On Games and Learning

By Adam Reece

Trying to blend gaming and education is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that is rarely successful. Generally, the playful aspects end up being at odds with the learning experience. Reflecting on the “edutainment” games of our childhoods, Aroon Karuna notes that “You’d typically have to suffer through some convoluted fractions or a reading comprehension portion before you could be ‘rewarded’ with a small slice of entertainment”—more a chore than a game. Ironically, the games that Karuna learned the most from were those “that made no attempt whatsoever to be educational.” Instead, these games rewarded playing around with the limits of their systems, experimenting in order to find a solution to a problem. In other words, they taught you how to think. In the best games, “failure is about learning, about developing the resilience to solve problems that seem insurmountable,” he says.

Those are precisely the qualities that Barry J. Fishman seeks to incorporate in his learning-management system GradeCraft. A professor of information and education at the University of Michigan, Fishman developed GradeCraft as an alternative to standard teaching methods. Rather than following a static track of assignments and tests, the program allows students to “choose their own path through a course, selecting the assignments that interest and challenge them.” The fear of failure or a bad grade is reduced as, within this system, “unsuccessful assignments” are treated “not as failures but as learning experiences that pull students closer to mastery.” If an assignment proves itself a poor fit for a certain student, she has the option of switching to another.

As Fishman puts it, GameCraft is not about “points and leaderboards.” Rather, its focus is on “establishing clear goals and giving players multiple routes to success.” To facilitate this, students can access their profiles and see their achievements, what assignments are available to them, a projected final grade based on current performance, and more. Of course, all of these extra options do mean more work for teachers. But, as more and more professors at the University of Michigan begin to use the program, the work seems worthwhile.

Many students have embraced the program as well. Although the openness of GradeCraft can be initially daunting, students often find it “more engaging” after they reorient their perspectives. It may not be a perfect blend of play and education, but it certainly seems like a step in the right direction. Different students learn in different ways, and the power of choice that GameCraft allows coupled with its encouragement of experimentation means that the needs of each student are better met.

Currently, the system is available only to professors at the University of Michigan, but Fishman hopes to expand to other institutions in the future. As we learn more about facilitating effective education, I look forward to seeing the evolution of GradeCraft as well as the rise of new hybrid games. Despite past attempts, fun and learning do not have to be oppositional.

Adam Reece is a junior at Hendrix College majoring in English Literary Studies. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.