Update: You can read the paper that I wrote based on this idea at Currents in Electronic Literacy.

I can think of two ways to teach using computer or video games that already exist. I can also think of two ways to teach using games that do not exist, or perhaps using portions or aspects of existing games. Someone has thought of this before, but I’m going to write it out here in any case. Understanding the ways that games can be used clarifies what to look for when considering whether a game is useful in a particular educational context.

  1. Teaching Game Content — The most straightforward approach. You’re teaching physics, so you use a game based on the laws of physics to teach about tension, work, energy or load distribution. You’re teaching world history, so you use a civilization-building game to teach about how geography influenced the technologies that different cultures developed to survive in prehistory.
  2. Games as Artifacts — This is the approach that I find most interesting, but it’s probably the most limited in terms of applicability to diverse subjects. English courses teach using novels, because we accept that novels have something valuable to say—both within the narrative, and as artifacts of the culture in which they were written. The same is true of movies. Mediums are also studied as mediums, to explore what message is inherent within them, and why certain storytelling forms persist (“wherefore and whence the FPS, and wither?”). Vanderbilt University’s Worlds of Wordcraft course (class audio available through iTunes U) contrasted The Lord of the Rings Online against Tolkien’s novels and Jackson’s films for clues to how each version was able to accomplish necessary narrative tasks, such as showing the passage of time; the same class began “translating” a book of Edmund Spenser’s romance poem The Fairie Queene into The Fairie Queene Online, a persistent online quest-based fantasy using the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine. A study that compared the top ten best-selling computer and video games of 1988 to those from 2008 as a lens through which to examine changes in technology and popular culture would also fall into this approach.
  3. Making Games — Also fairly straightforward: students making games themselves, either from scratch or by modding existing games. Marc Prensky is big on this [pdf], and I agree that it’s promising. Games made by students will still align with one or both of the approaches above: either they’re directly embedding content or they’re learning about the medium itself.
  4. Game-Like Motivational Structures — This is probably the approach that has been least explored. By “game-like motivational structures,” I mean the aspects of games that keep players interested in playing. Please don’t confuse this with “game-like interactions” such as Second Life or virtual manipulatives. This can include everything from a strong plot to beautiful environments to satisfying animations when you take down an enemy; and perhaps some educators and game designers have found ways to apply these to the classroom. The motivational structure that I consider to have the most potential, however—the one that I think could survive the surgical removal from games to the classroom intact—is the specific combination of mechanics that one finds in games as diverse as Mafia Wars, Torchlight, World of Warcraft and EliminatePro. These games all intersperse core gameplay with elements that resemble gambling, and dole out rewards (leveling up, visual rewards, public recognition) based on a combination of skill and luck. They are all undeniably addictive. I see strong links between these mechanics and Behaviorist techniques, as I’ve written before. What convinces me that this structure would survive the transition to the classroom is the fact that the core gameplay of these titles diverges so dramatically. In the case of Mafia Wars, it consists solely of clicking the mouse and then waiting to be told you can click the mouse again. In other words, the structure of rewards and progress is fun enough on its own that even if the actions that must be performed to advance are dull, many players will perform cheerfully perform them.