I’m a big advocate for game-based learning – using games as teaching tools for concepts or other subject matter. Used properly, games are experiential learning platforms that allow people to interact with and safely practice a subject, anything from math to warfare.

I’ve created several for use by clients like the US Army and Naval Postgraduate School, tackling subjects as diverse as counterinsurgency policy making and logistics management. With thoughtful selection and guidance, even many off-the-shelf games can be educational (and fun!) for work, school, or home use as well. 

Last week I went to my children’s back-to-school night, which gave me the opportunity to see how the wrong use of a game can negatively impact learning. 

Side note: gamification is different than game-based learning. Gamification is adding game elements (like scoring) to a non-game situation. Starbucks Rewards is an example. You earn stars for purchases and other behavior Starbucks wants to encourage. But it’s not a game, and the only thing I learn is that I really don’t need three espresso shots in my mocha. 

Back to back-to-school.

One teacher opted to use Kahoot to explain his class syllabus. Kahoot is an online quiz tool. The teacher creates the quiz, then students can log in via their school iPads and a PIN number and all be part of the same game.

It’s like a game show, with a countdown clock and students earning points not only for the correct answer, but for how quickly they get the correct answer. In this case, the top three scorers would earn extra credit for their kids. Fun stuff.

Except when it’s not.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Turning a course syllabus into a game show didn’t help me understand the class at all. Could I usually guess the correct answers for the multiple choice questions? Yes. Can I remember those answers now? No.

I couldn’t even remember the questions. Because right after I’d see the answer to a question, here comes another with the clock ticking down from ten…nine…eight…seven….

Oh sure, the parents had a good time playing the quiz, but I’d bet 90% of us couldn’t remember more than one or two of the ten questions asked. A score of two out of ten isn’t good by any metric.

If you’re quizzing people on material they already know, Kahoot is probably fine. It’s fun, but it’s a little frenetic — you’re racing against a fast countdown and your classmates.

It’s not only a test of knowledge, but a test of recall speed and manual dexterity as well. Accidentally hit “B” instead of “C” in your rush? Too bad! That makes it unreliable for actually assessing and grading. 

So was Kahoot a memorable experience? Yes. Was it a good choice for informing parents about the class? No. 

Throwing content into a game doesn’t magically make it educational.

(For the record, I confirmed with my son that the teacher doesn’t use Kahoot for teaching or actual grading.)

So what goes into good game-based learning? Usually a good deal more than just putting a game on the table (or screen), and more than I’ll tackle right now. Suffice to say, pre-game instruction, instructional scaffolding, guided experiential learning, and post-game discussions are all important components. I can dive into those in-depth in future posts.

Games can be great for teaching and practicing, but as with many things in life, it’s a matter of finding — or creating — the right tools for the right job. And sometimes seeing a tool used poorly can remind you of how good it is when used correctly.

You can read a bit more on how I approach creating games and other products here

If you’re interested in having a game created for your organization, let me know and we can explore the potential benefits to your team.

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