Recently Mike Tresca interviewed me for his series on games and education at Examiner.com He was enthusiastic about having the interview shared here as well!
MT: Under what circumstances have you implemented gaming in education?
Meg : I think of games as being part and parcel of learning. Combining games and education is natural to me. Three areas of my life particularly apply. As a UUA certified educator in the Our Whole Lives sex ed curriculum for middle school kids to adults, I’ve used games extensively to present information in an approachable format, to get people to imagine situations unfamiliar to themselves, and to build decision-making skills. Three of my favorite examples from the OWL course are the Build-a-body game in which students have a paper bag full of recycling and craft items and a list of medical terms and have to make an anatomical model of the entire reproductive system; the M&M game in which students trade various colors of candies without looking, to demonstrate how disease vectors work; and the Values Auction game in which students have a certain budget in points and bid on certain values, as a way to clarify and strengthen decision-making skills. All of these of course are followed by debriefing and discussion.
As a parent, I used gaming constantly when I was homeschooling our youngest son, and we use role-playing regularly as a way to explore the world and ideas, and to test out different interpersonal skills. Making tasks into games, from pretending the bowls are pirate ships and telling stories while washing dishes to our regular 10-Thing Tidy cleaning game, is a great way to introduce gaming concepts to younger kids and to interweave casual play throughout the day with older kids. Games also lighten work and make things that could be tedious more fun.
As the lead game designer on the Yegna project for The Girl Effect, the whole purpose of our work was to scaffold skills for the Ethiopian teenage girls we were working with, to develop things like cooperation, financial literacy, trust and community, and thinking about various possible futures for a familiar story. Games are to some extent a universal thing. We asked the girls to teach us games they knew, shared our games, and asked for their feedback on how to improve our games to make them fun and useful for girls all over Ethiopia.
What was the target audience? The class size? Your role?
In the first instance, groups of about a dozen students who had signed up to take part in a sex ed class, which I taught by myself or preferably with a co-teacher. In the second, myself and one child ranging up to all five members of the family, and I would be the GM or the player as needed. In Ethiopia, the target audience is the entire country, starting with teenage girls and spreading organically throughout the population. That’s a pretty huge target audience! We worked with a dozen girls a day, learning games from them and sharing games we designed. My role was as group facilitator, lead game designer and game instructor, with Jessica Hammer as the lead researcher and co-game instructor and John Stavropoulos as the project coordinator and logistical support. We had further game design support from Guilia Barbano and Julia Ellingboe.
Should gaming be a part of how we work? How?
Yes, sure. Perhaps not for every job or every workplace, but by allowing the idea of games to enter work, especially for learning new skills or grasping new concepts, you open the box and allow people, encourage people, to think in new ways, different ways, creative ways. You foster problem-solving and and lateral thinking. I’m not talking about gamification, the strange fascination with making everything have points you earn or spend on mostly stuff you either don’t need or would just go get anyway without the game, I’m talking about figuring out what you want to teach or learn or practice, and then designing a game that supports those goals.
People can make little games to support their own work as well. I use one myself at the museum where I work – I call it the rule of three, and it means I aim to have one project ending, one in the middle, and one that comes next. If there’s something really exciting coming up that I want to get to, I use the game to keep myself on track and not have too many things going on at once instead of jumping from thing to thing. If the current work is a little dull, I make sure I’ve got something neat to do next. If I win the game, everything stays on track. If I lose the game, sometime there’s an extra hour of work to sort out half-finished or jumbled projects.
If I were designing a game for the workers at the museum, I’d probably do some sort of interdepartmental scavenger hunt, with a big relationship board at a central point, so that over the course of the game they would come to see how all the parts intersect. I’d have a design goal of better communication and understanding. I’d also love to make everyone play a role-playing game as their favorite person from the museum’s portrait collection, or tell a story from the point of view of their favorite artifact – that would be great.
How does a gaming framework help promote teamwork?
Depending on the game, it can make people feel very competitive or very cooperative, included or excluded. We observed some amazing things with this in Ethiopia – the regional differences in what mattered to the girls was very informative to our design process. Some sets of girls cared about winning, others cared about not losing. Huge difference. Overall, the way that games structure social interactions tend to promote teamwork – sometimes there is an actual team, other times it’s all about taking turns, sharing the spotlight and listening while other people are talking, paying attention to what other people are doing and how that might affect your next decision, and learning to win or lose with good humor and kindness. This then carries over into non-game interactions, because the skills supported in the game – listen, take turns, watch and respond, disagree with grace – are there for the people to use.
What aspects of role-playing games promote organizational skills?
