Learning Through Games, But Not Gamification

April 6, 2015 - 9:03am
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MIT's Education Arcade is filled with games and toys that inspire learning. The director, Eric Klopfer, and creative director, Scot Osterweil, advocate the freedom to learn through educational video games and toys. But they despise "gamification," where players win points by practicing a school subject.
If somebody comes to me and says, ‘I want to make math fun,’ I don’t want to work with that person,” said Osterweil, “because they don’t think math is already fun.”
In gamified math, equations are often wedged into high-energy video worlds with wacky characters, points and player rankings, and maybe some explosions. It’s a model used by many popular educational games, such as Math Blaster, which has sold millions of copies and been reissued several times since it was introduced in 1983.
In Math Blaster, players fly space ships while math problems appear on the ships’ consoles and numbered asteroids hurtle toward them. If a console reads “15 – 7 = ?” and the ship’s laser guns fire at asteroid 5, nothing happens, except a red cabin light flashes to indicate a mistake. When correctly aimed at asteroid 8, the guns blast it out of the sky. Osterweil and Klopfer call games like this “drill and practice,” or “shooting flashcards.”
“This game isn’t telling you why you got a problem right or wrong or asking you to think about what arithmetic is,” Osterweil said in a video in their new MOOC. “If you’re good at arithmetic, Math Blaster’s fun, because it reinforces that you’re good at math. If you’re not understanding arithmetic, you’re getting nowhere with this.”
Instead, Osterweil and Klopfer want to emphasize the fun of learning and problem solving through playing games. One of their games, The Radix Endeavor, is a multiplayer online game where players embark on quests to cure diseases or reinforce buildings (learning biology and math). Instead of making students solve math problems, the game helps the students figure out how to learn the math, similar to a child playing with building blocks. Mark Knapp, a biology teacher, has been using Radix for his students. According to Knapp, the game gets students interested in how scientists think and solve problems. It isn't a substitute for the classroom curriculum, but it teaches other skills that aren't learned through lectures, like dealing with frustration. Many people enjoy gamified games like Math Blaster, but the real fun of learning comes through the freedom to explore and experiment. Like The Radix Endeavor, many board games are great tools that emphasize the fun of learning without forcing people to do homework problems within the game. Games won't replace education, but they can be a great tool for classrooms, and learning should always be fun. To learn more about The Radix Endeavor and the Education Arcade, read the full article here.