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Jesse Schell Presents on Teaching Through Games

Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, visited DigiPen’s Redmond campus last month as the keynote speaker for the annual Serious Play Conference.

In a presentation titled “What Games Are Good At,” Schell offered his perspective on the benefits of games as an educational tool.

Typically, Schell said, large-scale changes to the K-12 educational system occur very slowly, unless prompted by the need to save money. Schell said he envisions a scenario in the not-too-distant future in which increasingly affordable tablet technology begins to replace traditional paper textbooks. In that case, the market will likely be inundated with new educational software applications.

Schell then ran down a list he referred to as his “7-11 talk,” expounding on seven things that games are bad at, followed by 11 things they do well.

Among the former, Schell said games are bad at being cheap to produce and that they rarely have a long shelf life. Furthermore, games are poor at sustaining a player’s interest indefinitely, although a popular game like Minecraft — a title that has been used as an educational tool in several schools — may come closer than most.

“It’s a rare, rare phenomenon,” Schell noted.


He said games are also bad at tricking students into learning. While many teachers may feel compelled to use games as a clever means to disguise their educational ends, kids will tend to reject the idea of being manipulated when they catch onto the gimmick.

On the flipside, Schell said games can be very effective teaching tools. Games, he said, are good at giving the brain what it inherently wants, such as visible progress and fantasy motivations for overcoming challenges. Games are also good at making abstract concepts concrete and easier to grasp.

“People don’t want to hear theories,” Schell said. “They want examples.”

Schell said games can introduce people to new points of view, often by letting players step into an unfamiliar role or position.

“If you’re learning about atoms, let them be an atom,” Schell suggested.

"People don't want to hear theories. They want examples."

He also cited the game Peacemaker, developed as a research project at the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center, where Schell has taught as a professor since 2002. Created as a strategy simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the game was designed to let both Israeli and Palestinian teenagers experience things from the other side of the religious and political divide.

“What this game does is let you play the other side,” Schell said.

Early tests of the game prompted students to ask important questions. By considering the many social and geographical complications facing both sides of the conflict, students were forced to confront their previous biases and misconceptions.

Serious Play Conference

Games, he said, are good at creating teachable moments. Schell described how future classrooms could be set up around the model of a simulation game, whereby the teacher would be able to control and influence the parameters of the simulation based on the group’s performance, as well as step in and intervene when students failed — using that moment as a way to impart a valuable lesson.

In his last point, Schell said that games are good at giving students ownership over what they learn and that the overall message of games as education boils down to the sentiment, “I can learn anything by myself.”

In a future where self-education becomes more and more possible, Schell said, the people who learn to self-educate will be the ones who excel.