I have a blog post up at pbngames.com on how All Games are Educational, and I'm reposting here as well:
Easy question: what’s the highest-value property in Monopoly? Of course, it’s Boardwalk. For extra credit, you might even have included Park Place in your answer.
Here’s another question: would trading a green property for an orange one be a fair deal? Why or why not?
Last question, and this one is the hardest: why do you know the answers to these questions? You never studied the rules of Monopoly or memorized the game board. You don’t use Monopoly on a daily basis. Why do you know details about the game, and not details about, say, cellular respiration or the War of 1812?
I’ll answer this one for you. The reason you know all this about Monopoly, or can hum the theme song to Mario, or can explain your favorite opening move in chess, is because all games are educational. You learned what was important, what was interesting, and what helped you make decisions. The only reason we don’t think of games as educational is because typically what you learn in games does not correlate with the educational goals of school.
Educators are starting to realize the power of games and are using it in their lessons through what is called gamification. They add points, badges, and other rewards to educational activities in an attempt to make them more fun. This is similar to bribing kids with stickers and candy to do their homework – except without the stickers and candy. What educators miss when they focus on gamification is that we don’t need to add learning to games – it’s already there! In fact, part of what makes games fun is the process of trying, failing, and learning. How many times have you returned to a save point saying to yourself, “this time I’m going to do it differently!”? That’s learning in action!
Instead of adding learning to games, we simply need to redirect the learning that’s already happening as part of the game. Our brains are very smart – they conserve resources and only pay attention to, and remember, the things that are important. Your brain defines “important” in a number of different ways, but often it assigns importance to information that is useful. Useful information, like your phone number or the recipe for french toast, gets used over and over again, and every time you access that information, the memory gets stronger. This is why we use flashcards in school – we’re essentially trying to trick our brains into thinking that the information on the flashcard is important through repetition.
Games, however, provide a context where the information to be learned actually is useful to achieve the objective. This means that through the repetition, we are not only reinforcing the memory, but also reinforcing its label of “important.” As designers, our job is to create games where the information and skills you need to win the game are completely in line with the learning goals. With Zeebi Lab, we’re doing this by having players practice the scientific method every turn. Other games do this by asking students to solve logic puzzles based in math concepts, or use principles of ecology to rescue an endangered species.
In addition to making the information useful to players, games also ask them to make decisions based on that information. Remember my question about green vs. orange properties in Monopoly? Not only did you have to recall the relative values of each property, but you also had to assign meaning to that information to make a well-informed decision – and good decisions are the only way to win! These sorts of decisions ask players to move higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy into more complex ways of thinking and manipulating the information they’re given.
All games are educational, but not all games teach something applicable outside the context of the game. The challenge for educators and designers now is to create games that bridge the gap between the game world and the real world, so that the skills and knowledge gained in the game are easily transferable to real-life problems. Fortunately, one thing we already gain from playing games is the problem-solving skills to tackle challenges just like this.