Author Profile Picture

Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

What are we learning from games?


I do like a puzzle.  From crosswords, Sudoku, quizzes and number patterns, I like to get out a pen and paper and rack my brain on something other than the more pressing, income generating activities of the day to day.  Of course, the pen and paper is hardly a pre-requisite for the ardent puzzler.  Now I can play these games online, on the move on my phone or tablet, or on my PC.

One particular puzzle I always enjoyed is available on my PC and – in dull moments and long train journeys I occasionally pit my wits against the computer.  When I became the proud owner of a tablet, I found there was (as there always seems to be) an app for that and so it was downloaded.  Except, the way the game works is not the same.

Now, instead of building my overall win percentage and striving to complete in fewer moves than the previous attempt, I am being timed.  The number of moves is still factored into to some mathematical process which provides me with a score, but the objective is to complete the puzzle in the fastest possible time, the accumulated score of wins and losses is no longer relevant – it is pace, speed of decision making and my digital dexterity which determines success or failure.

It is an interesting experience. Now when I get stuck instead of looking for the backtracking and working out where I could unravel a mistake – an exercise in solving problems of my own making – I instinctively look to the bottom of the screen for the timer.  If too much time would be required to unpick past moves, then I may as well quit and start again.  There is no reward for being right – only for being quick. In fact, when I went back to the computer version, I found I had lost the ability to examine previous moves and backtrack to reach a successful conclusion. By playing against the clock I had become more stupid.

What had happened is that I had responded to the rewards the game provided.  The objective had changed and my behaviour altered accordingly.  The motivation is hyped, intentionally so, by the ticking of the timer and the pressure of the clock. What gets measured gets done – even in the world of on-screen puzzles. 

Last Monday evening, I listened to My Teacher is an App – the final part of a three part series examining the increased use of digital technology within education from primary school to University.  The debate ranged from the dystopian world of PE reduced to laser gun battles in the woods and classes of 80 supervised by a teacher with a dashboard and the serried ranks of (cheaper) teaching assistants providing the right answers to those who had become stuck, to the utopian world of flipped learning supported by intense tutorials in small groups with highly paid, excellent teachers properly rewarded for a difficult, demanding but potentially fulfilling job. 

One feature of the discussion, which seemed to be unchallenged, was that 21st Century digital natives learn rapidly from games.  Games, it was said, are inherently motivating, creating a level of emotional engagement only to be imagined in the traditional classroom.  Individuals learn at their own pace as the game adapts to the learner’s capability.  Gameplay serves up just the right amount of challenge at the right point in the game.  Failure is unimportant and through highly motivated repetition, performance improves. The discussions imagined opportunities to experience the Battle of Hastings, games to solve maths problems as you navigate towards the surface of a distant planet, and new worlds in which students will make decisions and solve problems using toolsets and rationed resources.  Heady stuff.  And yet…

My own experience is hardly scientific, the game I played hardly from the top drawer of the game makers art.  It is a simple puzzle, though pretty close to the educational games experience when limited budgets prohibit the development of an educational version of Grand Theft Auto. But even in this simple game, the design developed a set of behaviours which changed simply because of the way in which achievement and progress were recorded.  As for learning?  The lowest number of moves in which I solved the tablet version of the puzzle was the very first time I completed it. The fastest time achieved was within the first week or two – I have been singularly unable to replicate such stellar performance since.  As a learning tool – even within the context of its own measurements – it seems that not all games teach us very much.

Robin Hoyle is a trainer and writer.  His company, Learnworks Ltd helps companies of all sizes build training programmes which support behaviour change.  He is the author of Complete Training published by Kogan Page 

4 Responses

  1. Games

    Unlike you Robin, I am hopeless at such things, and as a result seldom get involved………..or maybe on a long trip I have a go at the crossword in whatever magazine I happen to be reading/browsing at the time.

    However, I do have some concern about this 'new' approach to learning.  It has become very topical in New Zealand as schools become more adept at fundraising to secure computers in classrooms.  My primary concern pretty much echoes one of yours, in that from the little I have seen, pupils gain credits just for taking part.  This adds further fuel to the fire in my country, where our present education system does just that………..rewards the participant almost the same as the better achievers.  Whilst I understand the thinking that if at least we can get people to participate that is a good start, as an Employers' Advocate I hear time and again this is not the real world.  As a result people have to understand and accept there will always be those who achieve better than others, otherwise there is no incentive to try harder, or to use the modern terminology, to work smarter!

    My other concern is that this new learning tool lends itself perfectly, in my view, to ideological applications.  It is so easy to simply and quickly change data, what comes in the package can be far removed from what ends up in the classroom or the lecture theatre/training room.  In the old days while much of the written data was without doubt tarnished by ideological thinking [ in New Zealand some records of our history vary significantly either by using incorrect information or by leaving out significant information ], at least you got what the author deemed correct and could not be 'fiddled with'.  It was then up to the teacher/trainer/lecturer to address as they saw fit……on behalf of their organisations of course!

    Interesting topic, so thanks for raising this for discussion.  Cheers.  DonR.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Don

    I am not wholly opposed to the use of technology in schools, but the debate from the USA and elsewhere seems to be on developing some kind of personalised online experience which is managed by facilitators rather than professional staff. I know many teachers are extremely concerned about a 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap' approach to the education of the next generation.

    I did however come across a story about an academy in Silicon Valley where the children of the top execs from the various tech companies are educated.  It is telling perhaps, that the children who attend this school are banned from using computers at all until they are 13 years old!

    Thanks for joining in the debate.


  3. Games

    Thank you for raising the matter Robin.  Your last piece of information so interested me I have just passed it on to our Education Minister to see if her government officials have investigated said academy or anything similar.


    Thanks again.  DonR.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!