How do you find out if a learning game works?

Posted on October 12, 2012

Now that would be a topic for a long-time study involving laboratory tests with multiple subjects and lots of fancy scientific terms. While it is a research I would definitely be interested in being part of, I decided to start with a quicker and not so heavy approach.

So what does it mean if a learning game works? From a teacher’s perspective it means that the game communicates with the player and makes the experience fun and motivating, even captivating. After all, learning tends to happen when you have fun doing something, and you return to doing it often. That’s one reason why games have so much potential when it comes to teaching skills.

Communication in teaching is more than just speaking the same language. According to a common categorization, there are three different learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning. A good teacher knows how to address all three.

Games are good at stimulating many of our senses at the same time, but the challenge is that a game tutorial should hit the target on the first try, whereas a teacher can try different approaches and personalize the message for each type of learner.

So, to start with my research, instead of putting on my mad-scientist-outfit and attaching sensors and cables to anyone, I grab my guitar and iPad and start scanning the surroundings of our office in Helsinki for possible victims. My mission: to find out if people understand the game and what their first experience is like.

First, I head down to the university. I start by strumming some friendly chord progressions in the happy key of E, smiling to strangers and inviting them to play with me. I quickly realize that this might not be the right approach, since all I get is weird looks. On the other hand, maybe law students (judging from the way they dress, and answer “yes” to the nearby market researchers question “are you a law student”) just aren’t the kind of people who would spontaneously play the guitar in public.

Next I head to the brand new Music Centre. Here, if anywhere, I should find people who are interested in learning to play. Success! I intercept an opera singer and fool him into trying the game. He agrees, but when I take the guitar out of the bag, he hesitates and asks: “What, do I have to play a REAL guitar? Here?”. So, we find a place in the second floor where nobody sees or hears us. “This is quite addictive” he says, when playing the first exercises. I can’t help smiling. Later I get similar feedback from a pianist, a cellist and a guitarist. They seem to understand the tutorials and enjoy the game. I also meet four high school students who dedicate a whole hour of their time to playing the game with me.

Next day I go to a youth center to try the game with a slightly more demanding group: teenagers. It’s usually not easy to get verbal feedback from teenagers, but when you do, it’s pretty honest, like “this sucks”. Luckily, nobody says that, so I tend to think they rather like playing it. It’s also quite rewarding to see people who’ve never played guitar before grab it and play a song from beginning to end.

I also take the game to a classroom and a young guitar students group session, where I meet possibly the brightest kid I’ve ever known. He’s like 8 years old, but has so great comments and sharp observations that I would hire him to Ovelin right away if he wasn’t a minor.

All in all this was really just the beginning, but it already taught me a lot and helped me believe we’re going in the right direction. Can’t wait to have more of these sessions and interesting conversations. If you’re a teacher and would be interested in testing the game with your students, don’t hesitate to contact us.

All the best,

— Joaquin