I have often felt from those older than I am that games are not useful teaching techniques; yet the field of e-learning (that I work in) is replete with counterexamples. Some of this thinking is generational and some of it is misunderstanding. The older conventional wisdom is “Learning is serious. It’s your responsibility to learn. Grin and bear it.” There is much wrong with this attitude, but I want to focus on what is right — that the learner is expected to take what is being presented seriously, and then diligently go and learn it. A corollary is “Teachers are to be respected because they have knowledge and wisdom.” So good so far.
With that said, are games largely a reaction to the unserious nature of learners today? Yes and no. First, no. The game-as-learning motif really stems from the love of games from those who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. It leans heavily on the simulation aspect of games, which does well in teaching people. (Just ask the military.) Those who grew up later still have been surrounded by games.
Now, for the yes. Those who want to learn will learn. These are the self-motivated people who succeed in life. For them, games are not strictly necessary, although they will use them, or anything else that is available. I think of myself when I was interested in the Byzantine empire. I devoured everything I could find about it. It would not have mattered if the information was on microfiche or reel-to-reel tapes. I would have found a way to listen to it and learn it, because it had captured me.
Again and again learning magazines state that the whole in-person teaching model is dead, because it’s non-interactive. However, what is not being asked is, “Why?”. Have people’s brains changed? Are people physically different from college students in the ’40’s? Not much. What has changed? Culture. Now people expect to be served, rather than to serve, and this manifests in even how they are taught. We can expect very little self-motivation today, and those who are self-motivated stand head and shoulders above the crowd. Those who do get going, like a heavy boulder, once pushed — even they are rare. People who are uninterested in learning and thus uninterested in their own future are common. Strangely this occurs when knowledge is more widespread than it ever has been in human history. Is it that if people don’t have to work for it, then they don’t want it at all? Yet games pose challenges and rewards. Thus, games are being used to motivate those who are not self-motivated, do not esteem authority or wisdom, but are willing to play a game, even a serious game whose aim is learning. Games have always been used to teach. That is nothing new. However, when games are the primary way that learning transpires, I think that is what is different, and troubling.