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Video Games are Master Teachers

Jared Brockmeyer • CommentaryNovember 2022 • November 13, 2022

SBO+: Jared mentioned to me he was going to make this presentation at the Midwest Clinic in December. I was so fascinated with his topic I asked him to share it with SBO+ readers.

As I was finessing slides for the upcoming Midwest Clinic presentation I watched my 10-year-old daughter try Portal on my Nintendo Switch. It was fascinating to hear her verbalize exactly what she was learning: “This button lets me jump over the gap!”  “Why is there only one way to go? Wait, there’s an elevator here!” “Ohhhhhhhhhh!  I just do this kind of like I did in the last room!”  Every “aha” moment, painstakingly built and refined by brilliant game developers, discovered, out loud, in real-time. 

It was EXACTLY like being in the head of a young musician when the lightbulb clicks on.

Like any media in its infancy, video games have been blamed for every conceivable social ill: lazy youth, unemployment, violence, any manner of illicit behaviors, etc. Like books, plays, jazz, television, movies, chess, pool – yes, literally all of those – and more before them, video games are our go-to cultural scapegoat, painted as pathologically addictive parasites. But despite our endless complaining, it’s not immediately obvious WHAT about them is so addictive. It obviously isn’t that ALL video games are addictive. After all, the market is flooded with thousands of games, most of which are barely played (if at all) and only a few of which are monumentally popular. In other words, “video games are addictive” isn’t especially compelling because it isn’t always true. The more interesting question might be: “WHY are some video games so addictive?”

I’m suggesting the answer is “because good video games meet fundamental needs people have” – people like your students. What’s more, I’m convinced they’re borrowing things educators have been doing since the dawn of education. Video games are ingeniously deliberate about how they use them, but we can use these same tools with our students, too. Video games may be master teachers, but they’re stealing from our playbook.

Games do many things astonishingly well. Here are three of them.

Games scaffold immaculately, allowing players to engage with perfectly sequenced challenges at the player’s pace. Have you ever played the original Super Mario Brothers? Portal? Half-Life 2? These games all have one thing in common: every second, every encounter, and every visual pattern on the screen has been chosen specifically to teach or assess a skill. Can’t jump over a Goomba? Try again. Can’t figure out to step on the red button? Stay in this room until you try it. No long-winded explanation with a thousand metaphors. No “that’s enough time on this chorale, we’ll fix it tomorrow.” Just a perfectly sloping curve that teaches a new skill, assesses it several times, and then finally allows the player to learn something new, always at the player’s pace. What might that look like in a music ensemble?

Games focus all interactions, awards, and praise on the player. “Play this segment for me.”  I want it like this.” The language we use as teachers – and the stories we tell – are nearly always focused on our goals and ideas. Video games are backwards; they focus solely on meeting the needs of the player. Endless praise. New “stuff” to play with. Stories built to celebrate player agency. Everything is laser focused on what the player wants to do, and then rewarding them handsomely when they do it. Can we possibly be surprised our students like this? How can we be more like that?

Games have polished motivation and behavioral psychology to a sheen. Your students are endlessly addicted to improvement, meeting goals, and demonstrating mastery. If you don’t believe me, Google “Rocket League Tips,” “Elden Ring Boss Strategies,” or pretty much any competitive game with the words “rank tips” behind it. There are hundreds of hours and pages of content telling students what and how to practice, and it is consumed endlessly. … and that’s in addition to all of the cosmetic items students spend days of their lives chasing. Your students are willing to do almost anything for anonymous prestige and digital trinkets. What might they do for something more tangible and intrinsically rewarding?

You can catch Jared’s presentation at 10:15 on December 20th at the Midwest Clinic. When not studying video games, Brockmeyer is the assistant band director at Rockwood South Middle School in the St. Louis area.

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