Does using a game to teach actually work? If so, to what degree does it work? Without fully admitting (yet) to a full-blown existential crisis, such thoughts of imparting knowledge to students using the medium of games or gaming or gamification has given me pause. I suppose this often happens when one starts to apply a pet pedagogy only to find that real life is a bit more complicated than what’s on paper. It’s not unlike the feeling one gets after acquiring a new puppy, and thoughts of “what was I thinking” pop up during moments of cleaning “accidents” off the carpet and finding your third pair of chewed up shoes. It is that moment of fleeting panic when you realize you are fully committed now and turning back would be as painful as chucking the whole idea. Though this may not be an existential crisis, I think it is at least a panic attack.
About a month or so ago my application was accepted for a small teaching grant to create escape rooms for teaching. The application narrative is a bit more complicated than your traditional escape game experience. But, without getting into details, let’s just say that my concept includes several game mechanics in addition to traditional escape games. The concept is, I believe, sound. But, of course, now it is time to make it work practically. Practical application: a tricky thing that.
Throughout this column, and most of my waking life, I have extolled the virtues of the application of games to teaching. To be sure, I am still convinced that is the case — having read theory and applied it aplenty off the record. I am now in the position of proving it in an official way. Now I have to find my money and put it where my mouth is. Finding the money was the easy part. Finding my mouth … well …
So, how does one go about turning a traditional lecture lesson into a game anyway? How about turning a game into a lesson? Do you make something fun into a learning experience or do you make a learning experience fun? What if you could do both? What if you have no clue? Or what if you have a clue, but no leads?
Fortunately, I have two grant colleagues who are in this boat with me and share my burden. We spent many hours contemplating these very questions. Theme before content? Content before theme? Mechanics in there somewhere. Fun and learning integrated. Where to start? Fortunately, fate and a crazy — yet practical — project intervened this summer to assist. Because, when one is up against an unyielding project, what better way to stimulate one’s brain than to add another project that is easy, stimulating and way more fun?
Earlier this summer I was “contracted” to produce an escape game for a Science Summer Camp. My teenage children have regularly attended this summer camp for years, and I heard that the camp director was looking for some “fun” activities that she could offer for electives. I seized on this, immediately seeing a chance to gain some experience in creating an escape room and a ready-made (and willing) group of play testers. And the best part is this activity did not have to actually “teach” anything. I was told that this was to be a “fun” “elective” activity among a myriad of other such fun stuff available to the campers. The goal was just “fun.” Pressure off!
The theme for this summer camp was Mars and Stars. Basically, it was about the science and adventure of space exploration — particularly that involving the red planet and Martian colonization. Escape rooms traditionally have some sort of hyperbolic issue that involves getting out of the room before you die in some horrible or interesting way. Your demise could come by being eaten by zombies or suffocation by drowning or air lock malfunction or just being caught by bad guys or the warden, or the police or the gestapo or a disgruntled alien. So, naturally my first thought was that this should be a crash landing on Mars survival scenario. What could more anxiety producing than that?
And so it was that I spent the better part of six weeks concocting such an escape room adventure. My participants were science campers from ages 11 to 17 who were theoretically doing the game in three or more similar age groups. With the pressure off to actually teach something, I was free to make this activity just mindless fun. So, of course I set out to make it more than that. I don’t think fun is ever really mindless. It does not have to have a point. But, it can be — and should be — inspiring… if only to the game designer…as indeed, it was.
I think my biggest take-away from this — a grand insight about designing any creative production — is that content may be king, but experience is the goddess. Whether designing a game or a lesson plan or a birthday party, content alone does not make it a successful event. Indeed, content is integral to the core concept, but it is the experience that hooks the participants and stays with them. The event succeeds or fails according to the special sauce — the positive experiences and take away memories of the participants and students or party folk. I recently read a quote about public speaking that said, “Before you can get their minds, you have to grab their emotions.” Indeed, it is not only a war that has been lost by not securing “hearts and minds.”
Now I shall not go into detail about what I actually did to pull off the whole “having fun while learning” thing. I must save something for part two after all. To be sure, this was my first attempt at a “learning” escape room, and I am sure it was far from perfect. Still, I concentrated on the “fun” and engaging aspect of the game, and my escape game ended up being heavy on theater and theme. The learning aspect was intertwined with role-play, and puzzles and cartography skills and deep thinking and colorful lights. By all accounts all of the participants had a blast, had fun and did learn a great deal about the science and necessities and danger and adventure in planning and executing a mission to Mars. The trick seemed to be that it was not necessarily fun to learn about those Mars and space things. But, in the process of having fun in the experience (by surviving a crash landing on Mars), the participants learned things — not the least of which was cooperation and problem solving under pressure. Indeed, hearts and minds were grabbed.
So, this games in education thing can actually work. I look forward to applying it directly to teaching library skills. Seeing my students having fun in a library instruction class is a particular secret fantasy of mine. I can hardly wait. Learning may not always be fun. But, one can more easily learn something while having fun. So, up with the online catalog and bring on the smoke machine!