Gaming, cognition, and education - Part 2

Today I continue my week-long series related to gaming, cognition, and education. If you recall from yesterday, I am approaching this issue with the following question in mind: Why is it that kids who can't sit still in class for five minutes can be mentally locked in for hours at home playing video games?


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My guide for this series is Dr. Jim Gee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. In addition to discussing some key concepts from Gee's book, each day I also will highlight a gaming-related resource for K-12 educators. Next Monday I will wrap up the series and provide a tool that can be used to help teachers and administrators discuss (and maybe reframe) their beliefs about gaming.

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Today's topics are amplification of input, rewards, and practice. I'd love some comments on the Questions of the Day, either for today or yesterday.

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4. Video games give a lot of output for just a little input

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One of the key characteristics of video games is that they operate according to what Gee calls the amplification of input principle. In a video game, you can push a few buttons here and there, or type a few words with your keyboard, and an entire immersive environment springs forth to engage you. Gee notes that this principle is present in other domains as well. For example, think of the output that you get (e.g., you can drive halfway across the country) by simply moving your foot up and down on the gas pedal of your car. Amplification of input is a powerfully motivating feature of video games because learners can put in just a little and still get a lot back out. This encourages them to put in a little more to see what else they might get.

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5. In video games, learners get rewards from the very beginning

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Another significant feature of video games is that participants get rewards from the very beginning. These rewards, both intrinsic and extrinsic, send messages of success to learners and encourage them to continue to play to gain additional rewards. Extrinsic rewards might include new character lives, greater wealth, more points or coins, etc. Examples of intrinsic rewards include satisfaction with character progress or growth, expanded interconnection with other characters, greater understanding and knowledge, and so on. Importantly, these rewards are individually customized to each learner as he or she progresses further through the gaming environment.

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6. Gamers get lots of non-boring practice

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As Gee notes, people "need to practice what they are learning a good deal before they master it" (p. 68). Moreover, if they don't continue to practice, they lose much of their previously-acquired skill and knowledge (e.g., how much do you remember about sine, cosine, and tangent?). Because they provide opportunities, for active, interactive learning, video games do an excellent job of allowing learners to practice skills and mentally ingrain existing knowledge in ways that are engaging, not boring. One of the keys to this is the fact that video games embed learning within meaningful contexts rather than being decontextualized like "drill and kill" worksheets or homework problem sets. Video games also facilitate learners' acquisition of self-selected goals rather than goals that are externally imposed by others.

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Questions of the day

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  • How do the concepts discussed above map on to K-12 education?
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  • Are our K-12 classrooms set up . . . to give students a lot of output for just a little input? to provide, from the very beginning, both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for learning? to allow students opportunities for non-boring practice within meaningful contexts and on self-selected learning goals?
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Gaming and education resource 2

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Here's the schedule for the rest of the series:

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  • Wednesday: ongoing learning, regime of competence, probing
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  • Thursday: multiple routes to success, contextualized meaning, multimodal learning
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  • Friday: subset of real domain, bottom-up basic skills, just-in-time information
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  • Saturday: discovery learning, learning transfer, learner as producer
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  • Monday: wrap-up
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