Games? In Learning? I’m Confused…

Confused Sonic by ~EdoBean

It’s evident from recent weeks that many are confused when talking about games in the same breath as education. This is understandable. The question, “What is a game?” still elicits varied responses depending on who you talk to.

Most fields of study have been around for thousands of years, have fairly clear definitions and boundaries and have a vast body of knowledge to draw from. Whilst games in various forms have been around as early as 2600BC (see Exploring Games Through Culture) and are a universal part of human experience, definitions from Callios, Huizinga, Salen, Zimmerman, Pearce, Wittgenstein etc. have no real agreed definition of what a ‘game’ actually is.

Whilst there is no concise definition that is universally agreed upon, we can draw from the literature and by examining many of these definitions and synthesising this work into something that is coherent, we can establish a baseline for our discussion around games. Briefly, the common elements are:

  • Games are an activity that generally have an uncertain outcome.
  • Games have rules and to a degree, conflict.
  • Games have a clearly defined set of goals.
  • Games are artificial, safe, make believe, and they are outside ordinary life. This is sometimes referred to as the players stepping into the “Magic Circle” (see Games, Play & Porous Membranes)
  • Games are voluntary
  • Games are systems
  • Games are a medium unto themselves and a form of art

If we now add relatively new fields like game design and gamification into the mix, you can start to understand where the confusion comes from.

Meeting with Donald Brinkman from Microsoft Research in Melbourne recently and having several meetings the DEECD folk (who have not long completed their serious games and virtual worlds trial), it is important that there is a shared understanding of not only the literature, but also of a critical vocabulary – a set of words or common language that enable us to have meaningful discussions around the use of games, and at the higher level, allow DEECD folk to make informed choices and decisions in regard to policy development.

This common understanding is important otherwise we risk propagating misconceptions and misunderstanding which has implications for a learning method that is just starting to gain real traction in education circles. Understanding the differences between Game Theory, Game-Based Learning, Game Development & Gamification is paramount to elevating the dialogue.

Misconceptions that I have come across recently include:

  • Game Theory is the theory of using games in learning.
  • Gamification is the use of games in learning. 
  • Gamification could be seen as dumbing down the curriculum. 
  • Game Design & Development is digital only. 
  • That the study of games needs to be integrated into a subject.

This is part 1 of a series of posts that will look into the differences and similarities between Game Theory, Gamification, Game-Based Learning and Game Development.

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