Why Education Should Embrace Games

A lack of student engagement provides an opportunity for gaming in education.

by / October 21, 2013 0
Jane McGonigal spoke about games and education at EDUCAUSE 2013 in Anaheim, Calif., and gave a famous Ted Talk three years ago. Ted Talk 2010 video

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Video games may sound more recreational than educational, but experts believe that games will play a greater role in student engagement in years to come.

Gamification in the form of points, levels and achievement badges isn't where the influence of games should end, said Jane McGonigal, an alternate reality game designer, author and director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. McGonigal delivered the keynote address at the EDUCAUSE higher education technology conference on Thursday, Oct. 17.

McGonigal believes the future of higher education is going to increasingly involve gamification aspects. She asked the crowd to imagine what could be accomplished if the billion gamers that are playing on connected devices worldwide game together in a connected learning system.

Many educators are concerned that by the time students hit high school, they don't want to be in school. And that causes problems not only in school, but also in their careers. According to the Gallup Student Poll 2012, students move down a steep path of disenchantment with school from the time they're in elementary school to high school, where only 44 percent of them are engaged.

Students Engaged in School

Nearly half of students want to start their own business or invent something that changes the world, the poll found. But they don't think school is preparing them for what they want to do with their life. The statistics are worse in the workforce. Seventy-one percent of U.S. workers are not engaged in their actual work, according to a Gallup 2012 poll.

But the workforce is engaged in games, however.

One in four gamers planned to call in sick on launch day of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 last year. And gamers spend 170 hours a year playing Call of Duty — the equivalent of more than a month of full-time work, McGonigal said.

So why are people playing games like it's their job? A sense of empowerment.

McGonigal explained that many employees don't often feel like their work has a higher purpose. But when they're playing a game, they experience 10 positive emotions that make them feel like they are doing things no one else can do, McGonigal explained.

To give the audience a taste of these emotions, McGonigal had everyone in the room — which was set up for 5,500 people — play her favorite game: massively multiplayer thumb wrestling. People reached across the aisles to connect every thumb in the room, then tried to win both thumbs wars at once.

"That's something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life," said Mary Litch, director of academic technology at Chapman University and a massively multiplayer thumb wrestling participant.

According to McGonigal's research, the 10 positive emotions of engagement that gamers experience are:

  1. Creativity
  2. Contentment
  3. Awe and Wonder
  4. Excitement
  5. Curiosity
  6. Pride
  7. Surprise
  8. Love
  9. Relief
  10. Joy

McGonigal said that people want to experience a sense of creative agency where they can try something that no one has ever tried before. But it's not happening in many schools.

Ken Robinson pointed out in his earlier keynote on creativity, today's education system is stifling children's creativity. McGonigal thinks the problem can be solved with the help of gaming.

She felt if gamers experience a 3-1 ratio of positive emotions such as creativity to negative emotions, they'll develop a sense of resiliency that will give them more energy to do hard work, be ambitious and become naturally optimistic about whatever they're trying to accomplish.

Litch felt optimism also needed to be based on experience and said the millennial generation tends to have too high of an opinion of themselves and their abilities.

"I occasionally have student assistants who expect to be put in charge of the universe from day 1," Litch said. "They want more control than they're really ready for, and they don't have the background, but they have this incredible confidence."

But McGonigal's keynote inspired Litch to figure out ways she can engage students in her classes. When students set a goal and achieve it, she said they are more enthusiastic about learning.

Litch will be teaching an experimental honors course this spring on the anthropology of systems like higher education. And she thinks that gaming techniques have potential to drive student engagement.

"My biggest takeway is it's getting me to think more creatively about how to engage them in material so that they have the same sort of enthusiasm that I have for it," she said.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.