Do we need games for learning?

I have again and again argued, that most learning games (or what we choose to call them at any point in time) are often quite disappointing.

At the same time, I still believe good (learning) games are relevant – as one tool among many.

There’s of course also the ongoing discussion whether or not it even makes sense to distinguish between games and learning games. All games are about learning something, and games can be extremely relevant in education without being actual learning games. Furthermore, in many learning games you end up spending too much time on learning something, that is external to playing the game.

Games like Papo & Yo, Cart Life, Papers Please, and (the elephant in the room) Minecraft are brilliant examples of games that are not built explicitly for learning purposes, but which are nonetheless challenging players intellectually and emotionally.

Regardless of this discussion, and regardless of my hopes for better games for learning, what we really need is not learning games.

Or any kind of games.

Or teaching materials or technology in general.

What we really need is not technology (as such), it’s better, more meaningful and relevant educations.

This might seem obvious, so why am I spending the time writing?

I am very concerned that we (again) end up perpetuating the mistaken belief that technology is some kind of holy saviour.

I see these overly optimistic headlines all around the world, stating that games or play or MOOCs or Flipped Learning or [whatever hypeword tomorrow brings]…will save education and eventually the world.

I don’t care much for such predictions. To be honest, I think it’s utter sensationalist nonsense.

To boil it down, tech will solve nothing. We may have new opportunities with new technologies, but it requires changes in the way we think, work and organize ourselves. Changes won’t just magically follow in the wake of technological innovations.

Here in Denmark, I’m part of a forum hosted by the Ministry of Education, where we are looking at the field of “digital teaching tools”. While I unequivocally applaud the initiative, these meetings often leave me confused, because what are we talking about? Do we just want better teaching tools/technologies? We do, of course, but I’m struggling to figure out how much emphasis we should really put on this, and how much we should put on changing the structures, cultures, goals and purposes of education.

If we think of games as nothing but more efficient means to simply transmit knowledge to the students, but otherwise change nothing, we’re not really getting anywhere. That would just be reinforcing the notion of students as recipients and consumers of content.

What is really important in education, then?

Many things are important, of course, and this is an important discussion to keep having. Should I capture as much as possible in as few words as possible, I’d say something like this:

Education should seek to create the best possible foundation for people to live rich and happy lives, by empowering children and young people to be in the world with other people, to make difficult decisions and to use technology to express themselves and solve meaningful problems.

There’s much more to it, of course, but I generally think about education as a way to learn how to be human, how to be social, and how to be and act in the world.

…and this is where we can really learn from games and (not least!) play.

The “magic circle” of play creates a safe space, where we can experiment with roles, with scenarios, with being in the world, with being together, and we can do so in creative ways driven by curiosity, excitement and joy. These activities can be structured like games, or assume a more loose, playful and less controlled structure.

Remembering Salen & Zimmerman’s definition, “play is free movement within a more rigid structure”.

Education then becomes a question of striking the balance between structure and freedom, with emphasis on the latter (if you ask me). The “free movement” is essential if we want students to take ownership of their own learning.

None of this is about technology. No, it’s much more important than that.

It’s about how we’re being humans. Together.

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