Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Is Game Based Learning More Effective Than Traditional Methods?

Games based learning research tends to compare apples with oranges (as stated in a previous blog). It seems inappropriate to lump a pilot / modded game, entertainment game, purpose built game into one category and compare to traditional teaching methods. The purpose built game ought to (although there is no guarantee) have better educational value, else it mustn't have been designed very well.

Even if that was deemed appropriate to lump together games of varying "educational value", the games fracture into many genres (simulation, action, puzzle and so on). So to use a film analogy, it would be like saying Gone with the Wind is not as escapist as Harry Potter. Game genres work in different ways, so their effect in education will vary. Education, itself, can be sliced and diced in terms of subject and age. Also, there are some games (such as multi player simulations) that offer up possibilities that are not easily achievable in traditional teaching.

Furthermore, games based learning and traditional methods don't have to be mutually exclusive. A blended approach can run across lessons, or the game can be played as a whole class exercise with the educator still providing scaffolding.

Our experience:

pixelfountain (www.pixelfountain.co.uk) has been developing learning simulations for nine years. Our simulations run in workshop settings with different sub-teams taking on different roles in the simulation. We have delivered around 450 workshops for around 6,000 delegates. We have delivered around 40 lessons in schools, colleges and universities. We have even developed online games with young people. Our education products are marketed under the brand games-ED (www.games-ed.co.uk).

We have "happy sheets" for all of these workshops and have done long-term evaluation on some of the larger projects. The delegates are asked for quantitative and qualitative feedback. Arguably, the feedback is unscientific; given there was no control group. Also, the evaluation was solicited for product / project improvement reasons for ourselves and project funders.

Delegates typically suggest they have achieved a 20% – 25% learning improvement across a number of areas. They judge the workshops at 8.5 to 9 out of 10. Although, I would say younger learners are harder to please.

Typical comments form education workshops:

“After playing the game, I now appreciate the simple things that government does.” – Pupil, Liverpool Schools Parliament.

“When I put together an induction week programme there was always a compromise between introducing the key concepts of the course and encouraging the students to communicate with each other and staff.  [Sustainaville] allows me to achieve both these goals in a very entertaining way.  It always amazes me that after a single day I can introduce most of the concepts of Urban Sustainable Development and they also know each other’s names as well!” - Course Leader, Sheffield Hallam University.

“The students thoroughly enjoyed the project and could confidently talk about what they had been doing and talk through their ideas. They have gained fantastic skills!” - Teacher from Mill Green Special School, Newton le Willows


Does the above prove that games based learning is better than traditional methods? Probably not. But then that is not the point. We solicited feedback, because we wanted to improve our products and how they were delivered. So maybe the original question could be reframed into, “how can we improve games based leaning products and how they are delivered?” This is how games based learning will succeed in the education market place. They will succeed by delivering what educators need and what learners like.

In some ways it is a bit like sports commentary. Listen to how the commentators often change their slant on the game after a goal has been scored. So maybe, once games based learning success has been commercially achieved, the research will prove why it happened. Until then the games based learning market, like any other, will rely on the early adopters and the innovators.

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