Game Theory, Video Games, Failure, and the Classroom

Something that has been on my mind a lot this year is how we can harness the power of video games in our classrooms.  Game theory is something powerful and I think we need to grab it and pull it into our classrooms! Many of my students love to play video games, and I find it fascinating.  Now I’m not one of those old ladies who can’t understand why the kids love those “darn games!” (lol).  Instead, what fascinates me is how willing they are to fail in a game.  Sometimes they will “die” for hours on end, trying different routes and theories.  Failing is not only ok, but encouraged.  They work around obstacles and problems, they innovate solutions, they talk with other gamers- everything I want to see them doing in the classroom. So how can we transfer those some ideas of embracing failure?  How do we make it ok to “lose a life” so to say, in a project or writing piece?  How do we make it acceptable to try something over and over, working hard to get it right without giving up?

In video games, kids embrace difficult problems.  They fail over and over again as they work towards defeating the game.  Failure is part of the fun.  Yet many of those same kids balk at assignments in school when they require creative problem solving.  Or even worse- if the assignment involves writing (and following a process that includes *gasp* revision!), I have many students who shut down after their first draft.  I haven’t come up with any ideas yet, but this is something that has been on my mind all year.  There has to be a way to transfer the problem-solving techniques used in video games to something academic, like a writing piece.

I started thinking about game theory back in the summer when I read Carol Jago’s awesome book With Rigor for All, Second Edition: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature. Carol mentions many of the same thoughts I have and she inspired a lot of new thinking for me.  Then at the beginning of the school year one of my former students sent me the following email:

I found this TED talk amazing. I did some thinking on the AIDS discovery found on gamers and what I came up with is, “Gamers found this cure because we were motivated with this ‘game layer'”. I found this and I wondered, “well why can’t I apply this to my everyday life?”

This is how I finished my physics work without moving to tumblr or something. I figured a way to make everything I do in my life a score, or “ChampCoins”. The more efficietly I do my homework or chores, the more champcoins I win. If I reach my goal, I get video game time :DDD

This way of motivation is powerful (por ejemplo, look at the discovery gamers found). Simply adding a score pushed them to eventually find something.

Are videogames a waste of time… or the way of the future?

I was floored when I read it.  What powerful intrinsic motivation!  And the metacognitive awareness to realize that his motivation in video games can be transferred to school work makes me so proud.  The AIDs discovery he is referring to can be found here.  “Foldit is a program created by researchers at the University of Washington that ‘transforms problems of science into a competitive computer game,’ says Fox News. More than 236,000 players have registered for the game over the past three years. Players manipulate virtual molecular structures…After being challenged by researchers to help map this [retroviral] protease, several players worked together to solve this particular puzzle in a matter of days.”  I shared the article on our Facebook page at the beginning of year because it fascinated me, never imagining that any of my students would flip the scenario around to benefit them.  But now that Mike has done it, I grill him about it every few weeks.  As of the end of December, he was still following the same protocol and says his grades are definitely better than they were before he started this method of doing his school work.  How awesome is that?

I have ordered a bunch of books on game theory and it’s something I plan to explore more over the next few months.  I know that there is something important here and we just need to dig deep enough to find it.  Has anyone else spend time thinking about game theory and its place in the classroom?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!  And I’m always looking for more resources to help me out!


6 Responses

  1. James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Language and Literacy, is a good book about this. He’s a researcher who has become interested in the way people learn through video games. At the end of this book are 36 principles that he thinks help explain why video games engage students so thoroughly.

    I’ve been thinking about this too, and I’m trying to understand Gee’s notion of a “projective identity,” a way of trying on a new persona through video games. It’s part of how students become experts at something – they assume the identity of an expert, or of a participant in a professional discourse. They become part of the game, a player enmeshed in some kind of new world. If they like the world, and they like the person they are able to become, they can really become engrossed (achieving a state of “flow,” if you are familiar with that).

    So, to wrap up this rambling comment, if you/I can get students to adopt some kind of “professional journeyman writer” persona, your/my/our students wouldn’t care so much about making mistakes and trying new things, if that was part of the identity and part of the game.

    I’m also digging into Reality is Broken, another book about gaming and learning.

    • Thanks for the book recommendations! I am definitely adding them to my list. It’s a lot to think about!

  2. This isn’t exactly the same, but have you read this blog: He’s been doing a gaming assignment with his class-very interesting.

  3. I recently went to a workshop on this which was put on by Scholastic. One of the first things the presenter said was, “games are the willing acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.” I LOVED that and think if we could get students to see writing this way, it would change the classroom mindset.
    The website they were pushing was, which is mostly pay, but I believe that you could register 40 students for free, so maybe as a pilot class. The idea that I liked was teaching plot elements through a video game that they create. Another website that was mentioned was which I haven’t checked out much.
    Please share what you learn…I am really interested in this topic!

  4. Brilliant editorial!! I too have attended a gaming seminar, but never in this context; it was more about getting young people to come into the library.

  5. I read this post with great interest and have checked out several of your links! Thanks for giving me something new to think about!

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