms and attempted to absorb information like a sponge and then prove how much I “learned” and/or memorized by taking tests and doing homework. I was then judged by letter-grades.

School and gaming have similar elements. For instance, if I did well in a semester, my name would be added to the Principal’s Honor Roll which was printed in the local newspaper. My parents thought it was great but I never really cared about it. Top scorers put their initials in to be displayed. Even as a graduate student, I think about how finals are like boss levels that I only have one chance at beating. To proceed to the next stage, I had to pass the boss! Games with top scorers don’t scare potential players, however. Players want to play the games because they are fun. Only the rarest of individuals have fun taking tests in schools.

Gabe Zichermann gave a talk called Fun is the Future: Mastering Gamification October 26, 2010. I found that the major takeaways from the discussion were these points:

  • Anything can be fun.
  • Work  can become fun with thoughtful design.
  • Money is not a good incentive but status is a good incentive.
  • Fun is important.

As a student studying library and information science and as an aspiring children’s librarian, I found that a particularly interesting aspect of the talk was the idea that kids choose games because they are more engaged in games than they are in books.

In school, lectures were only as engaging as the professor’s performances made them. The popularity of TEDTalks illustrates the power of a good lecture. If the point of reading a book and of listening to a lecture is to gain something meaningful from the reflection what is placed before us then keeping the attention of the audience is critical.

The buzz word that jumped out at me most in Zichermann’s talk was “user-engagement” and I wonder about user-engagement in libraries.

I’ve been studying children’s shows lately because they are insanely popular with families.  The show I’m fond of is, unsurprisingly perhaps, Sesame Street. The show can be enjoyed by parents and by children. and there are lessons to be gained from every segment of the show. Kids, however, don’t seem to mind that they are being taught the alphabet or about social values. In this way, the program is similar to games because it draws children in with the lure of entertainment and humor. The are games and television shows that are sub-par in entertainment for kids. So, I wonder, what makes a good game, television show, book, lecture, etc something “good” that holds the attention span of a child?

Learning seems to be more tied to getting a student to care than getting a student to learn a talent or remember a fact.

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