On the BBC #FusionGames Summit, changing the tune about educational games, and Susan Bloody Greenfield

As I sat in the audience at a session called “Learning To Game or Gaming To Learn?” at last Wednesday’s BBC Academy’s Fusion Summit on games in Salford, I became rather frustrated. The session had been billed thusly:

How far should broadcasters use games as a vehicle for learning? Join some of the finest minds in the field as they wrestle with the future of learning games and the controversial subject of gamification.

On the panel were Mark Sorrell (Hide and Seek), Carlton Reeve (Play With Learning), Tom Kenyon (NESTA), Phil Stuart (Preloaded), John Milner (Bitesize, BBC Knowledge & Learning), and they were being questioned by Kate Russell of BBC Click. Undoubtedly a great line-up, yet it was all rather unsatisfying, and also rather familiar.

This is my attempt to explain and unpick this frustration, which is actually a more general frustration with the way educational games are so often treated with scepticism and distrust. This isn’t really a criticism of those involved in the panel, since it was just playing out in the same way that these sorts of discussions always do, and probably are always expected to.

Starting the session with a discussion about gamification didn’t help. Russell acknowledged that it wasn’t going to go down well with some of the audience, and winced as she said it (as I did writing it, ugh). So much has already been said on this subject, whether gamification is just pointsification, whether it mistakes the extrinsic trappings of gaming for the reason why people enjoy games, whether it should be reclaimed as just meaning adding game mechanics to content and so on.

Most people do seem to understand it to mean pointsification, and I can’t see this having any more than limited value. In this context, it’s also a total distraction. This isn’t really what people are talking about when they talk about games based learning in my experience, so it’s a shame it took up so much of the panel’s time. In fact, it’s a shame gamification has taken up so much time on so many conference panels and sessions over the last couple of years, can we possibly move on from this now?

But it was the next few questions that troubled me more. Russell asked “do educational games work?” And “where’s the evidence?” Now, it’s not that I think we shouldn’t ask these questions, but it seems that these questions are all anyone ever asks about educational games. The implication always seems to be that one should be hugely sceptical of such an outlandish and possibly even NEUROLOGICALLY DANGEROUS (more on that later) concept, and that educational games exponents had better have some seriously good evidence up their sleeves if we are to countenance allowing their nutty ideas into our schools and homes.

This makes me weary. It is really such a leap to see that an activity so absorbing as playing a good game, could be harnessed for learning of some sort? An activity whose very essence is about learning, as you must do to improve in any game? Does it trouble people that much that it might be possible to have fun whilst learning? (Note: not that learning in and of itself can’t be fun, but if there was a better way of educating children that all of them would really enjoy, shouldn’t we be really happy about that and keen to explore it further?) Some of the panel did indeed make some of these points, but were rather on the back foot in the face of this slightly negative questioning. Asked to think of evidence off the top of their heads, they were unsurprisingly unable to cite any academic papers in support of their position.

Gran Turismo Academy was mentioned (by Mark Sorrell IIRC) where players were put in real cars, and performed brilliantly, despite only ever having played the game before.  It’s a great example, but in the rest of the discussion little other evidence was mentioned and the conclusion was that there wasn’t much out there. I couldn’t think of any either off the top of my head at the time, but a google search shows there’s a fair bit out there. I’m pretty sure the military wouldn’t be so keen on using games in their training if they didn’t have some good evidence, for example. But maybe all of us involved with games for educational purposes should be better versed in the literature (and there is definitely a discussion about better dissemination about this sort of research and evaluation to be had at some point).

Testing the efficacy of games in learning is always going to be tricky though. For example, testing existing games may show that some of them are poor learning tools, but you couldn’t conclude from that that all games are poor learning tools or that it’s impossible for games to work in this way. And perhaps this is a rather back to front approach anyway for those making the games. Using what we know about the science of learning and good gameplay to make great educational games, with the majority of the testing taking place in formative stages would surely be more effective?

This week I read the Nesta Decoding Learning report, which makes a similar point about starting from good learning principles when creating digital educational tools, and which I highly recommend. I’ve also had a number of discussions recently with people who are indeed working on this basis, which is great, and it may be that this line of thinking isn’t news to many people working on educational games and technology.

So why do we always end up on the back foot in discussions like this? Why is the default position apparently one of scepticism? Responding with examples of the odd good game based learning initiative or stats about how the games industry is huge, broadly equal in terms of gender, not just played by teenage boys in their…snore… doesn’t appear to be making a difference. I hear this defensive tone so frequently and, hands up, have definitely been guilty of doing this myself in the past. Especially to audiences I assume will be sceptical (science types, for example). I promise to stop doing that now. But I have heard this discussion about whether or not educational games can work so frequently in conferences, articles and from people outside the “industry”, and it never seems to move on.

Perhaps we’re doing it wrong. As I tweeted at the time, perhaps all this defensive navel gazing is counter-productive. Perhaps it’s merely reinforcing the impression that the scepticism is right. I think many others in this area, like myself, know in our hearts that there is much potential here; that there is something in games which could work really well for increasing people’s understanding of subjects, situations, and systems. There may well be aspects of learning that games are not good at too, of course, but I don’t think it’s so far-fetched to think they could be very powerful educational tools.

Let’s not allow the likes of Susan Greenfield and her Daily Mail pleasing nonsense about video games set the agenda around this. She might not be able to point at any actual evidence for her claims, but we can. (On another note, if she thinks games have so much potential for evil, they must be powerful things, and therefore have potential for much good too. And of course they change the brain, as any repeated activity will, and this is not necessarily a negative response, as well she knows. But I digress). Let’s not sit back and wait for others to confer respectability on this area, let’s set examples, continue to do great work, and let’s talk instead about how to deal with the real and meaty challenges facing educational games: reaching teachers, funding projects, being heard above the noise, and so on.

On that note, we do actually get into the genuine issues around games based learning at the London Educational Games Meetup group (LEGup). Please do come along to talk games, share learnings, tell me I’m full of crap, or tell me how you think we can change the tune on this issue.

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