I wrote a book last year about games and learning. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of talking about it with students, teachers, and parents worldwide. After my talks, parents inevitably approach me, sometimes sheepishly, sometimes angrily, wanting to know why their kids are “addicted” (their word, not mine) to video games. During these conversations, I often find myself reflecting on the words of games scholar Jesper Juul, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on failure.
“I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more,” he wrote in 2013. For something to be a good game, or a game at all, he wrote, “we expect resistance and the possibility of failure.” We are, in other words, disappointed if a game is too easy.
I listen to concerned parents, and then I ask them to put themselves in their kids’ shoes: Think about all of the things your child must do in life—drive a car, get a girlfriend, speak a foreign language. Then imagine being not just surprised but disappointed to learn that mastering each of these things was easier than you’d thought.
Now imagine a game in which you couldn’t fail. Juul has suggested this vivid image: a single button reading, “Press Button to Complete Game.”
Media critic Marshall McLuhan predicted in 1967 that within two decades technology would have made school unrecognizable. “As it is now, the teacher has a ready-made audience. He is assured of a full house and a long run.” he wrote. “Those students who don’t like the show get flunking grades.” If students were given the choice to get their information elsewhere, “the quality of the experience called education will change drastically,” he predicted. “The educator then will naturally have a high stake in generating interest and involvement for his students.”
McLuhan was right about one of his predictions: Students now can get a lot of their information elsewhere. As education consultant Marc Prensky has written, many young people “are now deeply and permanently technologically enhanced,” with constant access to the internet via smart phones, computers, and more.
In most schools, kids who don’t like the show still get flunking grades. But outside of school, these students are now steeped in online media, social networking, and gaming, experiences that are richer and more relevant than much of what they get in school. There’s a technical term for the phenomenon where you see possibilities that lie just out of reach but must spend time doing lesser things: boredom.
Despite of our teachers’ best efforts, our schools are fighting a losing battle with boredom. In 2010, Indiana University’s High School Survey of Student Engagement found that 65 percent of students report being bored “at least every day in class.” Sixteen percent are bored in every class.
Perhaps most schools simply aren’t challenging enough. In a 2006 study of high school dropouts, 8 in 10 said they did less than an hour of homework each day. Two-thirds said they would have worked harder if school had demanded more of them. After surveying hundreds of exchange students from around the world, American journalist Amanda Ripley found in her 2013 book that 9 out of 10 international students who had spent time in the United States said classes were easier here. Of the American teenagers who had studied abroad, 7 out of 10 agreed. “The evidence suggests that we’ve been systematically underestimating what our kids can handle, especially in math and science,” she wrote. “School in America was many things, but it was not, generally speaking, all that challenging.”
For millions of students, it’s as if we’ve adopted Jesper Juul’s idea of a bad game: “Press Button to Complete School.” I think schools can learn a thing or two from games. We adults, of course, celebrate play and even fight for children’s right to have more time for it once they’re in school. Yet we’re quick to abandon our commitment to play when we feel it’s not up to the task of moving large amounts of material into our kids’ minds—especially as they grow up. I propose that we rethink that belief. Let’s consider the possibility that more play and playful thinking, and the possibility for more failure, not less, could actually make our schools more rigorous, serious, productive, and equitable places.
In many schools, high-quality learning games such as the DragonBox learning apps, which use visual puzzles to teach up to algebra-level math, are making inroads. But talking to parents, I find that a lot of them believe the secret of good games is that they somehow “trick” students into doing more math, for instance, than they ordinarily would. I see things differently. Games aren’t tricks. They offer content in a less threatening, more direct, more systematic and appealing way. They invite us in. Good math games “trick” us into doing math the same way that a gleaming grand piano tricks us into playing music.
Stanford math professor Keith Devlin likes to say that good games allow users to “play” with subjects like math or history or physics, allowing us to strip problems down, analyze underlying patterns, try out solutions, and practice repeatedly. “If video games had been around in 350 BC, Euclid would have made a video game,” he once told me. “People think I’m joking. I absolutely mean that.”
Look at any of Euclid’s proofs and you’ll see that the Greek mathematician, often called the father of geometry, is asking readers to do things. “He says, ‘Draw this arc,’ ‘Drop this perpendicular.’ ‘Bisect that line,’” Devlin told me. “These are actions, and actions are what you get in video games.”
Many teachers are realizing that games are “new literacies” that are here to stay, Devlin said. But all teachers need to take games more seriously. “As teachers, it’s our responsibility to put ourselves in the students’ place,” he said. “And if they are in a digital world, where they will invest many hours solving difficult, challenging problems in a video game, it would be criminal if we didn’t start where they are and take advantage of the things they want to do.”