What Games Teach Our Students That We Can’t

I had planned this blog post to be a continuation of my discussion of how I have gamified my FYC class this semester, but I’ve decided to instead share an interchange that occurred between my son and me this week. I think it illustrates the impact that games and gaming can have on our students in a way much more powerful than anything I’ve read or observed so far.

This past week was 9 weeks exam time at my son’s school. Like me, my son is not a very good test-taker: he experiences test anxiety, both emotionally and physically (suffering with Irritable Bowel Syndrome flare-ups on test days) and does not perform as well under timed conditions as he does under conditions in which he can work at his own pace. Normally, I don’t push him to do schoolwork if he does not have assigned homework, but this past week his free time was replaced with reviewing and practicing for his 9 weeks exams. As usual, he knew his stuff. Until, that is, it was time to review for his History exam. To my dismay, he did not know any of the information on the study guide. This was so shocking because he is such a history buff; his preferred genre is nonfiction dealing with military history and he loves attending anything that includes historical re-enactments or handicrafts. I’m not sure why he was so unfamiliar with the information on the study guide, since his daily grades do not reflect that he is in any way struggling with the material; in fact, he has an A in the class. But the mystery of why the information seemed like foreign material to him was one that would have to wait to be solved; more importantly, I needed to get him familiar enough with the material to pass the exam the next day.

It was a difficult task, to say the least. Because he was not familiar with the context of the information, it became an issue of him memorizing the definitions to vocabulary words and the answers to questions that seemed to have been randomly pulled from the chapters of his history textbook (one example: What thing is true of both the Adena and Hopewell indians?). I tried as best I could to teach him about the context and importance of the terms and questions in the time that we had, but it’s nearly impossible to make up for 9 weeks of context in 3-4 hours. He especially struggled with understanding the concepts of scarcity and specialization. This is understandable considering that he has never experienced scarcity (at least not to a degree significant enough to harm him or make his life difficult) and does not live in a society in which individuals/families have to manufacture goods based on the resources immediately available to them.

Suddenly, in the middle of a fifth or sixth attempt to help him understand the concept of scarcity, he had a lightbulb moment. He looked at me with that look that comes over a student’s face when they finally understand something in a way that makes it both relatable and relevant.

It’s like in Minecraft! If you need to make something out of wood, a stick will only give you so many planks of wood. And if you’re hungry and all you can find is a baby pig, if you kill a baby pig, you don’t get any meat to eat.

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Because he lives in a post-industrial society, my son lives in an age in which the currency is knowledge (as illustrated by his school’s reliance on periodic standardized tests that require the memorization of facts and terms). He could memorize the definition of scarcity, but that does not help him to understand what scarcity really is and how it impacts someone’s life, much less what it’s like to actually experience scarcity, which is probably the only way to truly understand it. Of course we don’t want our children to experience scarcity of food or other basic needs (although far, far too many of our children do experience scarcity on a daily basis). But we do want them to understand scarcity so they can empathize with those who are experiencing it and will have a desire to figure out ways to address scarcity to prevent the suffering that it entails.

I’m not arguing that playing Minecraft will make my son a more empathetic person or teach him how to solve scarcity issues in the world. But because of Minecraft, he is better able to understand what scarcity is and understanding is the first step towards empathy and action. Games allow our students to experience concepts first-hand in ways that reading a textbook and memorizing information cannot; they provide a safe environment for them to gain an understanding of other people’s viewpoints, whether it’s someone who faces the task of locating enough food to help them survive one more day, as in Minecraft, or someone who faces the task of restructuring their daily lives amid a global oil crisis, as in World Without Oil. It’s not so much the rewards systems and motivational factor of games that we should be focusing on, but the opportunity for our students to learn via concrete experiences rather than abstract concepts.

 

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