The more you play a game, the better it is as a tool for learning. Several research studies have found that providing unlimited access to a learning game and encouraging the playing of the game multiple times leads to better learning outcomes than limiting the number of times a person is able to play the game.
In fact, it was found that the positive effect of multiple sessions of playing a game on learning is larger for games than for conventional instruction methods—like lectures or discussions. Listening to a lecture multiple times does not provide the same learning benefits as playing a learning game multiple times. Learning increases and deepens the more times you play a learning game but the same cannot be said for hearing the same lecture over and over again.
The reasons for the positive effect from playing the same learning game over and over are threefold. First, the player will grow familiar with the game’s environment the more times she plays the game. Think of it this way; the first time you play a game, most of the time and energy is spent figuring out the rules of the game. You spend mental energy figuring out who’s turn it is, what is allowed within a move, and in a digital game even figuring out how to move your character. Figuring all this out takes energy away from the learning goals and focuses the learner on learning the game, not learning the desired content.
Now, of course, the complexity of the game can either slow down the learning of the rules and flow of the game or, if the rules are simple, can make it easy to understand. This impact usually doesn’t last past the second or third time playing a game but it is something that needs to be considered. Once the rules, game mechanics and structure are learned, they become almost invisible as the players is more immersed in the gameplay.
The second reason why games are better for learning when they are played multiple times is because the player often incorporates a different approach or strategy when playing the game over and over again. I’m sure you’ve played a game with a friend who has said, this time I am going to play more aggressively or conversely they said, this time I am going to be more conservative and see what happens. Playing a game multiple times allows for experimentation with different approaches which is fantastic from a learning perspective. It allows the learner to experiment, to run what-if scenarios and compare various approaches for effectiveness, speed and results.
Third, playing a learning game over and over can lead to pattern recognition and the understanding of the underlying concepts and ideas the game is trying to teach. For example, the first time that you played Tic-Tac-Toe or Naughts and Crosses, you may not have realized that there are certain strategies that can be employed to win. The first time or first few times you ever played the game, you probably made random moves and placed your symbol in a reaction to your opponent. After you gained some experience you might purposefully place your symbols to block your opponent from winning, then after some more times playing you will learn that playing in certain squares first will position you to win and then finally, you’ll learn the optimal placement of symbols and never lose.
This insight can’t come from just one or two turns playing the game. The insights and lessons come from playing the game over and over again.
Learning games are best experienced when played multiple times. When using a game for learning, ensure that the learners have access to the game and encourage them to play it over and over again. The repetition means that the learning will be robust and effective.