Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Designing Games Is The Future Of Education

You're sitting at your desk in school. There's a teacher droning on at the front, writing things down on a whiteboard. You're half paying attention as you copy down, word for word, all the things being written. At the same time, you're doodling in the margins. Perhaps you're even thinking about what's for lunch. Or that text message you received before class. Or how much you want to be playing video games or reading the internet. Perhaps you're even doing homework due for the next class. Or maybe you're obliviously daydreaming. Or literally asleep.

That was me in school, and I wouldn't be surprised if you've experienced the same, especially if you grew up with the Internet in your pocket (I did not).

It's getting increasingly difficult to get kids to pay attention in class, and the problem isn't teachers. The problem is the education system itself. It's a dying technology.

You can only go so far to punish a kid before you have to give up and realize that a teacher talking and writing on a whiteboard is simply not interesting enough anymore, not in the Internet Age. Not when there's YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, and a huge variety of games on different platforms. Kids are devouring information at a rate much faster than our predecessors—because of the Internet.

How is school, or even college, going to compete with this massive sensory and information overload?

The answer is both simple and complex: education needs to become a form of game design.

Currently, most games are for-profit endeavors designed to be fun and interesting—but not very educational. This will soon change, as long as we as a society realize just how crucial this problem is and begin to adopt radical changes to our schools and curricula.

Now, take yourself out of the ordinary school classroom.

Imagine instead that as soon as you enter a school, you can walk towards any classroom you want. Each one is completely unique, designed specifically for a certain type of person. Most of the classrooms have computers in them. One of them might have high ceilings, large windows, and beanbag chairs. While another one might be dimly lit with lots of quiet, isolated cubicles. Still another may be on the roof or in an indoor garden. Or if you really want, you can take a laptop into the cafeteria itself, for easy snack acquisition.

You choose your own learning environment. And when you sit down, you awaken a computer screen.

On it is a list of games available for you to play. Each game indicates what level you have reached in it. The games all teach you something different and valuable. The subjects can range greatly: from how to do a simple math calculation to how to design an electrical circuit. You have complete control over which games to play and how much time to spend on each. You can try as many or as few as you like.

For the dabblers, there is an infinite array of choices. For the delvers, each game can contain a large number of levels inside.

Need help on a game? Each game will contain forums of knowledge—a combination of message boards and articles to help guide you but not give away answers too readily. Alternatively, you can consult your fellow students via chat or video.

Each game will let you know exactly who in the school is the "current best" at the game—there will be rankings for each. Of course, if you're not at all interested in rankings, you don't have to look at them. In fact, you can tell each game whether to post your ranking or not—in case you don't want that information to be publicized. However, a certain level of competition will spur students into getting increasingly better at the games they're most interested in / adept at playing.

There will be games that require cooperation within a multiplayer environment. You'll be tasked with a problem that can only be solved by forming teams. Other games will foster creativity, allowing you to compose a piece of music, art, or literature. There will be games that take on the form of interactive encyclopedias or "games of discovery"—perhaps starting with nothing more than a search box or a single button. Still other games will train a skill, such as cooking or piloting a plane. 

It's that kind of variety and incentive that will make students actively want to participate, learn, and attend this type of school.

So why aren't we here yet?

The problem is that the educational games available haven't gotten to the point where they can completely replace our current system of lectures. Many such games exist, and more of them are being developed by the day. But to reach a saturation point, more people need to become better game designers.

It's obvious now that yesterday's educational system is inadequate for teaching future generations.

First of all, it's traditional to group kids by age, but this is an archaic leftover from the Industrial Era, as children were shuttled through an assembly line. The assembly line was an incredibly important innovation at that time, but today, it's nothing remarkable. And when applied to children, it seems downright stupid. Why should an eight-year-old be necessarily at a higher level of education than a seven-year-old? Each student should learn at their own pace.

Second of all, textbooks evolve at an incredibly slow rate. They're also expensive and often boring to read. They're completely non-interactive, aside from sometimes having problems for you to try to solve, with the answers located in the back.

If you're trying to learn to solve math problems, for instance, you ideally want the moment between trying and succeeding or failing to be instantaneous. That immediate feedback is an important mechanism in developing strong, ingrained technique. If you're trying to learn through a textbook, you're going to end up wasting time flipping to the back for the answer. Those moments are too valuable in the learning process to be wasted. Our brains process information much better with faster feedback.

Third of all, teachers should not be lecturers. A lecturer is often just a glorified textbook. Sure, some teachers are really good at presenting information in an entertaining and engaging way. However this is not remotely the case for all teachers. By converting the learning experience into a game, you can reach a level of interaction not previously possible with just a teacher.

Teachers are not out of the picture however. If a child wants to learn in an environment with one, they should be able to. But the teacher will not be tasked with lecturing students. The role of a teacher (or mentor, as I'd rather think of them) should be to answer any questions a student may have about the games and even about their own progress and personality.

A truly great mentor should be able to recognize a student's weaknesses and strengths just by conversing with them and watching them learn. This is the kind of a thing a game will not be able to teach you. Having a real, deep human connection with someone is essential to the learning process. A mentor will be there for you and share emotional moments with you that can lead to all sorts of self-discoveries. They'll be joyous when you succeed at something for the first time and encouraging when you are feeling down on yourself. Talking to a mentor should be therapeutic, stress-relieving, and enlightening.

There may also be a set of mentors who work primarily from home. Experts in their fields, they will be open to chat with any student who wants to learn more by opening a window with them. This allows all the students to have access to mentors who are in the top of their field.

What are some ways we can get to this point?

Many things are happening to lead us here. However I have one crucial suggestion: Teach all children (and possibly all adults) a useful programming language.

The English language is great for communicating with one another and recording knowledge, but a programming language allows you to communicate in ways hitherto impossible with just English. By programming, you can create your own games as much as you like and share them with other people. You can, in fact, communicate with games. Creating games is becoming a new form of communication.

As more people gain the basic tool for creating games (a programming language), the more games will be available in the public sphere, and the better we will be able to isolate the most effective games for each subject. As each child grows up and learns, they will be able to pass on their knowledge in the form of games for future generations—in other words, they will create and gain their own students, forming their own unique legacy.

That is the next step of human society.

The human brain is incredible at recognizing patterns. However, to grasp the patterns, you must repeat the same set of experiences over and over again. In the past, this process has been slow and tedious. But with games, they can be properly tuned and sped up, to the point that the learning process will take drastically less time.

Part of what competitive gamers do is train themselves to recognize certain patterns with greater accuracy and greater speed. Right now, competitive games don't teach you much useful information. But once more games become educational, kids will become much faster and better at learning things than we ever were.
That's the future of learning, and it is fast approaching.