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What I Learned About Education From Video Game Design

How incorporating key concepts from video game design into education can inspire kids to learn

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In my last post, I wrote about how career advice from different sectors (in that case specifically sales), can be surprisingly relevant to education.   

Another industry that could teach us a thing or two in education, is video game design. 

Kids love video games. Due to the pandemic, they are playing games now more than ever. In fact, global video game revenue is expected to grow 20% to nearly $180 billion in 2020, (according to IDC) making revenue for the video game industry bigger than the global movie and North American sports industries combined.

It made me think about WHY video games are so engaging to kids. And could we use the same concepts in education to make lessons more engaging and active so that kids would show up excited to learn?

The answer is a resounding yes, and here’s how.

Start Easy 

In video games, the first few levels or your introduction to the game, are intentionally designed to be easy so players gain confidence and become excited about the learning journey. The difficulty then increases by just the right amount – it’s not too hard or too easy. Video game design experts share that most successful games have something in common – progressive skill-building. Players feel motivated as they get better at the game and move up levels.

This is also a good format for teaching. Start easy and capture a student’s attention then continue with skill-building at an appropriate level. When something seems too easy or too difficult, students will lose attention, but by replicating the formula of games and adjusting as needed, we can keep students engaged in learning.

Stay Active

Video games require the player to be in control of their own journey. They are never passive, but actively trying things. In order to learn, students have to actively participate in the learning. A lot of traditional education occurs in the form of lectures where students passively listen to an ongoing teacher monologue. Activity based or project based learning, which mimics video games in some senses, is proven to be more effective in developing greater depth of understanding in the concepts than traditional lecturing and increases the level of student creativity.

Immediate Feedback

In video game design, player feedback is immediate and there’s very little penalty for failure. You don’t jump to the next level until you have passed the current level. But you can try as many times as you like, allowing you to learn from your mistakes. There is no lasting consequence to failures. Only positive reinforcement as successes are celebrated with rewards and progress.

In order to learn, you need to have immediate error and success feedback. Traditional grading systems provide much delayed feedback often without constructive feedback, which is contrary to this model. It punishes failure (creating a fear to try new strategies) and creates a knowledge gap before moving on to the next level.

Utilizing learning opportunities like regular pop quizzes are actually more effective than graded tests that are returned weeks after taking them as feedback is discussed in class or given immediately. 

Establish Patterns 

All successful video games involve creating, identifying, and learning patterns so that predictions can be made that help us through each level. Sometimes these patterns are easy to find while other times, they are very complicated.  

Detecting patterns is an important part of how humans learn and make decisions. Video games use patterns to draw in our attention and the more you play, the better you get at predicting the patterns.

Educators use patterns to teach every subject, including math, science, technology, engineering, reading and writing, and even music. By being purposeful and pointing out those patterns, we strengthen students’ ability to run probability theories. Our brain is constantly finessing probability models. As we get older and we progress through education, it’s much easier to learn how to spell something when we know grammatical rules and the patterns of the exceptions to those rules. Similarly, it is also how we learn a piece of music, we recognize patterns in music and organize them into a form that can be memorized.

Make It Fun

Lastly, video games are fun. In games, you are learning while having fun so the learning is worth it. Many educational tools use this approach as well. An example is Prodigy, a game-based learning app that’s a fun way for kids to practice essential math skills.

Understanding what is fun to kids is not always obvious, so including them in the decision-making can be beneficial. For example, playing music as kids enter the classroom (and letting them select a theme song for each week), is a far more productive way to start class than a school bell. The music welcomes them and reduces stress and anxiety, making them feel like they belong there.

Allowing free-choice time is also a great way to encourage students to steward their own learning path.

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