How do we mix social interaction and fun into learning games?

For the past 6 months I’ve been taking a Master’s class in computer games, and as part of that, I’ve been writing a range of papers on various topics. All of them circle around kids and games, because I find it interesting (I believe in working with what is close to your heart).

Recently I’ve been looking into learning games for kids, and it has struck me how boring most of them (well, all of them, truthfully!) are. Simply put, they work with extrinsic motivation (points, stars etc.), and the kids are bored with this within a very short time. I’ve also done research on non-educational games ranging from Minecraft to Kick the Boss, and the difference in motivation and fun factor from learning games to these is significant. I’ve specifically focused on the social element of playing games, and I’ve found that when kids play games together, they are gaining a lot of benefits from the social interaction they have with each other while playing. They show empathy, helpfulness and they have fun together. They play.

Based on this, I decided that the paper I’m about to write is going to be a study on how we can transfer some of the physical, social interaction that kids engage in while playing non-educational games, and see if there are elements that could be incorporated in the gameplay of leaning games to enhance the learning (and in order to do so, to make the games more fun and motivating for the kids to play).

So on my quest for knowledge, I went to do some field research in my oldest son’s class (0th grade – 6/7 year olds) today, as they were working with learning games.

What I saw was discouraging, but expected, based on the research I had read and the learning games I had looked into prior. All the kids had a laptop, sat by their 2-person desks and solved learning puzzle games in various topics. Occasionally they would interact with the person next to them, but they were mostly focused on their own screen. The game was constructed with an audio helper (as none of them can read yet), but the noise in the room made it difficult for them to focus on the games. So what was intended from the game designers point of view to be helpful, is very distracting in a setting with 20 kids in one room playing at the same time.

Some of the kids had headphones on, which helped them focus, but completely disabled their ability to socially interact with their fellow pupils.

So the way that the games are constructed is counter productive to using them in a social setting. But my claim is that it is this very social setting (kids playing games together) that could help motivate them and effectively learn more – while having fun.

Today’s observation confirmed what many researchers say about learning games: That they are based on curriculum content rather than fun and engagement, and that these types are constructed as single player games.

Now my next aim is to find a way to make these games more social. The class teacher has offered to let small groups of kids play the game together next week when I’m back to do more observations – it will be interesting to see what this will mean to their experience.

2 thoughts on “How do we mix social interaction and fun into learning games?”

  1. Availing Minecraft games in teaching is an ideal idea. I, myself, gave my little boy Mine Blocks and guide him how to play. One terrific thing is that he extremely enjoyed and created lots of cool things. So, in my opinion, we should choose the suitable Minecraft game to teach the children. By this way, we can help them improve the creativeness well. Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Hi Miguel,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts – I see that we agree on this :) I definitely think Minecraft is a great learning platform, and a great place for schools to start incorporating non-intended learning games into their curriculum. Fingers crossed we will be seeing much more of it in the future.

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