Spring 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 1 // Ideas at Work // 1IAW2

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Games: Powerful Tools for Learning


James I. Grieshop
Lecturer and Specialist
Department of Applied Behavioral Sciences
Cooperative Extension
University of California-Davis

Games and simulations (ranging from role playing to case studies, from guided fantasy to problem solving) have become widely recognized methods for instruction and learning. Since the early work in the United States in the late 1950s and in Europe in the late 1960s, gaming/simulation has become increasingly important to training and decision-making processes in academic settings as well as business, the military, and the social sciences.

Soon to be added to the new shopping list of games is WANGO,1 a teaching game about the U.S. Food Marketing System. WANGO is currently in the final stages of development by a team from the University of California Cooperative Extension. It may well be the first example of a game targeted at the complex U.S. Food Marketing System. But why a game?

Games are a form of communication and a recognized, structured approach to instruction2 The term is usually applied to a group activity or exercise in which players cooperate or compete toward a given end within the boundaries of explicit rules. When a scenario is added to the game, it becomes a simulation. Debriefing, following play, is a usual and valuable component, particularly if it's an educational game/simulation.

Gaming/simulation offers certain advantages over traditional approaches to "teaching. " For one, it emphasizes questioning over answering on the part of players.3 Games also provide opportunities to examine critically the assumptions and implications that underlie various decisions. In short, games can be powerful tools for exposing the nature of problems and possible solution paths.

Gaming/simulation creates an environment for learning that generates discovery learning.4 Games are valuable for promoting skills in communicating, role-taking problem solving, leading, and decision making.

Motivation and interest in a subject matter are increased. In terms of cognitive learning, evidence is offered for increased retention, energizing the learning process, and facilitation of understanding the relationships between areas within a subject matter. The focus of the gaming/simulation approach is on the process of learning rather than on end products (that is, actual decisions), and on representing the reality of a situation, in this case, the U.S. Food Marketing System.

WANGO is an instructional aid, integral to a course about the food marketing system and the issues that arise in it. While WANGOs are imaginary, the actions of the game players-growers, brokers, processors, retailers, and consumers-aren't. Field testing of this game has demonstrated it's an effective tool for rapidly focusing participants' attention on the food marketing systems' mechanisms, consequences of unanticipated events (droughts, boycotts), and, in general, on the immense complexity of the U.S. Food Marketing System. It's the latter effect that makes WANGO an important part of Extension teaching programs.

Many Extension educators are looking for effective teaching tools to create greater understanding and sensitivity to the U.S. Food Marketing System. WANGO can fill this need. Most of the more than 300 participants who have played WANGO said they had "fun " playing the game and learned something through participating.

In any selling situation, the buyer must beware. The WANGO research and development experience has demonstrated that gaming/simulating is "one of the most costly modes of communication " in terms of effort, planning, and hard work.5 One might consider carefully alternative forms and approaches. However, if gaming/simulation is your choice, remember that it's effective.

Extension should aggressively explore the potential for using educational games. Games not only fit well with our history of being innovative, but also capitalize on the fact that people learn by playing. The combination of these two elements with the reality that players also have fun makes WANGO a powerful tool. What more can you ask for?


1. WANGO is not an acronym. A WANGO is an imaginary vegetable-fruit grown from California to Rhode Island, Montana to Alabama.

2. Richard Duke, Gaming: The Future Language (New York: Halstead Press, 1974).

3. R. H. R. Armstrong and J. L. Taylor, eds., Feedback on Instructional Simulation Systems (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge Institute of Education, 1971).

4. Armstrong and Taylor, eds., Feedback on Industrial Simulation Games; Glenn S. Pate and John Mateja, "Retention: The Real Power of Simulation/Gaming, " Journal of Experiential Learning and Simulation, I (No. 3, 1979), 195-202; and Davis Jaques, Learning in Groups (London: Croom Helm, 1984).

5. Duke, Gaming, p. 69.