Why Context Matters in Games for Learning

Information requires context in order to be meaningful.

From this idea follow a couple of points worth discussing: (1) that games can provide something crucial to the learning experience and (2), that the choice of context in learning games matters enormously.

The other day, I saw one of those shareable quotes on Facebook – a particularly whiny one – to this effect: Another day and I still haven’t used that algebra they made me learn in high school. Apparently you can also pay money to have this sentiment printed on a tee shirt for you. I remember hearing a lot of the same sort of whining in school, with students wondering why they needed to learn algebra (among other things), and it seems like some people, long after graduating, are still nurturing a lingering resentment for what seemed like a waste of time when they were 16.

A game isn't a disguise for information. It's a mini-world where information matters immediately. #games4ed Click To Tweet

But, as we know, math is a powerful set of tools that any sane person would be thrilled to learn to use, even just a little bit. It’s also a rarity among fields of study in that it contains actual absolute truths. I spent 7 years of post-graduate study in literature and never came close to anything like that. So why is it that many students don’t want to learn math, and resent it when we try to make them?

sad llama with tee shirt that says I wasn't good at math

I think a lack of exposure and role models certainly contributes to distaste of math among children. This study takes a look at the positive effects of a math app for use by parents and kids together; it also mentions that, in the control group, kids “with math-phobic parents made only half as much progress as the children of parents comfortable with math.”

But I suspect that context matters, too. When we’re knowledgeable about something, it’s easy to look at learners and want them to just acquire a certain set of information before we can get to the interesting stuff. From the knowledgeable perspective, this set of information is a prerequisite to understanding complicated ideas that have important implications. But from the learner’s perspective, a set of information presented as a prerequisite for more information can look meaningless, because the advanced information, being beyond the learner’s comprehension, isn’t intuitively valuable. Those important implications are out of reach.

The way games motivate learning is by providing context. To demonstrate that this is true, I’ll ask you to imagine learning the mechanics for a game without any actual game. It would look something like this:

  1. You make a decision based on probability.
  2. You roll a die, and your opponent rolls a die.
  3. You find your die roll on a chart, and the chart gives you a number.
  4. Your opponent does the same.
  5. You compare numbers. The higher number wins.

Does this sound boring and pointless to you? It does to me. But put it back in the game, and it becomes the decisive moment in a battle between the Union and the Confederacy in the American Civil War, in which you have to make a choice that will mean life or death for hundreds of men under your command, and which could be a turning point in the war that has been tearing your country apart.

Games always provide context for learning. Now, that learning might not in and of itself be meaningful or useful outside of the game. But it can be. Likewise, the context might not be very compelling, and the game might be boring, in which case it will not do much to encourage learning. This is the case for a good number of games hoping to be educational. But when the context is compelling and the learning is meaningful, then you have a good educational game.

Context is just as important as content. #games4ed Click To Tweet


Word problems represent an attempt to contextualize math for students, but they are not very successful, as their reputation for abstruseness and irrelevancy suggests. And although I think a context that could demonstrate to students why and how math is actually useful in various real-life situations would be ideal, I don’t believe it is necessary. What they most need is a context that captivates their attention at the moment. Turning information into a good game is more than just setting up a contest between players. It’s putting the information in a context that motivates interest.

A game isn’t a disguise for information. It’s a mini-world where information matters immediately.

Have you played or used a game with students that really nailed both the context and the information?


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