How video games provide effective learning



“People learn best when they are allowed to make mistakes” – Bill Gates

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce a new series of blog posts aimed at providing you with the knowledge, skills and strategies needed to build the kind of products that will help you achieve your marketing and sales goals.

The purpose of this series is to give you a new way of thinking about marketing and selling. It is based on our research into the relationship between product design, learning and human behaviour.

We’ve discovered that there are five prerequisites for effective learning: meaningful context, authenticity, motivation, freedom to make mistakes, and learner autonomy. This series will cover each of these areas in more depth as we go along.

To start with we will begin with an introduction on why entrepreneurship is such a powerful learning experience and how it can live up to its promise for marketers by helping them develop their creative ideas into successful products. I hope that this post will provide the information you need to decide if entrepreneurship is the right option for you or whether it is something you should avoid.

Authenticity and meaningful context

For some, learning a new language is like getting a new toy. They feel excitement and anticipation as they open the box and start playing with their new toy. But for others, learning a new language is like opening a door in the middle of the night. If you are one of the latter group, then this post may not be for you (or if it is, you’ll probably find it more useful as an example of something not to do).

If you are someone who likes to learn in real time (playing video games, for example) and doesn’t mind getting lost in a sea of buttons and menus and such, then this post may be more useful to you (and much more fun!).

However, if you are one who prefers to learn from books (or videos or whatever), then this post is probably not going to be helpful at all!

It is sometimes assumed that learning involves mastering only one skill or tool; that each skill can be learned independently. In reality, there are many skills required to effectively learn any area. Many learners find themselves struggling when trying to apply what they have learned. But what if we could teach these skills either separately or together? What if we could teach them in increasingly complex ways? What if we could make each skill part of your overall education?

1)  We can teach concepts through context

2)  We can teach concepts through autonomy

3)  We can teach concepts using multiple skills simultaneously

Autonomy and motivation


I think, and I want to be absolutely clear here, that this is not a recommendation that a startup should be using video games as a learning tool.

Not because video games are bad for learning. They are. There are many useful things about video games (including the fact that you can get good grades without studying), but video games have their place outside of the classroom as well (for example, you can get good grades in your car).

Instead, what I want to say is that there are certain practicalities of using them for learning (for example, the time it takes to play).

Although I have never played a video game myself — there’s been one that’s been around since 1991 (and perhaps others) — I have watched several people who do play them and they all seem to agree with me: real-life learning is much more effective when it’s done in an environment where you don’t actually have anything to do.

A lot has been written about the benefits of gamification and gamified learning environments, so I won’t rehash all those points here. What I want to focus on instead is the idea that learning doesn’t need to feel like work — or like something you need to do just before going out of your way to learn something new. You don’t need motivation when you can simply enjoy what you’re doing without thinking too much about how it relates back to anything else in your life. It is extremely important for students and other learners who do not perform well on standard assessments tests or other standardised measures on how they learn best when they are playing video games instead of doing other things right then right there in front of them (or even spending their time doing something else entirely.)

So long story short, if you want people who can pass tests or understand difficult material in an environment where they can experience it as entertainment first instead of as work then you need to talk with developers and game makers about how their software works and what kinds of content they would like people to experience through playing video games rather than through reading textbooks or trying lots of different calculators in order just so they could pass some official test.

 Freedom to make mistakes


I have always been a fan of games. I love the sense of freedom and creativity it gives. And for many people, including me, games are the perfect tool for learning a language.

But the problem is that when the context of a language lesson is provided by a game, most people simply don’t understand what they’re doing. In most games, you control a character that moves around on a screen — you cannot stop moving — and you can only speak when using commands (which are denoted with arrow keys). In other words:

When you play a game with “movement” as its main focus, you will not learn anything about meaningful context for learning language by doing so.

There are two ways to solve this problem: 1) remove movement from your instruction or 2) use non-movement instruction (like card decks or task cards). The former is much easier to implement in games than the latter. However, if you choose to do both it will be costly and time consuming – so I would advise against both solutions. Instead, think about something else — one that allows for some freedom to make mistakes — like card decks or task cards (but not necessarily like chess).



Back in July of 2010, I published an article on the topic of “learning from video games”, which was a rather depressing read. That said, I did a couple of follow-up pieces on the topic and eventually came up with a better way to look at this issue, which is summarised by:

Suppose you are training for the Olympic marathon. You have done your warm up exercises, and now it is time to run your first race. You know that you need to be running at a speed of 10 km/h, and you also know that you need to be able to maintain that speed for approximately one hour. Now let’s say that your friend has told you that he has done his warm up exercises as well and is ready to run some reasonably challenging races. The problem is that he is not going to be able to do 10 km/h, even if he wants to. So let’s assume that he wants to run at 7 km/h instead. He will not be able to keep this pace either — even if he wants it badly enough — because his endurance will not allow him to keep running for long periods of time without breaking down or getting tired very quickly in the process of running at this pace (even though it really doesn’t matter how fast or slow you go if you stop at any point).

Now imagine how much worse it would have been if the runner had never realised he needed additional training in order to improve his performances when running at 7 km/h instead of 10 km/h! The point here is not only that we cannot train our brains and bodies (in particular our brains), but also that learning requires us doing something we don’t want to do: we want some input from outside ourselves so we can learn from it (indeed sometimes even more than just from it). What about video games? They provide us with active learning opportunities in which we can explore different skills and approaches by playing against different opponents — such as online games where one can play against bots or human players who may be more skilled than oneself.

but what about other kinds of learning?

Enter “auteur theory”, which suggests there are four types of learning:

• Directing one’s attention towards something else

• Modelling interactions between things

• Interacting with other people’s skills

• Learning by trial and error

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