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Video Games as an Effective Learning Medium – Are we there yet?

Bassim Hijazi, WISE (a Qatar Foundation initiative)

Amidst all the bustling speculation surrounding the potential of the metaverse, along with COVID-19 restrictions, video games have skyrocketed in popularity. Looking forward, the global games industry is set to surpass a valuation of $314 billion by 2026, and this trajectory will only continue with the growing demands for the latest technology.

Given this, it is no surprise that gaming giants like Microsoft and Sony are investing extensively in acquiring development studios to consolidate their position in the market and expand gaming portfolios. In addition, Big Tech players such as Meta, Apple, and Google are racing to produce XR software and hardware to establish themselves as pioneers of the next generation of gaming.

Considering the popularity of gaming, it begs the question: is there potential beyond pure entertainment? Have we found a way to make gaming viable for education, or is it destined to just be a fad?

When considering this, it’s important to understand the gap that often exists between the actual appeal of gaming and what education has typically tried to gamify. As well as the extent of its ability to effectively teach different practices and emulate real-world scenarios.

The problem with gamifying learning

The term ‘gamification’ has become a hot topic in the education landscape as developers attempt to tackle how we ignite a similar level of engagement seen in normal video games, in learning.

The aim of gamification of education is simple: to motivate students and enhance traditional learning by using video game formats. Yet, the problem with this approach is that often developers fail to consider what makes games truly appealing. Whether it’s to have fun or escape reality, players want to be entertained and, as a result, many people invest multiple hours in their favourite games almost effortlessly.

A common mistake with the gamification of education is creating a format that is ineffective for long-term user retention. This has been evident in secondary schools, where developers have tended to shoehorn traditional learning material, such as textbooks, into gaming format. Unfortunately, this approach is destined to fail in enhancing learning, as it only replicates what is already available to the user and doesn’t offer anything new or exciting.

Additionally, gamification of learning often incorporates rather arbitrary rewards and leader boards to incentivise players. However, developers only need to look at the early days of the gaming industry with the likes of Pac-Man and Tetris to see that popular games don’t need to rely on tracking achievements to keep people playing. They simply need to be designed from the ground up to be engaging at their core.

Education game developers should steer clear from the gamification of learning and instead develop games from scratch that are rooted in entertainment in order to truly appeal to the learner.

Designing better educational video games

To develop games that carry the same entertainment value as traditional ones, we must learn from traditional games’ educational elements, and emulate this. For example, most modern games involve complex systems that the player needs to be taught, or for games that enable people to play online with friends, the players are also learning to collaborate and make decisions in real-time – all whilst actually enjoying the game.

Finding a balance between introducing complex systems to players while also keeping the game fun and engaging is a challenge that successful game designers have mastered. Developers of educational games must look to these examples to develop games that are both engaging and effective teaching tools.

Some games have achieved this balance well:

  • Kerbal Space Program: The game enables players to take charge of a space program for an alien species known as Kerbals. Players need to design and assemble fully-functioning spacecrafts which can be launched (or fail to launch) depending on how successfully the player implements realistic aerodynamics and orbital physics. While it may have a steep learning curve, it’s also one of the more successful titles that can be considered truly educational and a valuable contribution to learning physics and developing wider scientific understanding.
  • SHENZEN I/O: This is a game where players simulate building electrical circuits and assembling components while writing and testing code. It can be a fun way for engineers to put their skills into practice. Players progress through a story as they continue to solve each engineering challenge.
  • Paradox Interactive’s Games: Known for its popular grand strategy game franchises such as Crusader Kings and Hearts of Iron, this Swedish developer has spent decades building games around real life historical events, time periods, countries, and maps – all with astonishing attention to detail. They might not be the most accessible games out there but, to those who enjoy a little strategy, it might just be one of the most engaging history lessons available.
  • Assassins Creed: For a unique alternative to learning about history, Ubisoft’s acclaimed action franchise includes a separate mode called Discovery Tour – an in-depth virtual guided museum of ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Viking Age, created using the assets from the game series. The tours cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from art and architecture to philosophy, politics, and religion.

What differentiates these examples from other educational games in the industry is that, while their mechanics and systems are integrally constructed around the core subjects that they cover, they are still engaging and entertaining. They are also highly applicable to the real world.

How can we enhance education games further?

With the advent of Extended Reality (XR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies, learning practical skills in virtual contexts has become a staple of many disciplines. In a recent podcast from WISE Words, President of VR company HTC, Alvin Wang Graylin, discussed that their technology is now being used for a multitude of disciplines, with education bodies “using it train doctors, fork-lift drivers, designers, students trying to learn any subjects from physics, math, history, or also sports training”.

VR software is an effective tool for learning, emulating realistic situations and enabling the user to fully immerse themselves in the experience. As such, the user is able to gain first-hand experience, with efficiency and convenience. As these technologies continue to become more affordable and mainstream, we should increasingly see training modules adopting XR and VR to facilitate the learning experience.

Learning in real-world contexts

We are now able to create immersive experiences that engage players with complex systems, stories, and ideas in incredibly gripping ways. There have been numerous attempts to gamify education, but not nearly as much investment in educational games with transferable knowledge to the real world.

New technologies like XR promise to immerse players in a discipline in ways that no textbook can hope to achieve. Education systems around the world have long depended on books and movies as alternative means of learning in the classroom. It’s time that educators and the industry take bigger strides to realise the potential of video games.

By Bassim Hijazi, WISE (a Qatar Foundation initiative)

About Bassim Hijazi

Bassim Hijazi is a member of the digital media and communications, and digital content production team at Qatar Foundation’s education initiative, WISE. As well as his role in the WISE’s digital teams, Bassim has been the Producer for the WISE Words Podcast since 2019. He graduated from Tokyo International University with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations.

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