Games designed to be educational games
Board games are a terrific learning tool. And I’m not just talking about board games that have been specifically designed to be educational. In fact, while there are some good ‘educational board games’, others fall sadly below my definition of a good game. In many respects, good games that haven’t necessarily been designed to be educational may be a more valuable learning tool than games created specifically with an educational aim in mind.
Let’s look at it this way… Quite a lot of dedicated ‘educational games’ have been designed by people with an educational remit. These may be subject specialists or teachers who are trying to deliver specific content, but often they don’t have much experience of game design. Now, there are some wonderful educational games around – Fraction Formula is a simple push-your-luck game with some not-so-simple maths calculations, for example. But there are also a lot of pretty boring ones. Interestingly, teachers usually report that even these terrible games go down really well with learners. Well, of course they do. If it’s called a ‘game’ then the expectation is that it will be fun. But it’s more than that…
Why are games great vehicles for learning?
When you play a game, it feels as if the pressure is off. It’s normal to lose a game. The whole idea is that it is ‘just for fun’. So you can relax. You’re not being assessed on the outcome. The teacher isn’t going to give you a mark for this. So games, however bad they are, are attractive to learners in the classroom. It’s a signal that they can just enjoy the task.
Also – games are about participation. In group-work or discussions, not every learner will participate to the same degree, but in a game, all players are equal. There’s a sense when you start playing that you can make your own decisions, that you are responsible for your own fate. Ok, in team games or cooperative games the lines surrounding your own individual agency are more blurry, but, generally speaking you have some power over your own outcomes in the game. Exciting.
Remember those ‘Choose your own adventure’ stories? These were the only books I willingly read as a child. There’s a reason they were so popular. You’re active, not passive. You are master of the story you are creating… well, at least that’s how it feels.
So, part of the reason that games are such a great vehicle for learning is that we want to play games. Give learners the choice of three different types of activity, one of which is a game and most of the time most of the learners will pick the game.
What makes a good game?
Having been disparaging about some educational games, it’s worth having a quick look at some of the ingredients that, in my opinion, make a good game. Here are my top three…
- Choice. Players must have some interesting, gritty and ideally difficult choices that they can make in the game. There’s no ownership in a game of pure luck. To feel like you have had any kind of control over your own destiny in the game, you must be able to make decisions – to influence your own journey.
- Multiple routes to victory. Players like to have the ability to adopt a different strategy from other players, or a different strategy from ones they have taken before. If there is only one optimum strategy – one that will always triumph, then that’s not very exciting. Part of the fun is to have the ability to experiment with new strategies and test things out to see what will happen.
- Feeling like you are still in the game. Some games – like dexterity games – may well reward people with advanced skill, but I don’t want to feel like an observer. I want to feel as if I’m doing something. I may realise early on that I’m not going to win this one, but I want there to be a reason for me to continue.
What learning skills can board games develop?
Now let’s look at the sorts of learning skills you can develop through playing games. In this list I’m specifically not referring to games that are designed to be educational. I’m referring to any good game.
In his TED talk entitled Play is more than fun, Stuart Brown says “Nothing lights up the brain like play. Three-dimensional play fires up the cerebellum, puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe – the executive portion – helps contextual memory be developed.” Playing games develops our short-term and longer term memory. Take a simple trick-taking card game – the more we play, the more skilled we become at remembering which cards have already been played in a round. Also, we build on previous experiences. When we observe or hit upon a winning strategy we remember some of the actions taken in order to achieve that. Similarly, when we lose we remember some of the steps we took that led to our downfall. The more we play, the more our memory function is exercised and we build up a body of expertise over time, recalling strategies employed in other games that may help us as we play a new one.
On the Learning Works for Kids website, Dr Randy Kulman writes, “Games with simple rules that emphasize rapid visual detection and rapid motor response, with additional demands on focus, can help children improve their ability to perform a cognitive task automatically. According to research, these are the keys for using board and card games to improve processing speed. In simple terms, games that require players to look and respond quickly while maintaining concentration can impact the speed of processing.”
Countdown Confusion from The Dark Imp is a game that relies on pattern recognition and processing at speed.
Alfie & Sam playing Chess – a game that relies on logical thinking & reasoning
Logic and reasoning skills
In their article, Developing Logical Thinking: the Place of Strategy Games, on the NRich website, Jennie Pennant and Liz Woodham say: “One of the essential mathematical problem-solving skills that we want to help children to develop is that of logical thinking: ‘if this … then that’. Strategy games are a great way to offer children the opportunity to develop this skill in a stimulating environment.” When we are playing a game, the outcomes of our decisions are played out before us. We can see how an action or choice directly influenced an outcome. Experiencing this helps us to develop an understanding of logic – and gives us the ability to predict outcomes in the future – even if we may not have experienced that exact situation before.
In his article, Board Games for Kids: Can they teach Critical Thinking? – Gwen Dewar suggests that playing board games, when combined with metacognition will boost critical thinking. “Research strongly suggests that kids become better learners when they believe that intelligence is malleable. And studies show that kids learn more when they attempt to explain their reasoning processes. So we might make board games a more powerful learning tool if we teach kids that problem-solving ability is like a muscle: It can be strengthened with practice and learning.” This is echoed by Barry Hymer and Peter Wells in their book, Chess Improvement, which has a whole chapter on the importance of metacognition for improving chess ability.
In their article, How to help children develop spatial reasoning skills Shen–li Lee explains why spatial reasoning is such an important skill and lists all sorts of games that can be used to help develop the skill. The list is just the tip of the iceberg – to work on spatial reasoning – look for games that requires manipulation of elements within a space.
Verbal and communication skills
All board games spark conversation and some will require it to be successful in the game. Some games require players on a team together to take different roles. In Captain Sonar, your ability to communicate with your teammates clearly and in a timely fashion will save your submarine from attack. In their article, Using tabletop games as a technology to understand play in education, Lean, Illingworth and Wake say: “The social aspect of tabletop games, in that they often require player interaction (be it collaborative or competitive) was certainly helpful in generating conversation and debate. Here, the relative ‘weakness’ of tabletop games (that they lack the obvious sensory immersion, which is perhaps the appeal of their digital counterparts) might be perceived as a strength. Of course, this doesn’t alter the fact that many learners will be familiar with, and attracted to, digital environments, but it seems reasonable to suggest that when players are tasked with ‘running’ the games that they play, the group dynamics and responsibilities are likely to shift in interesting, and productive, ways.
Attention and concentration
In this article, Beatrice Tauber Prior, a clinical psychologist, is quoted as saying, “Board games, when played without interruptions, can help lengthen a child’s attention span… Finishing a board game without interruptions will help lengthen the declining attention span of kids in a world filled with digital distractions.”
In her article, 10 reasons why mentors should play cards with their mentees, Jean Rhodes acknowledges that playing games can help young people to develop confidence. As we develop our logic and reasoning skills, as we develop strategy through repeated plays, we gain confidence in our own ability.
In this article, teacher Aisling McQuaid says, “The advantages for maths are in developing problem-solving skills.” Indeed board games are really all about solving problems. You understand the victory conditions, but how will you achieve the victory? You need a certain amount of resources to perform a critical action, but how will you acquire those resources? You need to be in a certain position at a certain time, but how will you make sure you get there? You’re making decisions within a framework in order to solve a series of problems in your attempt to triumph.
Playing games encourages us to think in new ways.
I’m always keen to hear about research projects around the educational benefits of games and the learning skills they promote. Please do get in touch or comment below if you have things to add or if you have articles or papers you’d like to direct me to. Thanks.