As a trainer, teacher and big kid at heart I am always an advocate of learning through play. What I love about games is that whilst obviously being fun they can be multi-layered, challenging and really bring about ‘click’ moments where people realise something quite important about themselves. I want to explore here some of the reasons why games are such a powerful tool for learning.
The word game instantly has connotations of play. If you compare this to words like activity, simulation and competition you can see how ‘game’ is a word that helps people to feel comfortable. They know it will come with rules, objectives and probably an element of fun. Already by playing a ‘game’ you can build a good relationship with your audience which will help them to be more open to other learning later on.
Games are a universal element of human social interaction. Whilst we tend to associate games with children or young people, adults can enjoy a game just as much as children. It just takes them a bit longer to admit it (in my experience). What I love about games is that they allow people from different ages and backgrounds to come together under a common purpose – playing (or trying to win) the game. If you throw adults and children together to talk about something it could be awkward and slow starting, but having a purposeful activity to do together acts as a conversation starter, a chance to get to know one another and a bonding experience as you learn about each other’s behaviours. By the way this last point may be more of a subconscious thing than something people really think about during the game. But what I mean is you will get a good feel for people and how well you will (or won't) get along once the game is finished.
Broadly speaking, I find there are two ways to use a game for learning: To tell players the point or skill that they are learning about and then to play the game to practice. Or to play the game and then reflect afterwards about what you learned. For instance if you have been learning public speaking skills, persuasion techniques and a bit of team work you may want to round off that learning with a ‘Dragons Den’ type game – having players create a short speech for an imaginary product and then pitch it to your dragons for points. This helps to consolidate and practice the skills they have been learning in a fun way.
If you want to go for a more reflective approach set up an activity where there are plenty of points for discussion afterwards. Whilst at CATS conference in Switzerland, adults and children had to get players through an electric fence to safety. Each escape hole could only be used once and teams raced against each other. After playing the game we had a great discussion about the types of strategy they did adopt and could have adopted, what their role in the team was, what it said about participation and how players communicated with each other. This type of set up allows people to think about how they work under pressure with a mind to improving later on.
Games can also be used to touch on topics that are more sensitive or allow players to experience a snapshot of something problematic. For instance a game where part way through the task players become unexpectedly blindfolded or unable to play may be a great way to raise awareness of disability and inclusion. How do you feel when you can’t do everyday tasks? How did your team treat you? Games played with unbalanced or loaded dice can be used to talk about privilege and influence in a way that is accessible to different age groups.
What makes games a good platform for this type of learning is that it can be experiential. Someone who has not consciously experienced exclusion has the chance to see what that situation is like – this develops much more understanding than just being told about it. At the same time that person won’t feel any long term negative effects because games are temporary. The point still stands after the game has long ended.
Games are not just for kids. In fact adults can get a lot more out of games than they realise because they will engage in behaviours that they may not consciously do if they were in a more formal environment. This means there is much more scope for a reflection on their natural behavioural tendencies.
Making time to play games, especially during learning, is vital in bringing groups together and giving the players a real experience of the skills, themes and issues that they are learning about. I strongly recommend that anyone involved in the learning process takes time to build games into their curriculum. And remember, games are fun. When people have fun they remember more, bond quicker and generally have a better experience. What’s not to love?!
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