Video Games and Learning

In Chapter 1 of my book, Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, I explore how a range of established theories of learning relate to video games, including experiential learning, social learning and mastery learning. In the following extract, I look at how constructivism manifests in games.

Constructivism refers to the active process through which learners may themselves construct new knowledge, by applying existing knowledge to new problems. Describing what he terms “radical constructivism”, Glasersfeld (1995 p. 18) states that “knowledge, no matter how it be defined, is in the heads of persons […] the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience”. Bruner (1960 p. 17) states that prior learning “renders later performance more efficient” through “what is conveniently called nonspecific transfer or, more accurately, the transfer of principles and attitudes”. In this way, Bruner argues, such learning “consists of learning initially not a skill but a general idea, which can then be used as a basis for recognizing subsequent problems as special cases of the idea originally mastered”.

Savery and Duffy (1995) offer a number of instructional principles that support what they term the “philosophy” of constructivism:

1. Understanding is in our interactions with the environment

2. Cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning and determines the organization and nature of what is learned

3. Knowledge evolves through social negotiation and through the evaluation of the viability of individual understandings

Savery and Duffy consider the first of these propositions to be the core concept of constructivism (their emphasis on the ‘in’). Indeed, this this seems a neat summation of the idea, but the second and third components are also useful, and serve to illustrate constructivism’s close coupling with the sort of learning games can stimulate. What is a game without some “cognitive conflict or puzzlement”, after all? Related to this point, Savery and Duffy also note that “it is the goal of the learner that is central in considering what is learned”, which aligns with another aspect of video games: that they – to varying degrees – often permit the player to set their own goals or, at least, attempt to tackle the game’s challenges at their own pace. In their third proposition, it is interesting to note the importance that the authors place on social aspects of learning – these are discussed in relation to games below.

As noted, ‘constructivism’ is not a clearly delineated concept, and nor can it be attributed to a single scholar. Alongside Dewey (1938) and Montessori (1949), Piaget (1956) and Papert (1980) are two of the names most closely associated with constructivism in the literature. However, their ideas about constructivism are not identical. Papert suggests the modified term ‘constructionism‘ which, like the constructivism described by Piaget, characterises the concept of learning as “building knowledge structures” while also adding “the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe” (Papert and Harel 1991). Piaget and Papert are both constructivists, then, but Papert is also something else and it might be problematic to assume that ‘constructivism’ carries the same meaning for all when applying it to video games, or any other pursuit. A further issue associated with some of the seminal work produced on constructivism – especially that described by Piaget and Papert – is its focus on children; it is mostly applied to adults only by extrapolation. This book is concerned primarily with video games’ effects on adult learners, and so it should also be noted that Piaget’s theories have been successfully adapted and applied to tertiary level education (for example, see Wankat and Oreovicz 1993).

In gaming terms, one could see constructivism taking on multiple meanings. First, it might refer to the learning that occurs as a player turns their attention to the process of developing their own game, or perhaps more commonly, creating their own modification or extension of a game, or using built-in tools to construct new levels or in-game items. While the player here is undoubtedly drawing on their existing experience of playing video games – they must possess some understanding of the form and conventions associated with games before they may construct their own – this is a highly literal application of the constructivist concept, more akin to Papert‘s notion of constructionism. A stronger interpretation might acknowledge the process of learning to play a game based on previous gaming experience, and on real world experience: games are conceived and designed in the real world, even if their settings or themes are otherworldly. Thus, our understanding of the world around us may also be used to inform our play. This idea may be taken further, and reversed: in learning about the world around us, may we not, in constructivist terms, draw upon experiences gained through video games? Interactions with other players, for example, may serve as an analogue for effective communication in the real world.

If learning through constructivist means relies upon prior experience, then the recollection, or retrieval, of memories associated with such experience is an important factor. Karpicke and Blunt (2011) state that “because each act of retrieval changes the memory, the act of reconstructing knowledge must be considered essential to the process of learning”, demonstrating that “retrieval practice is a powerful way to promote meaningful learning of complex concepts”. In showing that practicing retrieval is as effective, or more so, than elaborative learning techniques (such as the drawing of concept maps while studying source material) Karpicke and Blunt’s work suggests that the act of recalling what we have learned is as important as how we store this information in the first place. It is conceivable that, at a low level, video games may also excel at providing players with reason to practice such retrieval, leveraging the same effects that Karpicke and Blunt elucidate, in order to teach players how to play. When a new game concept is introduced – for example, a new skill or ability that one’s player character obtains – this new knowledge is not typically intended to be stored away for later use, to be examined by means of an in-game test at some point in the possibly distant future. Instead, the player is usually expected to start retrieving this knowledge almost immediately, and often repeatedly, until it becomes second nature. The player may have constructed their own knowledge by observing the mechanics of the new game concept – it is not necessarily spelled out for them – but it is in the repeated act of retrieval that they truly understand how to apply it.

Barr, M. (2019). Video Games and Learning. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 13–16. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_1

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