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Monday, 20 October 2014

Learning by playing games

Reading a text book is a terrible way to learn about a subject. You’re looking at a linear block of facts and trying to reconstruct in your own mind the complex set of connections that, in the case of the original author, comprises real understanding.

Nobody learns only from textbooks, okay, but traditional teaching methods are not a big improvement. At college I went to lectures, made notes, was asked to write essays on magnetism and neutrinos and discuss them. I learnt very little from that part of the course, which as far as I could see was really English, not Physics.

Solving problems, that was how I learned. “What is the field gradient above an infinite charged plain?” Do all the calculus and then kick yourself when you realize the field is constant (the clue is in “infinite”) but, having found that out for yourself, you won’t forget it.

Leo Hartas and I took this idea to Dorling Kindersley ten years back with a proposal we called the Inspiration Engine. These would be a series of books tied in with games. Take a staple subject for popular kids’ nonfiction: the solar system. We outlined a tactics and management game in which the player was setting up colonies on other planets. In building habitats and craft you’d be finding out about the gravity, atmospheric density, composition, etc, of different planets. The accompanying book would act as a manual for the hands-on experience of the game. A goal (winning the game) drives the human mind like nothing else. This wasn’t just reading about the solar system, it was getting out there and (virtually) exploring it.

Dorling Kindersley turned it down. We got in front of the board and said we’d start by showing them some games on the Playstation. “I’m not watching you all play games,” snorted the DK chairman. “You can just call me when you’re ready to talk about books.” Naturally his board members all just shrank in their seats at that. Afterwards, one came up and said, “I think you can see that half of us are with you on this project. If you want to continue championing it, we’ll back you up.” I was very glad to get offered a job by Demis Hassabis a month later so I didn’t have to keep banging my head against the brick wall of nonfiction publishing.

You can’t keep a good concept down. This week comes news that Ian Livingstone has applied to start a school using interactivity and problem-solving as its primary teaching methods. It’s not just a gimmick. Students taught in that way will learn differently and more deeply than they would by traditional methods. As Thoreau said, "Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory."

Let me give you an example. I’ve never had much of a flair for electronics, but my practical partner at college was one of those fellows who were playing with crystal radio sets before they could talk. We’d be building a circuit and he’d say, “Looks like we need a 2 ohm resistor there.” I’d work it all out using the equations, and a couple of minutes later I’d find the theoretical value was 2.12 ohms. But my partner had got there right away. When it came to electrical circuits, I had only knowledge; he had real understanding.

Computer simulations give us the means now to allow students to develop hands-on understanding of subjects. The biggest threat will be if the old ways of assessing progress are applied to this new way of learning. It’s like asking a karateka to perform a kata when the real test is: can he break a brick or lay the other guy out flat? I’m reminded of Peter Ustinov, asked by his schoolmaster to name a great composer. “Beethoven,” said the young Ustinov. “No,” replied the master, “the correct answer is Mozart.”

And by the way it doesn't have to be a computer simulation. Boardgames are pretty effective teaching simulations too. Playing a game of the Cuban revolution in Command magazine - or maybe it was Strategy & Tactics - I had the problem of government forces facing a guerrilla war. Since I didn't know where the next bomb would go off, I had to massively increase military patrols. But since in nine cases out of ten my troops had nothing to do but inconvenience locals by asking for their papers, that only had the effect of driving the populace over to Castro's side. If I pulled the troops back to barracks, on the other hand, that gave me no chance of interdicting the rebels when they struck. A book could state that fact, but it wouldn't give you a fee for how it actually plays out in reality, just as any ancient history professor can tell you that iron weapons are superior to bronze, but it takes a simulations wargamer to say by how much.

I’m sure plenty of education’s old guard will have their knives out for Mr Livingstone’s proposals, in just the same way as that DK chairman was disgruntled at the very idea of including games in a discussion about learning. But it’s a new world coming, and the men and women who go out there to explore the solar system for real won’t have got their expertise out of a picture book. They’ll have acquired it by playing games

Image of Pandora shepherding Saturn's rings courtesy of NASA.


  1. I agree about education old guard. Eduucation seems to be notoriously resistant to change. However, the internet is making the old methods less and less relevant - I'm sure there are a dozen websites that could teach everything I teach and more in less time more effectively. Since the old methods are so pervasive, it will be a slow change, despite the availability of information.

  2. Information is everywhere, that's true, Stuart. But students need to be guided to understanding, not just told - a subject you know much more about than I do. Ian Livingstone's planned school has the potential to add something that the simple sea of facts is lacking and, though we've rarely seen eye to eye, I wish him well with it.

  3. I agree with this, when “games” are taken in the general sense that includes problems and simulations, though I also think that the necessity of creative, hands-on learning becomes obvious to anyone who studies a subject deeply enough; and that is perhaps the difficulty, that the way in which learning occurs at the research level is very different to how it occurs at school (I’m basing that on my own memories). No doubt there are many schoolchildren who think that mathematics is all about doing sums and that history is all about memorising dates, when in fact mathematicians and historians are concerned with neither. There may well be a suspicion (more likely amongst those outside education) that learning should not involve “having fun”; however, if a subject is interesting, by whatever method it is taught or studied, then learning is inevitably “fun”, and vice versa, because I think that in that context “interesting” and “fun” mean effectively the same thing.

    Back when I was at University I found an article in an old academic journal, which I wish I’d copied because I don’t even remember the reference now, but I’m fairly sure it was from about 100 years ago, and it included a defence of teaching schoolchildren to speak (and not merely read) Latin, on the grounds that learning to compose sentences instinctively gives a much deeper grasp of the language than can be acquired from memorising rules of grammar and tables of conjugations alone.

    1. I definitely meant games in the broader sense. The two key elements to me are (1) having a goal to aim at, and (2) being able to get hands-on with the problem domain. At school the only goal we had was competition with the others in the class - which actually works pretty well with teenage boys, but has the drawback that if you're already at the back of the pack (me in music or cross-country running, for example) you tend to lose all interest in that subject and only focus on the ones where you can win.

      Nowadays, my goal for learning is usually that I need to apply the material to a book or game that I'm designing, or an RPG session I'm going to run. That's why I know far more about 9th century Baghdad, Renaissance art, Anglo-Saxon literature, combined arms theory, etc, etc, than any onetime physicist needs to.

      I do think you're right that some people (whom I picture, perhaps unfairly, as Daily Mail readers) think that education should not be fun. But they forget that human beings love having a problem to solve, and if you are improving your understanding of something and solving that problem (= winning the game) then it's impossible not to have fun along the way.