Games and Learning

I’m addicted to Duolingo.  For those of you unfamiliar with Duolingo, do not fear.  My addiction is not self-destructive at all.  In fact, Duolingo is helping me achieve a lifetime goal: to learn Italian.  Duolingo is a free application available online and for mobile devices which helps users learn foreign languages.  Want to learn Portuguese?  Duolingo can help.  How about Spanish?  Duolingo has that covered, too.  Duolingo can also help people learn French, German and English.  And it’s absolutely free.

But this post isn’t about a free language learning application.  It’s about my inability to stop playing Duolingo.  I must admit that I’ve always struggled to learn new languages.  My brain isn’t wired to easily recall information like foreign words and phrases.  Although I took four years of Spanish in high school, I agonized through those classes and remember little of the content I was taught.

But Duolingo is different.  Structured like a game, the app takes users through different challenges that progressively get harder.  The first few levels were easy to tackle.  I was able to select a picture of a dog (un cane) and an apple (una mela).  But things got harder.  Could I translate a passage to written Italian?  Could I write a passage spoken in Italian?  Could I recite a passage spoken in Italian?  The answer:  sometimes.  As often happens in good games, I fail a lot.  In fact, I’ve played some levels several times before I finally beat them.  Each level of the game is organized around different skills and a player gets four chances to answer ten questions that progressively get more difficult.  For the old-school game players out there, Duolingo is structured like Super Mario except that players complete language challenges instead of jumping onto mushrooms, collecting coins and trying to save Princess Toadstool.  Like players earned new powers as they reached different levels of Super Mario, a Duolingo player learns new words and phrases to solve challenges.   And just like my early days playing Super Mario on my Nintendo, I’m absolutely addicted to Duolingo.

But my obsession is productive and educational.  It also offers a real counterbalance to my classroom experiences with language learning.  While the root skills and procedures are probably similar, the game element is forcing me to dedicate the time I need to overcome my cognitive recall struggles.  The game design also makes the process more exciting and motivating.  By building in game mechanics like levels, achievements, cascading information theory, and loss aversion, the Duolingo game designers have created an educational experience that is challenging, rewarding and, for some, absolutely addicting.

And that, in essence, is why so many researchers are examining games as ways to improve the educational experiences for students.  Beyond having students play games in classes, what if we restructured the classroom environment to include more game mechanics?  Could we create face-to-face educational experiences that rivaled Duolingo or Super Mario Brothers?  That’s what people like Jane McGonigal, Tom Chatfield and Ali Carr-Chellman are exploring and advocating.  Maybe in the not-to-distant future, students will relish the start of the school year in the same way that they celebrate the release of a new version of Call of Duty.  For now, I’ll play Duolingo.  Arrivederci.


3 thoughts on “Games and Learning

  1. Thanks Ollie. There was a story on NPR this morning about how researchers are using the big data from online gaming to refine how the games engage users (and, of course, encourage purchases). As they pointed out, once PONG left the store no one knew how it was used (think textbook). Because so many of today’s games are connected, researchers (today’s story featured an economist) are able to study how games are used and even how players respond to minor changes. Think of the possibilities.

  2. After reading this, I thought of Khan Academy. They have made their website game-based, where you work toward building your profile by advancing through its levels. It sounds simular to Doulingo, but here a person needs to get five math questions correct in a row, in order to advance. When a person advances, they get badges and awards, but what is really addicting is purely building your profile. It is impressive to the Khan Academy site that I find myself spending hours of the day doing math problems.

  3. Great post! I really like how you noted that “As often happens in good games, I fail a lot”, and scaffolded that with the positive nature of failure in learning through games. Your explanation of the increasing challenge balanced with player ability reflects the state of flow that gets so many of us addicted to games and eludes us in the classroom. Good stuff. I’ll be quoting this in future posts on my blog. Now, I just wish they would add Japanese to Duolingo…

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