A few years ago I challenged the audience at TEDx Gramercy to bring games into their lives as a way to transform the way they learn, and to avoid being a “GameoPhobe.” Looking back on that discussion, I thought it would be a good idea to consider the changes in public perception of games and the transformation of eLearning, both recreational and business simulation training, over roughly the last five years.
We are in the midst of a revolution in how people play, perceive, and consume games, which I am confident will have long lasting effects on how we as a society view the place of games in our lives.
Five years ago, most of us had never heard of e-sports, but it was already an incredibly popular form of entertainment. eLearning was relatively nascent at the time as well. In 2013 more people watched the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship than watched Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the BCS College Football Championship, and the World Series, and its popularity has only grown since!
Watching professional videogamers play live in massive tournaments is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2014, Amazon purchased a company called Twitch for over $1B. Twitch is a website and App that allows people to watch others play video games. Some watch for pure entertainment, but others use it to learn how to play games better.
Other remarkable signs that gaming has gone mainstream are Microsoft’s $2.5B acquisition of Minecraft in 2014, and the purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook for $2B. Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset that provides true sensory immersion that has the potential to not only transform games, but the way that we interact and share experiences virtually. (Think The Matrix, but with a happier backstory.) When I received my Oculus in 2015, and after just a short time using it, I became quickly confident that it was a game changer (pun intended).
On the learning and development training front, there is positive movement towards the use of games and simulation training in traditional educational processes as well. Scholars and learning and development leaders alike are beginning to better understand the role that games can play in the educational process. While traditional lectures, textbooks, and tests will always have a place in developing cognitive skills, research has proven that training simulation software is superior at developing noncognitive skills, such as collaboration, grit, communication, and discipline, which are essential to successful development and success in our increasingly collaborative and networked world.
As anyone who has a child knows, parents are as much a part of the educational process as the teachers and administrators of our schools. Without acceptance by parents, games will be relegated to the “wasted time category” when at home. As a parent of a 5th grade boy who spent a lot of his summer playing Minecraft, Dota2, and Team Fortress, I understand the tension that one feels when seeing their child sitting for hours on end in front of a computer on a beautiful summer day.
That being said, I do sense a shift in attitudes towards games in the media and in my day to day interactions with other parents. A recent dinner table discussion with six other parents on the virtues of Minecraft showed a true appreciation of how it can lead to the development of creativity, curiosity, collaboration, and mischief. Recently my son, Asher, was inspired to improve his Minecraft building skills, and, using the Internet, he found multiple guides on YouTube describing how to design different structures. The results were fantastic. His new Minecraft home is worthy of Architectural Digest.
This is the type of experience that gets me excited about the future of games and learning. Imagine a world where Asher would get as excited about American History as he is about Minecraft. Maybe he is playing a game where he takes on the role of George Washington as he is managing the Winter Camp in Morristown, NJ and must keep his army well fed and in good spirits in order to be prepared to take on the British in the coming spring. He wants to learn more about how you improve morale so he uses the Internet to research the drivers of morale in troops. He wants to keep his army healthy so he learns about the most effective and nutritious foods to buy.
This type of user directed, experiential learning is often ignited by an inspirational teacher. We can all remember that one teacher that made us want to learn more. Simulation training and other games have the power to not only enhance that teacher’s ability to inspire, but to create a whole new way to inspire us to want to learn more. For more on this concept, James Gee, a games researcher, discusses the power of games to create engagement and interest that leads to user-directed learning in his talk Learning With Video Games.
Inspiring others to learn through games is not only possible, but it is already being done by innovative and creative teachers and leadership development consultants around the world. However, it requires extra work, time, and expertise to build these customized experiential learning activities. The skills required to build these eLearning experiences are very different than the skills that are typically associated with developing traditional professional development training programs.
So the question must be posed again, as it was in my TEDx talk years ago: Where does this leave us — should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of games in learning?
I believe that we are on the cusp of a major transformation in how we learn. Games are now serious business, and money will help address many of the technological barriers to developing games that educate. Members of Generation X, the first generation to be raised playing video games, are now in leadership positions at both academic and corporate settings which is leading to more excitement and experimentation with business simulations and other games for learning and development training. Also, the promise of combining the decision making process of games with the analytical power of big data will allow us to finally address one of the most vexing challenges of education — measuring the effectiveness of our efforts.
So congratulations gamelovers, we are making progress. This is a great time to be a gamer who believes in the power of games to not only entertain but to transform how we live, work, and learn.