The most successful video games are master teachers.  The main problem being that what they teach is generally not very helpful and a poor substitute for the math, science and language skills we might wish for our future generations– notwithstanding reports of gamers being in high demand as trainees to man military drones.  We can probably do better.  Rather than applying learning theory to video games, I will take video games as models of learning par excellence.

The expression ‘pathways of discovery sounds like a marketing slogan, but I mean the expression literally: a sequence of steps that gets someone from point A to point B– manifest in an educational game, these steps are experiential actions taken by a student/player toward some goal– embodied as movement in a virtual landscape.  This literal movement in the game parallels movement through knowledge/skill space in some domain of learning. Really, I mean pathways.

I will use two popular games– The Legend of Zelda and Mario Brothers– as examples.  In Zelda, the player has to navigate through a fantasy world that essentially a maze.  On their journey, they encounter obstacles and puzzles but pick up useful information and objects that will subsequently aid their quest.  As they acquire knowledge and tools, they typically have to discover a required order or sequence to effectively use what they find.  Piece of information C doesn’t make any sense until the player first discovers piece of information A and B.  In MB, the players learn skills on how to jump, dodge and pounce and how to use elements in the virtual environment to their advantage.  These skills also usually comprise a set of sequences: first jump on this ledge, then do this then do that.

On the surface, the types of learning in these two games appear different. In Zelda, the player acquires knowledge that guides their efforts.  In MB, the player acquires skills they deploy again and again in different circumstances.  This is analogous to two types of learning and memory, declarative and procedural.  Declarative memory is memory for facts, concepts, ideas, like when Columbus discovered America and how atoms are structured.  Procedural learning/memory is learning how to do things, like riding a bike or playing a clarinet.   In this sense, these two games illustrate how games can induce two different kinds of learning.

The distinction between these types of learning may be overstated. In particular, declarative memory/knowledge creates a framework that shapes how we perceive and respond to the world.  In a sense, that framework becomes a procedure for seeing and thinking.  Most people have probably had an experience where some learning ‘clicks’ causing ‘everything in their head’ to shift. Suddenly they see a particular problem entirely differently, together with new options for approaching tackling it.  Applying that ‘way of seeing’ again and again is a skill.  Conversely, a skill can be a way of understanding.  Despite its emphasis on proofs and logic, much of mathematics is about applying procedures for manipulating quantities and symbols.  These procedures become so integrated with one’s ‘understanding’ of math as to become effectively indistinguishable from ‘math as declarative learning.’  In short, the line between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ is thin.

One of the beneficial aspects of video games is that regardless of the type of knowledge or skill they teach, they are always about doing.  In both Zelda and Mario, players acquire a repertoire of responses to stimuli, learning when to apply what response.  And in both cases, responses generally need to be sequenced.  In this sense, learning is always about skill, the ability to do and perform.  That is, how to do is the heart of education: concepts, facts, principles . . . ‘understanding’ generally . . .  is meaningless in the absence of an ability to do something with that knowledge. Well-designed games inherently focus on doing.  One definition of ‘understanding’,  might be the ability to generalize a skill to new problems and situations . . . that is, apply a principle or concept to a new problem.

This is what video games can potentially do.  Allow a player to pick up pieces of knowledge and skill, learn to put these together into a sequence of responses appropriate to different situations and then re-apply that knowledge/skill to more and more situations, deepening their understanding through use.  Within the video game, a student’s movement through a virtual landscape toward some goal can parallel knowledge and skill acquisition within a specific content domain, from history to chemistry to algebra, providing pathways of discovery and activities of skill building.

There is a pitfall, a deep dark swamp to be avoided: apps that focus only on practice and drill.  Procedural learning– learning how to do– is not the same as practice.  You can drill declarative learning, like memorizing state capitals and dates.  And you can teach procedures, like solving integrals or modeling chemical reactions.  Procedural learning is learning how to do something.  Games that focus on practice/drill do not provide pathways of discovery and learning.  They presuppose teaching has already occurred elsewhere and that what is needed now is simply repetition.   Although such games may have their place, they are antithetical to the use of games in education proposed here built around creating motivation (prior posts) and providing pathways of discovery and knowledge/skill building.

In the next post, I will explore a typology of the types of skill building pathways found in many video games and consider how each provides a useful tool for embedding educational content into a game.

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