Why Students Can Benefit from Playing Games in College

Why Students Can Benefit from Playing Games in College

Gaming is all about being entertained and it cannot possibly be utilized for a serious pursuit of knowledge or the process of learning in a formal classroom environment, right? While it may seem that college students who are involved in playing a game during class time or their study time may not be learning, there are inherent qualities in a well-planned game that can increase motivation and engagement, along with improved cognition.

The use of games to promote adult learning is not new. Games, game-like activities, and simulations have been used in corporate training classes and college classrooms for quite some time. What has changed is the use of technology to improve the design and content of educational games so that it engages students in a way that makes the learning process meaningful. Of course not all educators (or students) have embraced the idea of gaming in education. However, once the underlying connection of games to intellectual development is understood the potential to improve the students’ learning experience may become more evident.

The Essence of Gaming

Video games are the most popular form of gaming and are found on computers, laptops, and mobile devices. Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor of psychology at Boston College, states that the essence of video games involves “skill in which success depends on perseverance, intelligence, practice, and learning, not chance.” Earning a reward and moving onto more advanced levels within most games requires hard work, improved skill, knowledge, and intelligence. When someone plays a video game on a regular basis they have to learn from their mistakes if they want to improve their outcome.

Daniel Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research, has researched gamification over the past twenty-five years and in his blog The Core of Gamification, he’s identified five core elements that can increase students’ learning in less time, for both corporate training and academic programs.

1. Self-diagnostic. As the gamer accomplishes more or improves their performance, most games present new challenges.

2. Interactivity. Burrus points to the traditional classroom structure where students passively sit and listen to a lecture. Educational gaming changes or supplements this approach by involving students with interactions that requires them to work with information.

3. Immersion. With advances in technology, most gamers find that they can play games on virtually any device and the quality is almost 3D in nature, which means they are immersed in the experience and fully engaged in the activity.

4. Competition. Another aspect of gaming that keeps the gamer engaged in the process is the adrenaline rush of working towards a win. The more the gamer practices, the more likely their final outcome or result will improve.

5. Focus. Because of the very nature of a game, the participant has to be focused on what they are doing. As Burrus notes, “when you can focus, you can learn virtually anything…fast.”

Cognitive Benefits of Gaming

There are benefits of gaming that extend beyond the activity being performed and level of attention that’s required to be involved. In the article, The Gamification of Education and Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Learning Benefits, it discussed the ability of an educational game to meet the intellectual needs of students and create positive emotional experiences. It also mentions a research study published in 2011 by Joey J. Lee, Ph.D and Jessica Hammer of Teachers College Columbia University in New York. The study, Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?, presented a strong case for the inclusion of games and one of the reasons connected with me as an educator, and that was the emotional transformation that is possible as the gamer or student learns about failure.

When students do not submit their best work or do not live up to their own performance expectations, they may view it as a failure and give up. What this study pointed out is that “games involve repeated experimentation and repeated failure,” and more importantly, “for many games, the only way to learn how to play the game is to fail at it repeatedly, learning something each time (Gee, 2008).” A game provides immediate feedback about their performance and they quickly learn that repeated attempts bring about an improved result. It is a low risk approach to learning about feedback and failure; whereas, students are normally involved in a high-stakes process where their performance is tied to a grade, which results in “anxiety, not anticipation, when offered the chance to fail (Pope, 2003).” The use of a game changes the cognitive approach to learning by teaching that failure is not the end of the game but an opportunity to learn and improve with the next attempt.

Gaming in Education

Gamification has become a buzzword in education and a 2011 EDUCAUSE publication, 7 Things You Should Know About…â„¢ Gamification, indicated that games do not have to involve a complex design or technological platform. For example, points, badges, feedback, and rewards may be enough to increase students’ motivation, creativity, and problem-solving skills. That’s how games have been traditionally used in education; however, with the increase in the number of digital natives in the classroom and the growth of online classroom platforms that may not be enough any longer to truly engage students in the learning process.

Education specialist Laura A. Sharp published a very thorough research report this year titled, Promoting Community Service and Global Awareness Through Gamucation. Within this report Sharp addressed the potential that games have to promote important functions such as critical thinking and social interaction. She has developed the term gamucation as a “fusion of digital gaming and education that promotes, attracts, engages, motivates, and helps student retain information to increase learning.” This is especially important for digital natives (students born after 1980) who are social in nature and find it necessary to keep in touch with everyone close to them. These students “are learning through games to read news reviews and frequently asked questions, post to discussion boards all while becoming critical consumers of information (Shaffer et al., 2004).”

In addition, Sharp noted that “digital natives are impatient and have enough portable electronic devices that they can listen to iTunes, talk on the phone, share photos, surf the web, Twit, post on Facebook, and text a friend at the same time, while reading an electronic book for homework (Carlson, 2005; Prensky, 2007).” In other words, these students expect a high level of interactivity and may become bored quickly in a traditional lecture-based classroom setting. Educational games can bridge this gap and at the same time meet the needs of students with a variety of learning styles, including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. The use of games can also influence students’ motivation because they are provided with a challenging task that encourages them to be fully engaged in the activity. As Sharp states, “games help make learning fun and light, while remaining challenging (Aldrich, 2009).”

Arguments against Gamification in Education

The EDUCAUSE publication, 7 Things You Should Know About…â„¢ Gamification, noted that there are several potential disadvantages to the inclusion of games in academic classes. From an educator’s perspective, they may believe that the learning process is trivialized. This is a resistant thought to the idea of learning as being fun for students, which I have also heard from some educators. I found early on in my career as a corporate trainer that the inclusion of a game helped to break the ice with participants and through a relaxed approach to involvement in the class many students became more engaged and willing to participate. This translated easily for me into the college classroom and something I still use. Now with the growth of digital games there are even more options for educators to use.

The EDUCAUSE article also discussed the students’ point of view and that “students may see game elements as condescending or feel disappointed and frustrated when their application is not successful or does not yield the kind of satisfaction from winning that they expect.” This is an important consideration for the use of educational games as students may not be interested in or want to be involved in games – either as a personal preference of due to a belief that it will not contribute to their learning. In addition, students who are not digital natives and not technologically-savvy may feel intimidated by the complexity of many games.

Sarah Smith-Robbins, Director of Emerging Technologies and a faculty member at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, shared a similar perspective in her article, “This Game Sucks”: How to Improve the Gamification of Education. Smith-Robbins indicated that if you were to “ask students why they’re in college, and they’re likely to answer that earning a degree will bring them more money after graduation, and it is “extremely rare for students to say that they enrolled simply for the intellectual stimulation.” Smith-Robbins also noted that “many in higher education think of games as frivolous and will say that the job of faculty and administrators is to deliver a quality education, not an entertaining experience.” Over time, this opinion is likely to change as students demand a more interactive experience. I don’t believe it’s possible to discount the nature of digital native students or necessary to try to alter their perspective since technology is so engrained from a societal and cultural perspective.

With growing support for gaming in education, students are likely to find that they will have an opportunity to become an educational gamer. The majority of my work as an educator is done in an online classroom and while this is a technologically-based environment there haven’t been a lot of games included into the curricula of many schools – yet. I’m one of numerous educators who support a student-centered approach to learning and adapting teaching to meet the changing needs of students. If there are new methods of increasing students’ engagement and motivation, I’m willing to try it. Are you willing to discover the potential benefits of gaming?

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