Why Play Games

Stat2labs games are available here.


Games have been used in a variety of disciplines and statistics educators have begun to use interactive Web-based applications to teach statistical concepts. However, the idea of incorporating Web-based games into the classroom is new to statistics education. We propose to develop game-based labs that follow the GAISE guidelines and bridge the gap between short, focused homework problems and the open-ended nature of a research project. Traditionally, we think of games as a distraction, just something that we do for fun. However, growing evidence suggests that games do much more. Henry Jenkins, Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes that “In addition to developing skills, play can also uniquely motivate students to develop basic competencies and interest in more specialized domains of knowledge by encouraging personal and social investments [1] .” This “interest in more specialized domains” often leads to learning. For example, researchers have found that children’s vocabulary expands during imaginary play [2] . Anyone who has talked to a child about Pokémon can observe a small child’s ability to clearly comprehend an entirely new fictional world with multiple training strategies and a very complex and unusual vocabulary. Marc Prensky states that “There is no reason that a generation that can memorize over 100 Pokémon characters with all their characteristics, history and evolution can’t learn the names, populations, capitals and relationships of all the 101 nations in the world. It just depends on how it is presented.”[3] As Prensky implies, when people talk about learning from games, they no longer mean games like Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders. Rather, they are often talking about interactive computer games. These games can be more appealing to what Prensky terms “Digital Natives” – students who have grown up immersed in technology. Conflicts arise when older “Digital Immigrants” (those who were not raised on technology but are trying to adapt) try to teach the Digital Natives, as the old ways of the Digital Immigrants do not mesh well with the personalities of the Digital Natives. Computer games, because of their appeal to Digital Natives, can bridge this divide – so long as they’re appropriately designed. “Our students’ fascination with such games is unlikely to fade. Instead of swimming against the tide, educators should consider the lessons that the gaming revolution can teach us.” [4]We are not suggesting that all traditional teaching techniques should be abandoned and replaced with games. However, properly designed games can become a valuable tool to spark interest and help explain difficult concepts. Jenkins identifies several aspects of games that make them “hard fun”.[5] These include 1) lowering the threat of failure, 2) fostering a sense of engagement 3) sequencing tasks to allow early success and maintaining a threshold at which players feel challenged but not overwhelmed, 4) linking learning to goals and roles, and 5) supporting early steps into a new domain. The GAISE guidelines and Jenkin’s ideas were used to motivate the development of our educational strategies:


A) Create games that have a low threat of failure early on, but provide a challenging environment that grows with the students’ abilities: The threat of failing an exam or struggling through a tough assignment in a traditional classroom is a common and unwelcome experience. Often students get stuck, afraid to write something down unless they are sure it is correct. However, if students fail when playing electronic games, they simply restart the game and try again. By lowering the threat of failure, students can feel free to experiment. The sense of confidence gained by a relatively easy success can motivate students to want to “play again”. They are challenged to try new strategies and modify their strategy until they are successful. Brown and Kass found that “…graduate students in statistics often are reticent to the point of inaction. Somehow, in emphasizing the logic of data manipulation, teachers of statistics are instilling excessive cautiousness. Students seem to develop extreme risk aversion, apparently fearing that the inevitable flaws in their analysis will be discovered and pounced upon by statistically trained colleagues. Along with communicating great ideas and fostering valuable introspective care, our discipline has managed to create a culture that often is detrimental to the very efforts it aims to advance.”[6]


B) Create games that foster a sense of engagement: In electronic games, students are engaged in a world where they learn through multiple strategies. Our work will be unique when compared with other Web-based statistics materials in that students will have the ability to select from a variety of game options and choose the order in which to perform certain tasks. In addition, our game-based educational materials will make it easy to control multiple conditions and allow for easy and accurate data collection. Students will be engaged by seeing the results of their choices when they are allowed to create their own unique research question, choose their own analysis, and present their original results. Games also create a social context that connects learners to others who share their interests. When students learn something about their game, they are anxious to share their knowledge. They also become motivated to search for new knowledge and are willing to spend a significant amount of time conducting their own research. Creating a classroom environment where groups of students are conducting unique (but related) research projects creates an atmosphere where students are eager to share their work. Students want to compare their results and discuss how slight modifications in their data collection or model assumptions can impact the results. Students share tips, experiences, and knowledge which can be similar to peer-to-peer teaching.


C) Create games that offer realistic, adaptable, and straightforward models representing current research in a variety of disciplines: The goal of many statistical techniques is to develop models to explain the world around us. However, the complexity of the real world makes modeling difficult. George Box is often quoted as saying “All models are wrong, some are useful” to describe the difficulty of modeling real world phenomena.[7] Games allow us to simplify our world to a point where a mathematical model is appropriate. Immersion in a simplified model allows early success Students can then extend their early knowledge and success to a variety of more complex real world problems in a variety of disciplines. In addition, the on-line data collection mechanism in these games allows instructors to ensure proper data collection while students have fun collecting quality data within a classroom. The ease and speed of data collection also helps in the identification and correction of errors in methodology.


D) Create games that provide an intrinsic motivation for students to want to learn: One aspect of many popular computer games is that people who play the games have a very strong intrinsic motivation to learn. Papert (1998) states that, “Learning is essentially hard; it happens best when one is deeply engaged in hard and challenging activities.”[8] Games engage students in ways that traditional pedagogical techniques do not. Game players see a direct connection between information and the goals of the game. They quickly apply the technical skills they are learning to better solve a compelling problem and get instant and individualized feedback in knowing whether their attempts were successful. Papert (1998) uses the term “hard fun” to describe how the best electronic commercial games are educationally compelling. This value can be seen in the fact that commercial games are never advertised as easy. While students often complain about hard homework, these same students want to play electronic games that are challenging. While instructors have incorporated some of these features into their curricula in the past, there are many opportunities to expand the use of game-based labs that can revolutionize current pedagogies. “At their best, games put kids in charge of their own learning and, at the same time, make them conscious of the learning process itself by presenting challenges they need to work through or around.”[9]. Cobb states, “Before computers statisticians had no choice. These days we have no excuse. Technology allows us to do more with less: more ideas, less technique. We need to recognize that the computer revolution in statistics education is far from over.”[10]


[1] Jenkins, H. (2005), “Get Into the Game”, Educational Leadership, 62 (7), pp. 48-51.


[2] Wenner, M. (2009), “The Serious Need for Play”, Scientific American Mind, pp. 23-29. Available online at http://www.scientificamerican.com/sciammind/?contents=2009-02


[3] Prensky, Marc (2001a), “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, On the Horizon 9 (5), pp. 1-6.


[4] Jenkins, H. (2005), “Get Into the Game”, Educational Leadership, 62 (7), pp. 48-51.


[5] Jenkins, H. (2005), “Get Into the Game”, Educational Leadership, 62 (7), pp. 48-51.


[6] Brown, E., and Kass. R., (2009), “What is Statistics”, The American Statistician. May 1, 2009, 63(2): 105-110. 


[7] Box, G., and Draper, R., (1987), Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces. Wiley.


[8] Papert, S., (1998, June), “Does easy do it? Children, games, and learning”, Game Developer Magazine, p. 88.


[9] Jenkins, H. (2005), “Get Into the Game”, Educational Leadership, 62 (7), pp. 48-51.


[10] Cobb, G. (2007) “The Introductory Statistics Course: A Ptolemaic Curriculum?”, Technology Innovations in Statistics Education: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 1.