Plenty of the turn-taking skills above, but also some games have all kinds of things to keep track of! Tokens, points, skill improvements, record-keeping – all that becomes a part of many games. If you take a broader view, there’s also a ton of coordinating involved in planning for a game – who organizes the space, who makes sure there are enough pieces, who keeps track of wins and loses or maps or character sheets? Watching my sons design games, the process of learning how to organize the flow of play, the rules and the order of who does what, is really interesting and directly informative of their ability to handle long-term projects, break down a large task into achievable parts, and stick with a problem until you have figured it out. Watching the girls in Ethiopia go through this same process in the course of the day – asking questions, trying variations, figuring out the most fun or most effective ways to play – just confirms my understanding of games as being great tools for teaching all sorts of skills, not just organizational skills.
What gaming skills make gamers more adept at working together?
Cooperation on a shared creative endeavor, building on each other’s contributions, delegating action so everyone can achieve their goals, planning ahead for the next turn or next action – these are all super for working with other people.
Conflict is central to many games. How does fighting monsters and achieving goals help with the real life skill of conflict resolution?
Any time a young child creates an imaginary monster, they are practicing resiliency for actual challenges, emotional and psychological as well as personified physical challenges. There are whole areas of research on this, books and books on the importance of play, the power of imagination, and how we practice conflict negotiation in play. This doesn’t stop when we leave childhood. If my teenagers or my adult friends or even if I play a game in which I can really and truly defeat my monstrous opponent, I’m likely to be level-headed and think more flexibly in real life situations.
Also, game play can be exactly about practicing conflict negotiation. I’ve run countless teaching scenarios in which two people practice a skill – saying “No” to an invitation or to pressure – and across the board the people who have taken part report feeling strengthened in real life situations where they wanted to refuse something. I’ve prepared situations for my children to help them sort out how their communication and emotional needs intersect in times of stress, and how they can more compassionately resolve the issue. For example, they have different reactions to minor bumps and bruises, and role-playing out Child A stubbing his toe and how Child B can best respond and vice versa was very helpful for them. Gaming allows us to try on different scenarios and reactions and think about how we might react in similar real life situations.
What role, if any, do levels play in gaming? How does reaching a level help gamers in other situations?
This is one of the things we worked on in Ethiopia – the idea of goals and planning ahead. Not all games need levels – tag is pretty good just like it is! A useful way to think of levels is to think of challenges. If the base game is tag, the next level is tag with a constraint, like “stay on the lines”. Once that has been mastered, then you can add more constraints – “stay on the lines and keep your hands in your pockets if you are not it”. This allows a simple game to continue to be engaging for more experienced players.
The flip side of this is leveling up, recognizing the experience and ability of the players. Tracking completion of the steps in a larger puzzle, or noting experience as a character goes on increasingly complex adventures, gives players a sense of where they are in the scope of the game.. Solving something big in a game can help players in practical ways by rewarding determination and in emotional ways by giving them a sense of achievement and progress. This can boost confidence in surprising ways. I have a theory that self-confidence can sit in anything – if you are speaking before a group and you feel nervous, you can find confidence in knowing you make a great chicken soup, or you beat Borderlands, or your Apocalypse World character is about to level up and be able to retire to well-earned safety, or you host a really great game night.
How does gaming help educate children? Adults?
I think that’s threaded throughout my answers above – I think gaming and roleplaying can be used in lots of different educational spaces. One thing I haven’t mentioned is the shift on the players when the teacher and the students play together. It levels the playing field in certain ways. Even if I am teaching you a game, I rely on you to be there and be fully engaged in order for the game to go well. We have some greater degree of equality than we did before we sat down. If it’s a game where there are real skills, like chess, that one player may know better, the challenge for that player then becomes “how do I be the best teacher to this person, so that they can learn well and play well and love the game as I do?” So there are multiple levels of learning going on.
Practicing how to handle stressful situations is good, whether it’s through role-playing situations you would not otherwise encounter or fighting monsters or unlocking all the items in a videogame. Having a plan in place, a way to keep from freezing up in the face of a problem, is a very useful skill. If you have spent hours solving imaginary problems, some of that carries over into a basis for solving real-world conflicts or problems in your regular life. Case in point: my middle son loves puzzle-solving games like Portal. He recently had to write a paper about his kills and he was stumped. I told him to think about what he was good at in video games: he comes at a problem hard, steps back when needed, and keeps coming back until he’s solved it. He’s determined and he likes solving puzzles and finding solutions
Have you worked with any other business simulations where role-playing comes into play? Have you found it to be effective?
