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Exploding Myths About Learning Through Gaming

"What makes a game fun is not that it's easy," says Greg Toppo, "but that it's hard." Smcgee/Flickr hide caption

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"What makes a game fun is not that it's easy," says Greg Toppo, "but that it's hard."

The Game Believes in You

How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter

by Greg Toppo

Hardcover, 252 pages |


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The Game Believes in You
How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter
Greg Toppo

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Part of our series of conversations with leading teachers, writers and activists on education issues.

If you had to pick the most promising — and possibly most overhyped — education trends of the last few years, right up there with the online college courses known as MOOCs would almost certainly rank this one: Game-based learning shall deliver us to the Promised Land!

But between hype and hating lies the nuanced discoveries of veteran education reporter — and former teacher — Greg Toppo. "What looks like a 21st-century, flashy, high-tech way to keep kids entertained is in fact a tool that taps into an ancient way to process, explore and understand the world," he writes in his new book The Game Believes In You. Some of his findings might surprise you.

You argue in your book that what can look like escapist fun in fact offers opportunities for deep concentration and learning. Explain.

I think the thing we need to understand first is a basic idea: What makes a game fun is not that it's easy but that it's hard. Gamers love a challenge.

And that challenge, you think, is linked to learning how?

The game can give the kid access to the material in a way they haven't had before, it offers direct access in a personalized way they really can't get any other way. I see a good game as a way to make the experience of school more rigorous. One of the big challenges school has always had is the tension: We want kids to learn a lot, and we want them to like school. Those have always been in conflict with one another. What got me really interested in this world — and I've been reporting on education for more than a decade — is that it speaks the language of both sides, it scratches everyone's itch.

How did you get interested in the topic in an in-depth way? It was a bit of an accident, right?

I came to it as an exploration of media in kids' lives. I was interested in what was happening to reading in America. I had had this conversation with one of my daughters about her relationship to books, and I discovered that she really didn't have one. And I wondered why — because in every other way this was an ideal student, the kid we want to produce. I ended up looking at what is their media diet, their media ecology, and what part that plays in their attitudes. And I remember saying, "I don't know why, but I can't ignore video games."

What, if anything, are researchers saying about gaming and how it can reward the brain exactly?

I'm not a neuroscientist, but I'll give you the idiot's version: The basic idea is that if you're close to succeeding at something, you'll try until you succeed. That is, if a system — a game or anything else — gives you sense of even partial accomplishment, you will do almost anything to get to that goal. A Japanese neuroscientist once said something along the lines of, "If you think you'll be able to catch the bus, you'll run for it." Translating that to classwork, if you give someone enough success with something and a sense they can go all the way, that is incredibly attractive, and they'll do almost anything to get all the way.

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There's a central idea, now something of a cliché, in the startup culture of Silicon Valley: Fail early, fail often, iterate. You write that there is, in fact, real value in that concept when it comes to kids and learning — that some game researchers believe games can help children think like scientists.

I guess I look at myself as a learner and see value not much in the ability to fail but what happens next. That is, you do something, you fail at it and you are able to try again with essentially no comment on it. A good game doesn't say, "That's the 34th time you're trying. You really sure about this?" Nothing transpires except your next chance. For me the most vivid experience of this is playing a motorcycle racing game once. I was so bad at it. I kept hitting the reset button again and again and again. And at one point I went back and looked how many times I'd restarted this level and it was something like 1,800 times! So it's not so much failure but the lack of comment around the failure and what you do afterwards. I think teachers would like to be able to do that but there's a lot of pressure and they're on time constraints: "Gotta get this train going."

And those time constraints hold teachers back, perhaps, from trying new, different approaches sometimes?

I think so. As much as anything I wanted to introduce these ideas that maybe there is a different way to think about how we present material to kids on a daily basis. If you could give that kid the chance to fail 1,800 times at something, how would school look different to them? The case that I make is that kids would have a healthier sense of what they can do and have a more robust desire to keep going.

You taught in public and private schools before becoming an education journalist. What, if anything, did your experience in the classroom tell you or inform about your reporting for this book?

I guess like most teachers, I never felt like I was ever really a great teacher. But the moments when things really worked were those moments when I could really get my kids fired up about something — [to] forget everything else that's happening and really focus on something we really enjoyed and loved to think and talk about. For most teachers, those are the moments that they live for. But they become so few and far between it becomes really frustrating. I always had this desire to be that excellent teacher and never really could get there except for a few moments. It's frustrating to be in that position. But if we want to have millions of great teachers, we've got to figure out a way to give them better experiences, to give them success more often.

Why do you think a lot educators and teachers are still split about game-based learning?

I'd make the case that adults often misinterpret their own play. When they're playing games, they're really working hard, but they just don't see it. If people could understand one very basic thing, it's that this is a tool that has the potential to make school a more rigorous place. Then I think they'd sign on the dotted line.

Let's talk testing. It's fair to say that standardized tests don't get very many kids excited about learning nor do they deepen engagement with course material. You argue that video games can do that and offer some of the same or even better measurements.

We are in a place — and have been for a long time — where games have become really, really good at assessing just what you've learned and how far you've come. Online, that tool can now not only assess you, but compare you to everyone who's ever played the thing. That's kind of what we've been after all these years. So the potential is there in a really big way. Whether we can figure out ways to apply it to something outside of the game is a heavier lift.

As we've reported, there is this growing backlash against standardized testing with the "opt-out movement" as well as the "test optional' movement at some colleges and universities. There is a hope among a growing number of Americans that standardized testing as we know it is becoming an endangered species. But you don't think we're there yet?

I don't think so. I think the day when simulation or games replaces the standardized test is still far off. I want to make that clear. I don't think we're there yet. But there's a lot of energy being put into this issue. I think it's early in this field. The nervousness is: What do you replace it with? If you're saying we don't want this kind of data coming from our kids, that's fine. I can believe that's not a true reflection of what they're learning or supposed to be learning. But then what? To me the answer isn't nothing; the answer is something better. And a lot of people would say that the result you get from an engaging game is better because it's more authentic and closer to what a person working at the top of their capacity can do.

I want to get to the issue of fun and learning. Kids love video games, in part, because they're fun. As I've talked about in other posts, learning is not always fun. Whether it's math or music. John Coltrane allegedly spent months woodshedding on every scale, practicing from the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. I doubt that was big fun. I don't enjoy practicing scales on the guitar. Learning is hard work.

I think that's right. It's not all fun and games. And the idea at the end of the day I'm really still interested in, and still hoping people will talk a little more about, is this idea of "hard fun." That's an actual idea game designers use. It's not fun because it's easy; it's fun because it's hard. Any gamer asked to pick their favorite game of all time, they'd say there was a grind involved to get there. It took a lot of work; it took practice and persistence. But within that I always had a sense of where I was coming from and where I was going. I think that is the key here.

Guess it does depend on the type of game and what it offers. I like to kick it old-school at times with Addams Family or Black Knight pinball. It's not mentally challenging, but it is really fun.

Pinball is one of the things that's to blame for our attitudes toward video games and why some see them as unsavory.

Yeah, people saw pinball as promoting gambling and vice. And they were actually outlawed in some cities.

Absolutely. Pinball spent 30 or 40 years banned in many American cities. And when they came back it happened to be right before the video game revolution. So they appeared at the same time side by side. Even though even the most primitive, early video games were these incredible skill machines, they were right next to the pinball machines. And everybody had these old visions of "sin" and gaming. They [video games] were tainted by association.

Pinball. Is there hope for me?

There is hope for you. There is the idea of easy fun that's just as important a concept as hard fun in the game design world. It says, after you've worked hard, ease off a bit.