Time & Punishment
Punishment & Fear

Games as Learning

Pacman graph 'Games as learning' is a popular lens through which to see videogame play, and one with many advocates, not least of which being Raph Koster. His book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design, is a wonderful defence of the videogame industry built around the 'games as learning' premise. But when we use this viewpoint, what are we missing?

I have a number of issues with the 'games as learning' paradigm, none of which invalidate the merits of this point of view. My principle complaint is that, excluding reflexes, all behaviour is learned; almost all experiences in life are learning experiences. All creatures with a sufficiently complex brain learn all the time from what's going around them. Thus 'games as learning' doesn't track directly – if we are always learning, what's the difference between watching a movie and playing a game? The reason that games become more associated with learning is because games teach specific skills, whereas the kind of learning that goes on with a movie (or some other activity)is considered more passive. Thus rather than a strict case of 'games as learning' we end up in the position that games are simply efficient tools for learning.

But here we run into a serious issue: games teach skills by offering challenges and assigning tasks, which the player must learn how to complete. Clear a level, beat a boss, collect items in an area, and so forth. The player then receives a reward, and goes onto new challenges and tasks. The reward could be any number of different things, but biologically it all comes down to triggering the reward system in the brain, which I have already written about at length. The connection between this reward system and learning is well established – in fact, most professional animal trainers (such as those who train the orca's at SeaWorld) use the principles of operant conditioning in their work.

So now we are facing a parallel between what a videogame does to its player, and what a trainer does to an animal – with one big difference. The trainer is seeking to elicit specific behaviours – sit, wait and so forth when training a dog, for instance. The videogame has not been designed on this paradigm (the 'games as learning' model reflects a perception of videogames, not a prevailing attitude in how to make them), and indeed most videogames are merely slightly reworked versions of previous videogames with no intentions beyond being “better than other games”.

What do videogames teach? Well, among other things they teach players to smash boxes to look for items, to search the dead-end first, and in many cases to save often. Most of these skills do not transfer to real life in any useful way, although of course, there are exceptions (anyone who used Microsoft Word in the 1990s, for instance, will have benefited from learning to 'save often'). It is the case that learning to play most games does exercise the decision centre of the brain (the orbito-frontal cortex), and thus can help people with their problem-solving skills, although this was perhaps far more true in the early days of videogames than it is now. (I'm at a loss to suggest what is learned by a player of Wii Sports or, for that matter, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, that they can apply outside of a videogame context, although I'm sure people will have interesting suggestions!).

As a consequence, I find the 'games as learning' paradigm flawed. I do not deny the potential for games as tools for learning, although the videogames industry has not embraced this very well and the Serious Games movement seems to have problems delivering on its full potential right now. Since 'games as learning' equates to 'games as tools for operant conditioning' I wonder if it wouldn't be more prudent to consider 'games as rewards' (as with John Hopson's Behavioural Game Design model) – both learning and rewards being aspects of the operant conditioning process i.e. the mechanism by which behaviours are learned.

The problem with 'games as learning' in this context is that it draws the individual's attention to an outcome (learning) and risks misleading people as to what actually goes on while a player is enjoying a game. To make his theory of fun track, Koster has to eliminate all forms of visceral fun, since these are not based upon learning, despite the fact that, yes, rollercosters are fun even though they do not involve learning.

Conversely, 'games as rewards' does not fall prey to this limitation so easily – from this perspective, visceral enjoyment is intrinsically rewarding, and thus can be sought for its own sake. Furthermore, 'games as rewards' has specific lessons for game designers as to the mechanisms they can use for structuring those rewards. Admittedly, one can easily invert this and be back in the 'games as learning' perspective, but those simple, visceral rewards – such as the thrill of high speed and the delight some players derive from violence – will never comfortably fit into this model.

My suspicion, perhaps unfair, is that for those of us who perform well in the education system learning is intrinsically rewarding (or autotelic, as Csikszentmihalyi says) – and this, I believe, applies to everyone who advances the 'games as learning' perspective and pretty much all game designers. Because of this inherent bias, 'games as learning' looks like a stronger model than it perhaps should. I feel 'games as rewards' is a required counterpoint and, from the point of view of game design, potentially more useful, while acknowledging that (like the ridiculous narratology vs ludology debate) we're really talking about two sides of the same coin.


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I think you are right to say that learning is only one of the avenues for reward in games. Personally, I teach the '8 kinds of fun' model by LeBlanc, who distinguishes the visceral pleasure from challenge and fantasy and self expression and others.

