Why schools should be like video games | part 1

Over the coming weeks, we’re going to be touching on 4 concrete problems that educators face, problems which have come up time and again during James’ year with Games For Good. The first of these problems is the fear of failure. Right now much of the way our educational system is set up inculcates a fear of failure. It teaches you of being afraid of being wrong rather than seeing your mistakes as an opportunity to improve. This does not prepare us for the 21st century. Homework is the quintessential example of this. Imagine how the typical homework assignment goes. You get something assigned to you, you take it home, you do it, and you turn it in. A week later you get it back with a grade on it, no chance to revise or redo because by the time you get it back, it’s time to move on to the next thing. You better have gotten it right on the first try, or you’re simply punished with a bad grade. Often homework serves more of an assessment than a learning opportunity.
Now compare that to how we learn in games. Think about how many times you’ve missed a jump and immediately gotten back up to try it again. Think about how many challenges in games you failed only to try a new tactic or experiment with a different solution. You weren’t trained to fear that failure, you were trained to overcome it, and failure still had consequences. This was no lovey dovey everyone is a winner experience, but you were taught that what mattered was finding a solution to the problem in front of you as quickly as possible rather than just getting it right on the first try. The important thing here is that the problems in video games ask you, can you find a way to solve this rather than, do you know the solution, which is the approach most homework in our schools takes. Each problem in a game is a chance to learn and improve rather than simply a test to see if you already have the knowledge required to solve it. This approach, the approach that games provide, is vastly more beneficial for education as it allows homework to be a learning opportunity rather than simply reinforcement or assessment. It’s pretty much impossible to do that in modern classrooms as they are now.

“Through games, we can get kids experimenting, exploring and discovering freely and perhaps through doing so, get them to love learning rather than fear it.”

Often teachers only have a very limited amount of time, just enough to grade the work they give out. They can’t be giving the type of instantaneous feedback that students need to be able to rapidly iterate on problems and test out new solutions or theories they might have, and that’s absolutely not the fault of teachers, but it is an artifact of our educational system’s past that persists into today. When our educational system was created nearly 200 years ago, this sort of drill was the only option, and schooling itself was preparing young people to enter careers that were much more dependent than learning things by rote, factory work, basic shopkeeping. It was preparing them for a world where you couldn’t just look up something on the Internet or pop onto Wikipedia. Today on the other hand, we need to prepare students to find innovative solutions. We need to prepare them to apply the limitless data we have in front of us to solve whatever problem is at hand. It doesn’t matter if it’s a job in IT or the most esoteric medical research, almost all of our decent jobs today require innovation. They require you to find answers to problems you’ve never seen before and for that, you need to see failure as an opportunity to learn rather than something to be afraid of.

Today with computers and especially with games, we provide the opportunity to take a lot of the workload off teachers to free them up to actually teach instead of being tied up in the busy work of grading homework that could be done by a machine, a machine that could respond instantly and tell the students the moment they try something whether or not they’re correct. With games, especially digital ones, we provide the opportunity to create that rapid feedback cycle that allows students to focus on iterating on their mistakes and learning through their failures. We don’t simply present them with assessments but rather use our assessment time not only to assess but to provide learning opportunities. When somebody asks you why we should consider using games in schools, absolutely tell them how much more engaging we can make the classroom, but that’s something they probably already know.

Also tell them that we can finally do away with a classroom that instills in students a fear of failure, that we can finally be done with a classroom environment that discourages students from taking risks that lead to discovery and instead prepare them to innovate for the future, that we can free teachers of the burden of creating rote homework and instead let them focus on their real job, teaching, that through games, we can get kids experimenting, exploring and discovering freely and perhaps through doing so, get them to love learning rather than fear it.