Using games to enhance learning

Sirke Puhjo


Sirke Puhjo
M.Sc , Energy Technology

The Internet and computing technology have changed our lives forever. With them they have brought an increased awareness that traditional learning methods no longer suffice. There is strong and growing demand for new learning methods that challenge us differently. Learning games can be used effectively to motivate different kinds of learners and can even change our way of thinking and acting.

Modern pedagogical trends include learning and teaching procedures that focus on developing learners’ skills instead of broadening their knowledge. According to these new approaches the teacher’s or educator’s mission is to guide learners instead of teaching them.

Numerous novel methods have been developed to complement traditional ways of learning. These include learning cafés, world cafés and brainstorming etc., all of which are based on acquiring knowledge via teamwork. The “flipped classroom” method represents a more independent learning strategy while process drama is very creative in its approach. Learning games have also come to the fore strongly and have the potential to revolutionize learning and teaching.

Games as teaching and learning tools

Different kinds of computer games have been part of everyday free time entertainment for decades. In recent times games have also gained a stronger foothold in social interaction, for example, via social media. The amount of players has grown rapidly as people of different ages, genders and professional backgrounds have jointed the gaming fold. It is an undisputed fact that people are spending more and more time online and with computing devices. Many of them play games regularly. It therefore makes sense to also use some of that time for educational purposes.

A layout sketch of a safety game and view of its user interface created by Elomart

Games are very effective learning tools. They can concretely show players the consequences of their choices and also improve problem solving abilities in powerful ways. Learning games help learners to comprehend the big picture and can also improve creativity. A significant advantage of learning games is that they allow learners to try things which are impossible in real life. This is useful especially when one is interested in expensive or dangerous targets.

Another key advantage of learning games is their ability to evoke emotions; games enable different experiences. Escapism, for example, is one of the main motivators of gaming and can also be utilized for educational purposes. Positive and desirable emotions such as fun, enjoyment and pleasure can get a player hooked on a game, whereas the right balance between challenging and struggling keeps the player interested. Carefully designed rules, goals, characters and an intriguing plot motivate the player and create passion, whereas competitiveness provides that much required adrenaline rush. All these emotions can be harnessed to improve the experience and outcomes of learning.

Playfulness and gamification are becoming increasingly common notions in working environments. They can be utilized in ordinary situations that include similar procedures to games. This could, for example, be scoring workers’ outcomes: a worker can be given a point after finishing a design document and two points after helping a college etc. The aim is to give clear feedback, to guide action towards achieving goals and inspire workers to increase their performance.

Challenges associated with learning games

Even though there are many benefits associated with learning games, there are also some challenges involved. Different age groups have varying abilities and enthusiasm to use computing devices. A learning game should be easy enough for inexperienced players, yet sufficiently challenging for experts. Typically these requirements don’t concern only computers, but mobile devices and tablets.

User skills create both technical and content challenges. Game developers run the risk of creating games that are overly simple and thus demotivating. Learning games should be sufficiently diverse as boredom tends to set in rather easily. It is therefore necessary for learning games to include thoughtful content and the optimal amount of technical learning challenges to keep learners engaged.

Learning game example – occupational safety

Occupational safety is an established part of everyday work. When educating workers about safety one has to be mindful that the same learning methods do not, however, fit everyone. Lecture-based safety courses can be remarkably awkward for learners that have difficulty in concentrating on traditional teaching and young employees or students often have little experience of industrial working environments. For such learners safety games offer an interesting and supportive alternative.

A safety learning game allows players to experience different shared workplaces such as factories, shipyards or construction sites while seated at his/her desk. In the game they practice recognizing close-call and dangerous situations – one of the most important skills related to safety.

In safety games players discover connections between causes and effects. In real life the learner cannot just try what happens if he/she pushes a compelling red button. In the game world it is possible and the consequences could very well be educational. Employees also usually do not have someone to warn them about risks in the environment and there is no time to reconsider decisions if something dangerous happens. It is better to get hurt in a game than in the real world. The player’s skills can also be tested in gaming environments. This makes automatic evaluation of performance possible and guarantees fair treatment.

Safety games have unlimited opportunities. The games have been expanded continuously and can focus on different safety fields. By motivating players to learn safety issues they can be challenged in a new way, even to the extremes of their knowledge and abilities. By immersing learners in a game their knowledge of important safety issues is improved.

Learning games can provide the motivation to become familiar with new subjects and provide experience and entertainment at the same time. Anybody who has ever solved crosswords or played hangman can attest to this and has benefited from learning games.

Games have the ability improve our skills in exciting ways, provide totally new perspectives to thinking and even make our lives safer. The possibilities are infinite.

The original text has published in our 1/2015 Top Engineer magazine