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Learning Theory or How I learned to stop worrying and love video games

I’m in full ed-tech geek mode today. It’s MACE tech conference time here in Kansas and I’m having a great time presenting and learning. The place is packed with educators who want to get better at what they do and want to use tech to do it.

I can’t think of a better place to be.

Wish me luck. I’m gonna try and live blog Nathan Bean’s afternoon session titled “Exploring the Pedagogy of Video Games.” And if you’ve been following History Tech for any amount of time, you know this is right up my alley. Huge believer in the power of video games to impact learning.


And I love the idea of using game design ideas of creating great unit designs.

So I’m looking forward to this. His description has some great questions:

  • Can video games teach?
  • What separates good educational games from the bad?
  • How can games be used effectively in classroom practice?
  • What techniques can be used by teachers to utilize games and gamification in classrooms?

He’s off to a good start by using a Playstation handheld controller to present his slides.

Nathan starts by saying he will focus less on apps / actual games and more on the theory of why games work so well in educational settings. I like this – as educators, we often worry more about the tool itself rather than the end result. We need to focus on process and how the brain has changed during that process instead of finding “engaging” and “fun” games.

Highlights James Paul Gee’s stuff – Gee is one of the pioneers of figuring how and why games should be integrated into educational settings. In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy & Learning, Gee says it this way:

Better theories of learning are embedded in the video games many children play than in the schools they attend.

Nathan is talking a bit about what good educational theory says about how we learn. He’s breaking down the different pieces of ed theory into how game designers create good games.

1. Prior knowledge

Joseph Campbell – helped develop the idea of “The Hero’s Journey” that has been used how movies, and now video games to create engaging story arcs. Nathan suggest that perhaps 90% of all commercial games use some form of the this type of template. We need to make sure that our instruction incorporates what kids already know and understand.

2. How students organize knowledge

David Hilbert – math guy. Okay. Nathan lost me here a bit as he digressed into “meta-mathmatics” and how that idea influenced game designers. I’m not a math guy but I sort of get this. Code helps create games that have certain rules that must be followed. And these rules set up a “world” where things can be understand if we understand the rules.

So when someone plays a game, they are able to organize information in ways that make sense to them. A great example of this when players create maps of game worlds to help them understand the written and unwritten rules.

3. Student motivation creates and sustains what they do

Games need to make money and so game designers must understand what motivates players and what keeps them interested. This often involves intrinsic and altruistic reasons. We need to do the same thing with our lesson and unit design by building in reasons – beyond just grades – for encouraging kids to do things.

4. Students must acquire component pieces and combine them together.

A good game requires players to gather information and master new skills. And this often happens in stages over time – game levels. This is a great example of how we need to scaffold student learning over time. And we need to structure it so that kids gather that info and those skills when they need them, not when we think they need them.

He talked about “grind.”

Nathan says grind is unavoidable in most games. Grind is stuff in games that a player just have to do, even though it is not fun or though the activity doesn’t seem to have a purpose. Grind would be collecting tokens or interacting with other players to gain power or tools or points needed later in the game, even though it’s not obvious at the time.

I haven’t thought about this before as it relates to learning. In a great game, players will put up with grind because they eventually they will understand the purpose. The key here is that the player knows there is a goal – they’re keeping the end in mind.

I think we can use the idea of  “grind” as we develop lesson and unit design. Our students often do not know the end in mind – as educators we just don’t make that stuff obvious enough. They will grind through collecting foundational knowledge or basic Q & A if they understand the reason for it.

5. Goal directed practice

Nathan talks about dying in a game. When a player dies in a game, he just re-starts. And he keeps doing this until he doesn’t die anymore.

For me, this is a perfect example of how we need to not just allow failure but encourage it. Kids need to learn from their mistakes and experiences.

6. Students learn best in learning communities

Nathan is spending some time talking about how players learn from each other both in a game and in communities outside of the game.

Nathan didn’t really discuss the idea of walkthroughs and cheat codes. But in gaming communities, this stuff goes on all the time. We need to do the same thing in our classroom and encourage the idea of working together. We used to call it cheating. Companies in the 21st century call it collaborative teams.

He did talk about how online gamers often work together, in World of Warcraft for example, to solve complex problems.

Nice overview of game theory and how it should influence our instructional design but a bit disappointed that he didn’t share more practical classroom examples. Teachers don’t have much time to actually create the games they use but they can use the ideas embedded in game theory to help them design great lessons.

Need a few practical suggestions? This might help.


A Tip of the Week that uses a video game in a very practical way.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Life #

    I am a social studies teacher and when I was trying to teach what life was like in the Civil War I did a series of stations where students could semi-experience what it might have been like. The only thing that I was having a hard time giving them some kind of experience is in the weaponry and tactics used during the Civil War. I actually turned to video games to accomplish this. I found a game made by the History Channel Civil War Secret Missions. I brought my Xbox into class and set it up to play this game. Students received experience in the weaponry of the Civil War. The knowledge gained far exceeded any other year that I taught Civil War Weaponry. The loading and firing accuracy was the largest complaint from kids because they are used to games like Call of Duty and Halo, but during the Civil War the weapons would not have been like they are used to. Overall it was a success. I know that this might not have been exactly what your were talking about when you posted this but I thought I would share how I used a video game in class. Oh and I love reading your blog!

    March 8, 2013
    • glennw #

      It’s exactly what I’m talking about. We can use already games as part of our instruction, we can create our own games, or we can take game theory ideas and embed them into our instruction. All impact the brain in positive ways!

      I plan to check out the game you mentioned.

      (Come back later today to hear more about the SimCityEdu site that just opened up this week.)


      March 8, 2013
  2. Tyler Anderson #

    I would love more resources on this subject. I’ve used the PC platform game “Civilization” when teaching world history in high-school. The students loved it and I felt it was an effective tool for application and collaboration.

    March 8, 2013

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