Part 2 of MindShift's Guide to Games and Learning.
Those who still think of content as the driving force of education may not be ready for game-based learning. What do we mean by “content”? In this age of digital media, "content" is what web designers, TV producers, and media moguls talk about. Articles, TV shows, YouTube videos, photos -- that’s all content. In the classroom, what we usually call content is what students have retained if teachers have met their learning objectives.
The underlying assumption of an education system that relies so heavily on test-based assessment is that content is what matters. We even call it "subject matter." In some ways, it's true that content matters -- as long as we interpret the language so that ‘matters’ is used as a verb. Understand that “what matters” is that which is in the process of matter-ing, the process of becoming matter. What matters is what can be understood as a material, what is measurable, what is quantifiable, what is matter. Content is what matters when learning objectives are always about the measurable retention of quantifiable artifacts.
For those who prioritize learning that can be measured using only quantitative assessments, game-based learning probably just looks like a way to increase student engagement and content retention. It might seem like a complex workbook, or an entertaining quiz. Perhaps game-based learning looks like a great tool for practice and drilling, like a super sophisticated flash-card system that makes memorization more fun. But this kind of thinking doesn't take into account the broader understanding of what matters. Game-based learning is a great classroom tool because it allows for interdisciplinary learning through contextualized critical thinking and problem solving.
Games in the classroom can encourage students to understand subject matter in context -- as part of a system. In contrast to memorization, drilling, and quizzing, which is often criticized because it focuses on facts in isolation, games force players to interact with problems in ways that take relationships into account. The content becomes useful insofar as it plays a part in a larger multi-modal system.
And that's the crux of the value: Games are all about systems thinking. Underlying every game, no matter how complex, is a relatively simple puzzle. Whether we’re talking about commercial games or learning games, at root, the player is tasked with learning a combination of actions and responses. The game does one thing. The player responds with another. In order to beat the game, the player needs to master the system.