Ever since we are born, we are surrounded by stories – our parents share fables, family tales and all those adorable „once upon a time there was a girl as naughty as you… do you want to know what happened to her?”
That was my parents’ approach, you can tell they are teachers, right?
Then we start spinning our own childish stories, learning the differences between truth and lies – and from then on, we never stop creating our own versions of events. Even if we end up believing we’ve lost all creativity to become the dullest creatures in the world, we still create stories, because that’s exactly what makes us human – fantasies we create.
Stories and games
Stories help us understand the world we live in, various relationships, social codes and behaviours – and once we understand the theory illustrated by stories, we keep practising by means of games.
In 1964 an American psychiatrist, Eric Berne, wrote a book „Games People Play” to show various kinds of games and game-like activities we practise in building social relationships (functional and dysfunctional). This book, albeit somewhat outdated, presents not only the dynamics of social interactions, but also shows the simple fact that we all play games and they are absolutely natural to us.
Children „play house” (or „play grown-up”) to study the family roles and models, then they introduce variations by playing with other children and eventually they modify and develop the game to base on another concept (e.g. classroom, party, being a superhero etc.). As you can see, we are immersed in stories and games even before we start our formal education.
Games are good for our brains
Our brain weighs around 1300 grams which makes it seven times heavier than a hamster. It burns around 330 calories a day just being there, and if you want to burn such amount of energy in a traditional manner you have to jog for 30 minutes, or sleep for almost five hours.
And just like hamsters our brains keep going and going, and going…
Roy Baumeister says that each day we have limited amount of willpower used by our brains on learning, decision making or resisting temptation. The brain gets weary with constant repetition, lack of challenge, same old things. However, games help alleviate the tiredness of the brain as they keep it entertained. We can take much more if we believe it’s fun.
Dr Hunter Hoffman and dr David Patterson created a game called „Snow World” and have been using it at Harborview Burn Center since 1996. It is confirmed that playing a VR game alleviates the pain during wound care. They describe the spotlight theory of attention as a perfect way for a brain to escape the boring routine, unpleasant experiences or even excruciating pain.
Now, if games can ease the agonising pain, maybe they can also ease the pain of education?
Playing games for science
A friend of mine works as a teacher assistant for the kids with SEN. She’s an avid RPG player and decided to introduce a simple adventure to her small group of kids. She was eager to try, but she was also slightly worried about one of the kids who’s autistic and not yet ready to communicate. To her surprise, he started not only to answer her encouraging conversation starters, but he also started to initiate the conversations himself! For him, small talk itself is a waste of time, but he realises the importance of small talk in the context of obtaining the information to complete the adventure, his mission.
In her absolutely brilliant book „Superbetter”, Jane McGonigal says that scientific research corroborates the theory that games provide more than just sheer enjoyment – they provide models of better selves. What is more, she says, while we play, we focus on the game, giving it so-called flow of attention, a state of being fully absorbed and engaged, the state of total immersion in the game. It helps people literally feel better, make one’s brain relax and achieve the same results as a training of mindfulness.
You actually use this theory bringing games and fun activities to revise the material before tests. It’s obvious everyone studies better when they’re relaxed and don’t think about grading. Playing games, and RPGs in particular as you may use short scenes to practise specific constructions and long adventures for more advanced levels, to practise communication skills. RPGs don’t involve grading, but instead you are given XP to further develop the skills and attributes of the character.
The scientists at Cornell University, New Mexico State University and Grenoble School of Management prove a very interesting, although quite obvious, point – taking obstacles as challenges strengthens our willpower and increases the chances of success. The interesting experiment was conducted on a group of people who tried to lose weight. It turned out people who consider exercises and diet as tasks to be completed feel the need to compensate (e.g. I ate four balanced meals today, so I deserve this ice-cream). As a result they consumed more calories than before. On the contrary, people who treated exercises and diet as fun (a beautiful walk instead of a healthy walk) did not feel this need. Do you remember when I said one of my students told me she learnt so much during our course without even realising it, only having fun? That’s exactly how it works.
What is more, games may give our students something more than fluency in the language. Games give you the epic win, something that helps you realise your potential as far greater than you originally thought.
David and Tom Kelley, design innovators and educators, in their famous book „Creative Confidence” refer, again, to Jane McGonigal:
Jane makes a convincing case that harnessing the power of video games can have a major impact on life in real world. In the realm of video games, the level of challenge and reward rises proportionately with a gamer’s skills; moving forward always requires concentrated effort, but the next goal is never completely out of reach. This contributes to what Jane calls „urgent optimism”: the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, motivated by the belief that you have a reasonable hope for success. Gamers always believe that an „epic win” is possible – that it is worth trying, and trying now, over and over again. In the euphoria of an epic win, gamers are shocked to discover the extent of their capabilities.
We may not be able to change education, lessons in general or even the material we are supposed to teach. But what we are able to do is to take our students on a journey, where they will find more than the fictional characters. They will find new creativity, confidence and friends, because playing games with others is a powerful team building tool. All in all, a good starting pack for the future.