I wonder whether the 'games as dopamine triggers' theory isn't also incomplete. It sees to encourage the creation of Skinner boxes rather than rich meaningful experiences. Sure they are compelling, but they're also very empty.

On the question of whether learning is autotelic, I wonder whether this is confine to those of us who 'perform well in the education system'. James Paul Gee's book seems to point in the opposite direction.

He seems to suggest that the popularity of games is an indication that learning can be universally engaging, but that our education system only manages to provide this engagement to a select few.

Malcolm: the "games as dopamine triggers" would have indicated the "Skinner box" angle prior to Biederman and Vessel, but now that curiosity and aesthetics are shown to be ways to trigger the reward system this is no longer the case. The experiences must be rich on many levels to be fully rewarding. (Did you see the Why You Play Games post?)

Thanks for the link to James Paul McGee - but I'm not convinced by this claim that because games are enjoyable for a wide number of people, learning can be fun for everyone. What do we mean by learning in this case? And how do we eliminate the appeal of the visceral, non-learning (or low-learning) elements of the play experience?

As I say in this piece, all experiences are learning on some level - but people enjoy different things, even in learning.

However, I *do* believe that learning can be autotelic *when what is being learned is intrinsically rewarding for the individual*. Thus, someone who enjoys cars may enjoy learning about engine mechanics. But that same person would not necessarily enjoy learning the French language, or Romanian history.

My suspicion is that the best education performers enjoy acquiring abstract and factual knowledge. The education systems in most countries are geared to this kind of learning. People who enjoy learning practical knowledge are systematically prejudiced against in most education systems.

I would be more swayed by your argument (or James Paul McGee's as the case may be) if someone made a game for learning (say) Swahili and demonstrated that everyone enjoyed playing it. From our studies of how and why people play games, I would predict that no matter what kind of game it was, you wouldn't get everyone to enjoy it. Only the people who found learning Swahili intrinsically rewarding or who found the game mechanics enjoyable would find it fun.

This, however, is not to argue against more games in the classroom - there could be definite benefits in this. But I believe an overhaul of our education systems are long overdue, and this revision should perhaps begin by reviewing the notion of a curriculum.

If we simply work on the problem of better ways to teach a static curriculum, we will continue to favour particular people (those who express Rational and Guardian temperament i.e. those with well developed orbito-frontal cortices and hippocampi). The best education system would support the learning of everyone, something that Ivan Illich passionately argues for in "Deschooling Society". I have a lot of sympathy for Illich's position.

Thanks for the interesting comment!

"the Serious Games movement seems to have problems delivering on its full potential right now"

Well as you're about to design a serious game, I suggest we watch this space!

It seemed to take a while for your refutation of Koster's theory, which from the academic perspective, seems very convincing precisely because it almost tautological, and descriptive rather than predictive. That last is also a flaw in Csikszentmihalyi's work - which points to a grave flaw in game-based research. We don't have persuasive predictive models of psycho-physiological activity in gameplay yet, because firstly all the threads have not yet been pulled together; secondly there needs to be more building on the respectable psychological theories rather than the sexy ones (see Flow); and thirdly whenever someone does study this activity, they have not broken down the elements of the game-play far enough to make good causal discoveries that help predict effects. If subjects play a modern game, there's so much going on that finally very little definite can be said about the data.

Learning and rewards are two edges of a stick. But this concepts give different kinds of a please.

Learning of ingame skills and applying it on a practice (for one audience), learning of a world (for another audience), learning of a
game mechanic (for another one) etc

I mean, that learning is a fun in another way, that rewards is. But they
are so linked, that sometimes this is difficult to divide them.

But I agree: games are not all about learning. On the other hand, I think that most of the poor games you can do better using learning in the right way. The same applies to awards. That is why both concepts (learning and rewards) are crucial for games. (imho)

sorry, "pleasure" in place of "please"

KoS: nice observation here; I agree with your general position. In fact, I'd go further and say that it's always valuable to examine games from another perspective.

Perhaps we should move beyond single-model approaches to understanding gameplay and into a space where we recognise that many different models might have many different things to say.

zenBen: does anyone have a predictive theory of gameplay? I certainly don't have anything that can make more than broad-stroke predictions, many of which could be tautological if examined. (If I predict that a player that tests heavily Conqueror will have elevated stress levels during play of their preferred games, I am just tracking from their description of play to the physiological roots of that play - no prediction occurs).

Nonetheless, I find the various models useful. If nothing else, they give us things to push against in order to explore this territory more completely.

Thanks for the comments!

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