In the last weeks, I was invited to host two workshops about videogame-based learning. The first one was in Pisa, inside the Italian Internet Festival, and the second in Lucca, inside Lucca Comics & Games, the biggest “nerd culture” gathering in Italy (300.000+ people in four days) and one of the biggest in Europe.

Obviously, I always love to visit Tuscany, to spend some days in cities full of history and culture, surrounded by fantastic art and friendly people… and to talk about videogames with them 🙂

videogame-based learning
Here’s me enjoying some history and culture in Pisa.

What I love even more, is to meet people with the same interest in understanding videogames, to use them as learning tools in educational contexts.

This would bring up a complicated discussion about what is an educational context nowadays, surely implying a wide use of what here we call the S-question (will the School ever…), and a lot of frustrating negative answers. So let’s consider this done, and let’s move on to the funny part of it 🙂

To start, let me say this was a real success: a sold-out workshop in Lucca and three workshops in Pisa (one added because the other two where also sold-out) mean that this is a topic which is able to attract quite some interest. Moreover, among participants I had school teachers, game-designers, parents, students of game-design academies (which do exist, even in Italy! Hope never fades!), families with kids, whole classes of 20+ mid-school students, trainers… I would say this proves once again that it is time to talk videogames seriously, as they are seriously entered in nowadays popular culture for good – and they are here to stay.

As we all (should) know that games are a powerful learning tool – and the first we all use to learn crucial skills in our lives, as speaking or walking, it should not be surprising that videogames too can be used to activate learning.

So how would videogame-based learning work?
First of all we should train ourselves in recognizing learning in videogames. The famous book by J.P. Gee What videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy is more than 10 years old already, but it still is my personal bible about this topic.

Nice question in the title.
Short answer: the importance of failing and succeding!

There is a number of possible layers of learning while playing videogames, and only a part of them regards school subjects. You can surely learn about history, geography, science etc while gaming, but there are even more areas in which you can improve while spending your time inside a videogame. Gee uses the category of situated learning, referring to the many diverse interactions that every player has with the environment and/or other players, and with his/her own avatar/character. All of this wide, deep set of experiences whould be taken into account when looking for learning in videogames.

One field of videogame-based learning studies is the interaction between the player and the avatar / character used during the game. The many interactions, communication intentions, etc ongoing between player and character should soon become a whole new topic of enquiry, and there are studies already addressing this as videogame psicology.

Moreover, we should consider the theories of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his works on the state of flow, whose first signal of achievement is the loss of the sense of time: every videogamer would tell you about this, so this is really connected to videogames.

The state of flow is achieved basically when the challenge you are facing matches the skills you have, so that you can fully commit yourself to succeding, as you can feel it at hand. This is something else you can learn from videogames, and it is a very valuable lesson: learn your limits, learn to adapt the challenges to what you can do, and to challenge yourself to do better.

Csikszentmihalyi says this is one of the secrets to pursue happiness, in his famous TED talk:

I have been invited at Pisa Internet Festival, together with my friend and colleague Carmine Rodi, since 2017. I am also giving lectures, speeches and workshops on this topic in Italy and Europe since a few years; what I have seen during these years, is that together with the number of studies, books and articles discussing videogame-based learning, the number of interested professionals (either teachers, or designers) is slowly but continuously increasing.

(Some) parents are also getting more interested about their children’s gaming and learning, and start to question their own role in the equation: which games to buy, how to understand which games are suitable for which age, how to be involved in the gaming experiences of their children, etc.

This is way I always insist, in my workshops, to have some time dedicated to experience gaming, inviting everybody and especially non-gamers to just try and see what happens.

setting up the gaming zone during Lucca workshop: retro time with Monkey Island!

Parenting and digital media are a difficult couple, but I believe (with so many studies and researchers) that parents should be there, beside their children during their gaming experiences, to help questioning, contextualizing, framing what happens in the games. And moreover, they should be there before, choosing and checking which games to be played, for how much time, etc.

As a parent, I know that it is difficult and sometimes annoying to say no and stand for it, but I guess that three quarters of possible problems connected to gaming and kids could be solved by a more active presence of their parents in their children life gaming activities. Point is, often parents know very little about games, their potentialities, and even less about something called videogame-based learning…
Well, this is why I am writing this blog, by the way, and going up and down giving lectures and speeches about this topic 🙂

There is learning in videogames for parents too, and teachers, educators, and all the so called adults-of-reference; for instance, notice the scale of the proposed challenges, and cross check with the flow theory: while we deny our kids the possibility to walk to school alone, games ask them to save the world, build up a civilisation, etc. There is so little epic left in our lives, and most of it lies in videogames – we should really learn from it and offer better, more engaging challenges to nowaday’s youngsters.

We could go on for hours, and pages, talking about philosophy in videogames (in games like The Stanley Parable, or its little mobile cousin There Is No Game, for instance…), or games which would help players to understand nature, physics, electricity etc (like Minecraft, of course…), just to explain in the end what we meant at the beginning, writing that you could of course learn about school subjects while gaming.

The best mobile game opening ever: nothing to play with here, go away! 😀

But of course, videogames have a dark side too. And it is something to learn about, as well: how the flow theory mechanisms are used to keep player in the game, and offer in-game purchases, microtransactions, up to (hidden?) gambling experiences is very important knowledge for choosing which game to buy or not, and again to be an active parent beside a gamer child.

So next time you will be sitting in front of a videogame, or your children will, you now know which questions you could ask, and what to do, instead of just thinking that it is a waste of time.

Would you?