Winning is Overrated (in Educational Games)

Winning is Overrated (in Educational Games)[i]

Do educational games need winners? This would seem to be a self-evident proposition, and in fact most of this issue of Ludogogy will probably provide ample arguments to that effect. If you’re reading Ludogogy, you probably don’t need a tutorial on the benefits and utility of educational games, but you may feel strongly about the need for a clear set of winning outcomes.

Permit me to offer a dissenting view: that winning, as defined by explicit victory conditions that players compete against one another to achieve, can be an impediment to game-based learning. This argument is primarily focused on teachers seeking to use and adapt games for their classrooms, but game designers may find what I have to say useful as well. To make my argument, I’ll discuss three potential pitfalls to winning in game-based learning, and then offer three avoidance strategies that de-emphasize victories in favor of learning.

The first challenge that winning in educational games presents is the strong possibility of creating unhealthy in- and out-group dynamics in the classroom. Many educational games, such as tabletop games, require playing in groups due to classroom sizes. Even when educational games provide individual roles, they are typically grouped into contingents or factions for ease of management. This understandable organizational strategy has a potentially serious flaw, though. An economic analysis of group dynamics in games found that highly cohesive groups could actually increase the possibility of conflicts among groups.[ii] In other words, groups that are heavily focused on victory may create strong cleavages in the classroom that negatively impact the learning environment.

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A second problem is that games which allow early achievement of victory conditions can lead to disengagement by other players. Many of us have experienced this personally in our lived by falling behind in a “friendly” family game of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit. But this effect is also found in classrooms, as noted in a study of player engagement. The researchers found that reasons for continuing to play a game can differ greatly from reasons for beginning to play a game, with a “negative affect” correlating closely with player disengagement with a game over time. Completion and progression of a game were particularly important for sustained play.[iii] Therefore, a perceived inability to win could easily undermine a game’s potential for engagement.

Winning isn’t everything

Finally, many of us have heard the time-worn phrase “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”[iv] This attitude is prevalent on sports fields and pitches to educate players about the need for a tight focus on winning to the exclusion of secondary concerns. But this perspective can definitely have a negative transfer when brought into the classroom. A study of virtue ethics in games provided a strong recommendation for so-called “inconsequential choices”, which allow for greater experimentation with unfamiliar options and dynamics.[v] This, coupled with other findings that urge games to be perceived as ethical objects and players as ethical agents, suggests that an all-or-nothing approach to victory in educational games is problematic.[vi]

Tug of War - Who is winning?
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The good news is that there are several avoidance strategies that can help mitigate some of the negative effects just discussed. Game design is a major part of this, with cooperative and collaborative games becoming more and more popular. Some examples in multiple modalities include the Pandemic board game series and the Nordic Live Action Role-Play style. An analysis of both academic and commercial game reviews of collaborative/cooperative games found that interest in these games is steadily rising in recent years. The authors of that analysis speculated that this rise is driven by both greater awareness of these kinds of games and a growing desire to mirror their components in learning environments.[vii]

The effect of diverse teams

Another approach that can have an ameliorating impact on negative winning mechanics, especially in- and out-group dynamics, is to structure the game around diverse and inclusive teams. In one meta-analysis of literature on diversity studies, diverse teams were found to have a positive association with creativity and higher satisfaction with outcomes. The same study found that diverse teams also tended to have greater task conflict and looser social integration; all the more reason to de-emphasize winning conditions.[viii] However, diversity is not a magic wand for increased cohesion; unless that diversity is accompanied by truly inclusive mechanics, teams may actually suffer from greater marginalization of some members and lowered group performance.[ix]

screens with images
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Finally, it is helpful to remember that for many games, the journey is more important than the destination. Rather than putting the focus solely on the game’s outcome, student assignments and work should provide reflective opportunities throughout the game. This may not entirely replace a winning condition, but it can help deflect the sole focus away from that condition to be more broadly inclusive of the entire game experience. A meta-analysis of the literature on serious games concluded that “the positive effect of multiple training sessions on learning is larger for serious games than for conventional instruction methods.”[x] A scholarly study of applying a game-based framework to problem-based learning concurred with this finding, emphasizing the utility of the multi-session nature of the construct.[xi]

There is a time and a place for victory conditions in learning games. Don’t let yourself become so focused on them that you lose sight of the bigger objective: engaging students for learning.

References and further reading:

[i] The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Kip Glazer ( who gave substantive feedback that greatly improved an earlier draft of this article. All errors of fact and omission remain those of the author.

[ii] Tan, J. and Zizzo, D., 2008. Groups, cooperation and conflict in games. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 37(1), p.14.

[iii] Schoenau-Gog, H., 2011. The Player Engagement Process – An Exploration of Continuation Desire in Digital Games. In: DiGRA 2011 Conference: Think Design Play. Authors & Digital Games Research Association DiGRA, p.13.

[iv] This statement is often attributed to legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi, but it was first said by college football coach Henry “Red” Sanders. Sayres, J., 1955. He flies on one wing. Sports Illustrated, 3(26), p. 48.

[v] Nay, J. and Zagal, J., 2017. Meaning without consequence: Virtue Ethics and inconsequential choices in games. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, p.7.

[vi] Sicart, M., 2011. The ethics of computer games. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, p.4.

[vii] Sedano, C., Carvalho, M., Secco, N. and Longstreet, C., 2013. Collaborative and Cooperative Games: Facts and Assumptions. 2013 international conference on collaboration technologies and systems, p.374.

[viii] Stahl, G., Maznevski, M., Voigt, A. and Jonsen, K., 2009. Unraveling the effects of cultural diversity in teams: A meta-analysis of research on multicultural work groups. Journal of International Business Studies, 41(4), pp.700-701.

[ix] O’Reilly III, C., Williams, K. and Barsade, S., 1998. Group demography and innovation: Does diversity help?. Research on Managing Groups and Teams, 1, p.201.

[x] Wouters, P., van Nimwegen, C., van Oostendorp, H. and van der Spek, E., 2013. A meta-analysis of the cognitive and motivational effects of serious games. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), p.259.

[xi] Sancho, P., Moreno-Ger, P., Fuentes-Fernandez, R. and Fernandez-Manjon, B., 2009. Adaptive Role Playing Games: An Immersive Approach for Problem Based Learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(4), p.122.

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Ray Kimball, EdD is the Chief Executive Officer of
42 Educational Games Coaching and Design (“42EdGames” for short). He is an education professional with years of experience in game-based learning and collaborative professional development that meets the needs of diverse teams. Ray founded 42EdGames in 2020 so he could continue his dream of serving higher education faculty by helping them harness the power of game-based pedagogy.
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