What Educators (and Everyone Else) Can Learn from Gamers

As I continue to explore game design as a part of the Games for Learning (#GE4L) MOOC at Canvas.net, I’m using this as a chance to deepen my understanding of how learning organizations can benefit from using game design principles.  However, a comment from Dave Black on a recent post also invited me to think more broadly about lessons that we can glean from the gaming culture.  Rather than only asking what we can learn from games, there are also important lessons that we can learn from the people who play games and the skills that they seem to develop by playing games.

When I consult with groups about topics like 21st century skills, I often distinguish between the what of eduction and the how of education.  The how focuses upon methods and strategies.  The how is a conversation about 21st century pedagogy and learning experience design.  This is where discussion about game design lessons for educators becomes a fascinating and promising topic.  The what of 21st century skills, on the other hand, focuses upon what people need to learn to thrive and survive in a 21st century world.  This is where we look at the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will best help people embrace the challenges and opportunities of life in a 21st century global context.  What does one need to thrive in the workplace, to thrive in family and community, to learn and grow from adversity, to be a positive change agent in the world, to live a good life that is rich with meaning; to flourish (drawing from the title of Martin Seligman’s popular positive psychology text)?  These are the sorts of questions that we ask when we focus upon the what of 21st century skills.

The what of 21st century skills is an important topic as it helps to frame our thinking about the  how.  Our methods are selected based upon what we want to learn or help others learn.  Without substantial thought about the what of 21st century skills, it is easy to become overly dogmatic about and unnecessarily loyal to our favorite models and methods.  Game-based learning, for example, has many lessons for us, but I’m not ready to argue that all learning must be gamified or that it is the answer to all educational challenges.  It is a valuable lens through which to look at the design of learning experiences, but not the only one.

Toward that end, I recently started to think about what we can learn from gamers?  What knowledge, skills and dispositions do gamers cultivate; and how might those be useful for life in the 21st century?  I encourage your thoughts and comments about this.  To get us started, I put together some thoughts below.

 7 Traits of a Pro Gamer – This short post on the Pro Gamer Institute web site is a good place to start.  In addition to physical traits (like manual dexterity and twitch reflexes), the post also includes traits like love of the game, unwavering dedication, strong-multitasking skills, analytical ability, and emotional control. Following are my reflections about five of the items fro the article.

“Love of the Game” – Is “love of the game” important in other aspects of life?  As they note in the article, you are going to be spending a ton of time with the game, so if you don’t really love what you are doing, then you are less likely to persist long enough to get good at it.  This is such an important point, and I contend that it is important for much of life.  How do you find those things that you love so that you can truly do it with all of your might?  Or, how do you learn to love something? The ability to discover your life passions and your callings (not just what you do to make money) is powerful skill.  At the same time, some tasks in our lives do not seem to spark much love in us, but it is possible to learn to love them.  Knowing when to move on to something that is more in line with our gifts and passions is an important trait, it is also equally valuable to learn how to “grow where you are planted”, to thrive and find fulfillment in  the current circumstances.

Unwavering Dedication – As the article notes, to be one of the best gamers, you need to devote hours of effort and make real sacrifices.  This takes dedication, an ability to persevere, and the capacity to postpone gratification for the sake of the larger goal.

Strong Multitasking Skills – Yes, there is ample research to suggest that people are less effective at specific tasks while trying to do others at the same time.  Texting while driving is the first that comes to mind.  Not only are you likely to craft far less eloquent texting prose, you are also more likely to hit that next telephone pole, car, or pedestrian crossing the street.   At the same time, multitasking is a critical skill for life today (as it was in past generations). Not all tasks in our lives can be done in isolation.  Many parts of our lives require us to juggle multiple things at the same time.  Consider the parent who has food on the stove, a child in need of help with something, and then the phone rings.  While they may not have to do all three simultaneously, they need to think quickly and figure out how to juggle the items.  I do think it is helpful to note that, when you juggle three balls, it is actually an illusion.  Most of the time, there is only one ball in the air, but it does still demand knowing where all three balls are and being able to attend to multiple things at the same time.  How do we learn to develop such skills?

Analytical Skills – As noted in the Pro Gamer post, “Top gamers do their research, develop strategies and tactics, and analyse their opponents. You’ll have to do the same to keep up.” In other words, there is more to playing the game than just playing the game.  The ability to develop and select the most effective heuristics to address challenges in work and other parts of life remains a valued ability in the 21st century.  Similarly, learning the value of research and how to do it allows one to make more informed decisions, whether it be in the workplace or when doing something like shopping for a new car.

Emotional Control – The last item from the 7 Traits of a Pro Gamer article relates to the ability to control one’s emotions.  There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that emotional intelligence (I first learned about it in Daniel Goleman’s text by that title) is critical for success in many aspects of life (school, work, relationships, etc.).  It turns out that it is important for gamers as well.

This list of seven traits gives us plenty to consider when we think about learning from gamers.  In fact, the list seems to point to the idea that many of the traits that lead to success and excellence in school and work are also some of the same traits that help pro gamers.

The lessons are not limited to pro gamers.  There are plenty of lessons that we can learn from the broader world of gamers as well. For more about that, here are a few resources to check out.

  • The Kids are Alright: How the Gamer Generation is Changing the Workplace – This text draws our attention to the fact that gamers have certain proclivities that are likely to impact the workplace of the present and future.  The author provides a profile of attributes that one develops through gameplay that are likely to influence the attitude and actions of these gamers in the workplace.
  • What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Language and Literacy – I mentioned this text in a previous post, but one interesting aspect of the book by James Paul Gee is that the author describes the way gamers immerse themselves in a given game…in way that is similar to learning a language.  Then, when they switch to a new game, they must start over, while transferring some skills from the previous game that still apply.  As a result, gamers develop this attitude and aptitude for learning new skills and acclimating to new contexts, certainly an attribute that can aid one in other aspects of 21st century life.
  • Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning – I mentioned this book in a recent post as well. The author, Marc Prensky, is the person who largely popularized the idea of digital natives and digital immigrants.  In this text, he argues that people can develop a number of important skills as a result of gameplay, things like parallel processing, strategizing and problem solving.  His list of potential skills that gamers develop has several parallels with the many lists of important 21st century skills promoted by various authors and organizations.

Do gamers have anything to teach educators?  It seems to be that they do.  What do you think?  What are others lesson that we can glean from gamers about the “what” of 21st century skills?

Posted in education, Game-based Learning, GE4L

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.