There are elements at the museum of games, like a treasure hunt or a timeline to fill in, but the biggest place that role-playing comes into museums like mine is through living history interpreters, who take on the role of the earlier residents of the village and show what life was like, how everyday items were used, or answer questions about life in an earlier time. I would say it is very effective, and living history interpreters are always a hit!
What about board games? What has been your experience?
I grew up playing a handful of board games a lot, and a wider variety less frequently. I remember lots and lots of Sorry! We have masses of games at home, and we keep designing more! Board games share a lot of the same space as above, with wide educational applications. Pattern recognition, math, and reading, of course, but also more specific things like the geography and tactics that underlie Risk and Ticket To Ride and 10 Days in Africa. Or the resource management and planning of Carcassonne or Settlers of Cattan. If you really want to, you can find a board game to help teach just about any subject.
My experience designing board games for education is more focused. Two of the games I designed for Ethiopia would fit in this category. I went in with very specific design goals. In one, I was using very tight constraints, just the design elements of the other games to make a card-based storytelling game where the players invest in the value of the card towards a better result as a way of teaching long range planning and seeing beyond the needs of the moment. I loved incorporating the aspects and materials of the other games, and it was a perfect example of using existing games (although in this case those games were brand new too!) to create something specific to the task. In the other, I wanted to teach concepts underlying financial literacy and long-term planning, as well as teamwork and cooperative investment. It was a token-based resource management game that looks incredibly simple, is very quick to learn and easy to teach, and can be played almost anywhere with found objects if you understand the rules. The girls LOVED it. They would sneak the materials back out to play while we were on break. Under the simple rules are some pretty interesting math concepts and calculation opportunities. My single most favorite reaction to this game was from a girl who said “I can’t wait to go home and teach my mother this game!”. She was inspired, both to learn and to share what she had learned. I was elated.
What one aspect of gaming can modern educators work into their plans?
Ask your students to think in the mindset of someone else. History, English, science, math – any subject has people and ideas laced through it. Why not ask your students to think like Galileo and his peers, then roleplay out what it might have been like to have that sort of new and disruptive scientific thought? Have them read about Henrietta Lacks and play out how the scientists involved could have made different choices. When they study the American Civil War, make a map of the country around the Christiana Revolt and really try to understand what motivated the people involved. The single biggest benefit to education that gaming can offer is this ability to try on a different point of view. It builds understanding, self-reflection, and compassion. As an educator, that is an excellent goal.
Where can gamers find out more about your efforts online?
I’m on g+ and facebook, I write for Gaming As Women, and you can read more about my games at www.nightskygames.com. I also attend several conventions throughout the year, and I’m always happy to meet new people.
Anything else you’d like to add?
A key thing to consider in using games for education is the time it takes to teach the game. It has to be quick and captivating, it has to be both evocative and exciting, and it has to fit in the amount of time you have. Maybe you have two hours a week for the whole year, maybe you have this one day, maybe you have this one hour. What are you going to do to ensure that what you bring is fit to the time and space and topic and people at hand? Start breaking games down into parts, see if there’s a turn-taking technique or a way to experience the character or a system for exploring the world that targets your educational objective. Does it matter more that your students create original characters complete with economic profile and family connections for your classroom’s exploration into the Revolutionary War, or could you hand out cards with characters on them and have them debate different points of view? Do you want them to see part of the bigger picture of industrial factors in climate change that Keep Cool can give, or do you want a close-up game that shows how one thing can become another through recycling and lateral thinking by putting an object on the table and having students list all the possible uses? Time and focus. Keep those clear and you can find a lot of options.
(While I’ve been writing this, my six-year-old nephew and my seven-year-old son made a game of picking up the pears that fell off our tree over the past few days and throwing them into the wheelbarrow with a satisfying splat. Teamwork, planning and cooperation, dexterity and targeting, trajectory and velocity, a sense of accomplishment as they clear each side of the tree, and great imaginative play as they pretend to be “Super Squishers” hunting for the grossest rotten fruit. All I did was leave the wheelbarrow in a convenient spot this morning. Game play is opportunistic and emergent. Watch for a chance to play, make, or encourage a game and grab it when you see it!)
Lastly, play more games! Play all kinds of games! If you want to use games for education, you have to start thinking outside of the box. Look at card games, Victorian parlor games, kindergarten playground games, live-action role-playing. Find copies of the New Games Foundation books. Check out www.coolmath-games.com. Watch Vi Hart’s Doodling in Math Class videos.
Think about what you want your students to explore and find a game that matches or that you can modify. Design them if you need to. Games are great. Play more games.