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The Other Thing on the Doorstep: Games and the Classroom

The second reverse question I love to discuss in my lecture on media psychology/media didactics for game designers is to ask, instead of what games can bring to the classroom, what the classroom brings to the table compared to games. Again, it’s about non-specialized public gymnasien in Germany, so the results are not expected to be particularly invigorating.

What about motor skills, dexterity, agility, hand-eye coordination, reaction times, and so on? What about endurance, persistence, ambition (not in terms of grades), or patience? Here, the classroom has little to offer. Possible contributions are expected to come from physical education, certainly. But—with the exception of specialized boarding schools, or sportgymnasien—physical education is almost universally despised by students for a whole raft of reasons, and it is not renowned for advancing any of the qualities enumerated above in systematic ways.

What about »Kombinationsfähigkeit« in terms of logical thinking, deduction, and reasoning? What about strategy, tactics, anticipatory thinking (which actions will trigger which events), algorithmic thinking (what will happen in what order or sequence), and similar? Again, the classroom in non-vocational or non-specialized schools has little to offer here, if anything at all.

Finally, what about creativity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, imagination, improvisation, and similar? Some, the lucky ones, have fond memories of art lessons that fostered creativity. But even then: on this palette, creativity is just one color among others. Music lessons have potential too, but—barring specialized schools again—it’s rare to hear students reminisce lovingly about music lessons that systematically fostered any of these qualities.

Now, the curious thing is that serious games and game-based learning projects have a tendency to try and compete precisely with what the classroom does bring to the table for the cognitive domain, notably in its traditional knowledge silos that we call subjects. This, not to mince words, is fairly useless. Serious games, in careful studies against control groups, almost never beat the classroom significantly in terms of learning events, learning time, depths of knowledge, or even knowledge retention—but they come with a long time to market, a stiff price tag, and tend to burn content like a wildfire. Instead, game-based learning should focus on the psychomotor domain, the affective domain, those parts of the cognitive domain that the classroom notoriously neglects, and rigorously unsiloed knowledge from every domain. And if all that can’t be integrated into the classroom because the classroom can’t change or adapt and integrate games and new technologies in general, then let’s build our own classroom, maybe as a massively multilearner online game-based learning environment. The century’s still young.