Play and learning

The use of play and games in learning has three key pedagogic benefits.

The first is their ability to engage learners, which goes far beyond the argument that games are motivating. Games are simply not motivating for all people, and even keen game players are not motivated to play all types of games. Research has also shown no evidence of a direct link between being motivated to play games and wanting to use them to learn (Whitton, 2010). However, the mechanics of games can engage learners in a variety of ways, for example, by:

  • creating different levels of challenge through rules and goals;
  • making progression visible via rewards, achievements, levels, and badges;
  • providing a sense of completion by set-collection, solving mysteries or puzzles, or simply satisfying curiosity;
  • developing a sense of community through both competitive and collaborative activities;
  • allowing for the suspension of disbelief through storytelling and fantasy;
  • supporting creativity, for example, through making things within the game or subverting the game rules

Second, games provide active and collaborative learning environments that focus on problems in context, support practice, allow learning-by-doing, and scaffold the playing experience from novice to expert. A number of theories contribute to our understanding of games in this context, in particular:

  • Theories around problem-based learning (Boud & Feletti, 1998; Savery & Duffy, 1995) that advocate that we learn better when faced with meaningful real-life problems where we can apply knowledge.
  • Situated learning theories (J. S. Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Shaffer, 2012), which promote the value of learning in an active way through meaningful experience in an authentic context.
  • Social learning and learning with others, through apprenticeship, mentoring or collaboration (Collins, 2006; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978) are all models that are apparent in games.

Finally, the playful nature of games is important to learners of all ages. They provide safe spaces to try new things, explore, and, most importantly, to fail and learn from their mistakes. The ability of games to foster playful learning spaces is one area that is often overlooked in the research literature. The Magic Circle (Huizinga, 1955; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004) is a useful theoretical construct for understanding the value of play for learning. The ‘magic circle’ is a virtual, mutually-constructed boundary between the real-world and the game-world. It can be created formally, for example by two players agreeing to play a game of chess, or informally, for example by children playing a game of make-believe. The rules in the magic circle are different from in real-life and are understood by those people in the magic circle of a game.

The value of play in games is in their ability to take us to new places and new experiences, not just playing the game, but also playing with the game, subverting the game form and playing with the boundaries of the magic circle. Play allows social bonding through shared experience, experimentation and discovery, practice of skills and fantasy fulfilment (S. Brown & Vaughan, 2010).

The magic circle is a safe space, which provides freedom to make mistakes and fail, to make-believe, to experience new worlds through storytelling and fantasy, to make choices, explore and discover. It allows for creativity and lateral thinking and provides meaningful spaces to solve puzzles and mysteries.

These three ideas of action, engagement and play are embedded in the use of games for learning Sci-napse project. Sci-napse encourages active learning as students work in groups to answer multiple-choice questions. This approach also supports engagement through competition between teams; the combination of skill and luck involved; and in allowing students to gain points and see visible progress. Sci-napse also offers many opportunities to incorporate playful learning into the classroom.