I have long been interested in the use of games as learning tools. So I recently read two books on video games, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal and Video Games and Learning by Kurt Squire. I'll focus on the first book in this post and save the other for another time.
Jane McGonigal is the director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future and makes an excellent case for using games to solve world problems. Although her book does not focus on education, I learned a lot about the mechanics of what makes games (especially online games) so appealing and tried to make my own comparison to traditional educational activities.
McGonigal starts off explaining that all games both on and off line from the simplest to the most complex possess 4 features: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. (p. 21). Then she spends a good deal of the book describing how research has shown that games create positive emotion. Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work (p. 28). Unfortunately, while many classes are hard work, they are usually required not voluntary.
In McGonigal's book I learned that there are three things that make online or video games so compelling:
Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity (p. 33). It's the feeling that makes us want to throw our hands in the air or do a "happy dance" because we have truly accomplished something. How often does that happen in a class?
McGonigal both explains the appeal of video games and poses a provocative question. What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality? What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists (p. 7)?
I still have a lot to learn about video games and education. So I plan to continue reading and to play several video games like Civ IV in the summer so that I can experience the feedback, flow and fiero that McGonigal describes. In the meantime, however, I heartily agree with her goal of using games to change the world.