Digital games have become an integral part of the daily lives of millions of individuals, and are increasingly recognized for their potential as environments for supporting learning. In fact, with their vast popularity and singular ability to engage young people, digital games have been hailed as tools that may enable a new paradigm for education. Because of this great potential, as described at the recent NYU Teaching with Technology Conference, Courant computer scientist Ken Perlin and I have joined with colleagues from six other universities to explore their educational use and to guide their creation through empirically-supported design patterns. With support from Microsoft Research, we formed the Games for Learning Institute (G4LI), where we study games for learning, develop design patterns, build game prototypes, and test them in a variety of learning settings.

Here we give an overview of the reasons and ways that games can be effective tools for pedagogy, followed by a summary of some of the G4LI’s current research projects.

Games provide highly contextualized problem-solving spaces

Unlike many classroom-based learning experiences, video games allow students to apply their knowledge in complex and varied contexts. For example, when playing through a level of Portal 2, a popular sci-fi video game, the player is challenged to analyze the constraints of the area around them and solve spatial puzzles. This experience leverages the player’s knowledge of physics and their ability to apply this knowledge to the game. Likewise, LittleBigPlanet 2 introduces tools (e.g., a grappling hook) and then provides a wide range of situations and contexts in which players learn the proper use of those tools. Through these types of rich in-game interactions, video games can situate students in authentic experiences, allowing them to expand and apply practical knowledge.

Games support highly engaging, individualized learning

Rather than having a single, generic experience that may cater only to a particular type of learner, games have the ability to adjust gameplay based on the players’ past actions and decisions. A player’s game experience can be tailored to their preferences and performance; not only can players choose the options they prefer, but based on gameplay metrics, the game can automatically change difficulty and rewards. In commercial role-playing games (RPGs) like Dragon Age, for example, players will have a dynamically different experience depending on the type of character they pick, along with the decisions and conversation options they choose within the game world.

Applying these concepts to a learning game, the players’ ability to correctly solve problems or identify and apply relevant concepts within the game space determines the types of challenges the game will present to them in the future. If a player is struggling with a learning concept, the game could adjust by presenting the same concept in a different context or by decreasing the difficulty level until the player has demonstrated mastery of that skill or concept. Similarly, if a player seems to be successfully employing a particular problem solving strategy, the game could present new material within that familiar framework. After the player has demonstrated mastery of the material, the game could then follow up with new frameworks. By balancing gameplay enjoyment with an appropriate level of challenge, games have the ability to keep players in their own unique optimally challenging and engaging zone for learning.

Games bridge in-school and out-of-school learning

Video games are easily accessed anywhere—on computers at home, school, and everywhere in between (including cell phones and tablets). By not limiting educational opportunities to time spent in the classroom, games can bridge learning environments across many settings. Subsequently, a lesson started in school can be played on the bus ride home and then continued on a home computer. Since games can be designed to have embedded assessments, teachers could keep track of students’ progress playing educational games as homework

Originally published on WP.NYU.EDU; written by Jan L. Plass, with Melissa Biles, Jonathan Frye & Tsu-Ting Huang. Read the full article here.

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