Just playing

I have never been a gamer – much to my son’s disgust – he is always keen to explain in detail the things he has done on Minecraft or the latest Steam based game that he is playing and my eyes glaze over and I really don’t know how to engage in conversation about it (something that rarely escapes me!).  I have had short obsessive relationships with a few key games: Tetris, Words with Friends, Candy Crush Saga (and it’s many derivatives) have, at various stages in my life, taken over those mindless moments where I want to switch off my consciousness.

I know I am in a minority nowadays, young people play anything from Flappy Bird to Garry’s Mod to Sims to Call of Duty for an average of two and a half hours a day. But what I have learned from my own experience is that when I started matching shapes or candy (that is sweets in English) I was slow and had to consciously make choices and decisions (often too slowly) but by the time I got to level 153 on CC (before I gave it up as a new year’s resolution 4 months ago) I was seeing rows of 5s in my sleep.  A bit like shooting penalties, learning times tables and french conjugations, the more you do it the easier and more instinctive it becomes.  Add this to the motivational factor of a) reaching the next level, b) comparing yourself to friends or c) get two colour bombs next to each other or destroy the final chocolate and you have a successful game.  According to Dana Smith Candy Crush works because:

These accomplishments are experienced as mini rewards in our brains, releasing the neurochemical dopamine and tapping into the same neuro-circuitry involved in addiction, reinforcing our actions. Despite its reputation as a pleasure chemical, dopamine also plays a crucial role in learning, cementing our behaviours and training us to continue performing them.

So an activity that helps to produce dopamine has got to be a good strategy to employ, particularly when the content of the task to be performed has no intrinsic motivation.

Actually I am proud to think that 10 years ago I was rewriting the KS3 curriculum and wrote a unit teaching narrative structure through gaming.  This was of course before the app and tablet culture of today and before the intense interest in education technology.  More recently I have been convinced by the application of gaming in education in Maths as both my son and daughter find it a great way to practice monotonous repetitive learning such as tables and both say that Cool Maths Games is actually quite cool!  I am still not sure about the subtle differences that my son tells me between linear, roaming, open-world and sandbox, but do know that these allow a range of structured and creative opportunities for play, where learning can happen like in a real sandbox.  If learning through play is good at the age of 5 it stands to reason that it would would work at age 14.

There are areas that I can see that this might be applicable to in the English curriculum – Grammar and spelling to name a couple.  In an area which I hate teaching and one which has become increasingly important in the new KS3 curriculum, I may have found the answer:

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Grammaticus is a linear adventure game which tracks select curriculum, set homework, track progress and link with lesson plans and other resources.  It sounds marvellous!  There is one problem $30 (aus) per student!  I am not sure my state school can afford that. But in my research I found other resouces that look like they might work for me, free apps such as WELDER, Scribblenauts, spellpop are worth my investigation.  Another possibility is Steam for Schools advocated by Joystiq  which enables the creation of my own games through Portal 2 which is supposedly free, but in my initial research I am not sure how to get this (any of my tech Gurus who might know the answer I would be grateful.).

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

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