The first love of my gaming life will always be Magic: The Gathering®, a collectible card game (CCG). Over 20+ years Magic has accrued a base of over 20 million players worldwide, spawning an online equivalent and a world circuit of professional tournaments.
I started playing during high school in the 90’s. I would say, living the game. Lunch time, after school, evenings, whenever I could. I spent more time on the game than any of my high school classes. Magic was infinitely complex, combining strategy, asymmetric information and spicy variance in one seductive package. Throw in a few bright colours and a high fantasy aesthetic and I was hooked.
Of course, what’s great in high school often doesn’t last. By the time I graduated from university I hadn’t played in at least 4 years, and couldn’t have even said whether the game was still publishing or not. I could, however, credit Magic with an overwhelmingly positive influence on my education. The mental math, logic, sequencing and strategy I learnt helped me cruise through my university papers.
Fast forward 10 years. I’m teaching in a smaller town, and stumble across a game store hosting regular Magic events. I dived back in, even taking my hobby with me to East Africa where I currently compete online. Reconnecting with the game, with the benefit of hindsight and years of classroom teaching, has given me a new perspective on gaming and learning.
For me, Magic is first-hand evidence that games are complementary to traditional education, rather than in competition with classroom learning. I never played Magic for anything other than fun, but now I realise the game itself was teaching me the thinking skills I would need in my future. In fact, the understanding I gained from playing was instrumental in my choice of career and lifestyle.
“But aren’t games a distraction from “real” learning? What about reading and writing? Science? History? Mathematics?” This is a mindset common among administrators, parents, and especially educators. Modern school curricula are crowded and the extra demands upon students’ time from sports, part-time work and co-curricular activities are substantial. My argument is that game skills, learnt in the abstract, transcend subject boundaries. For example: decision-making based on probability and outcomes, a basic skill in any game of chance, is also an essential skill for many careers, not to mention everyday life. Most parents would tell you they want their children to make good decisions for the future. Are they willing to let games teach those decision-making skills?
The emphasis on subject-specific knowledge will continue to persist, as much as education policy-makers may talk about future skills. Schools are funded competitively and teachers have a vested interest in maintaining student numbers in their subject, to protect their department and their job. I’ve resisted curricular change myself, under the mistaken belief that I would lose out to innovation. But I can see a future where subject boundaries are blurred and students are free to gather their own learning magic, irrespective of the source or medium. I believe that games have a complementary and influential role to play in that future.
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