Plants vs Zombies is a somewhat addictive, but fairly pointless game in which zombies invade your house and you use plants to fight them off! While the game itself has no clearly definable educational point, it illustrates well how games themselves represent best learning practice, and how they might be used to promote cognitive skills generally.
I came across a statistic quoted in a talk by Art Costa recently from the 2015 ICOT Conference, that 40% of adults are not metacognitive, presumably because they have never been taught to do so. Since metacognition, the ability to think about your thinking forms the basis of all critical thinking, this is a stat that should give us pause. It is clear that most people do not reflect upon their thinking enough and that teachers urgently need to find strategies that will help develop this habit in their students. I believe that games, even silly ones like Plants vs Zombies, represent opportunities to encourage students to practise thinking about their thinking.
To do well in the game, players need to solve problems. What plants combat what zombies? Over what distances? Having determined this, by trial and error, and testing hypotheses, players need to establish optimum sequencing and resource allocation to hold back successive waves of zombie invaders. Given that the game changes each time it is refreshed, the learning that occurs needs to be applied in new situations every time. While playing the game I was consciously aware of my own strategies: I went through an experimental phase of determining the last possible moment at which a plant needed to be placed to stop each type of zombie, and then from this data was able to form hypotheses about optimum combinations, and sequencing of placement to get the highest score. This allowed me to generate general principles which, in the heat of battle, could guide my actions when I didn’t have time to figure it out precisely.
Because games are so obviously based on strategy, I believe they represent the perfect vehicle for getting students to think about how they strategise in problem-solving situations. And because it’s a game, many do not balk at putting in this effort. So here’s my suggested lesson plan. Set your students some homework: to play Plants vs Zombies a few times. It is a free app or download. Then, in class, get them in groups to discuss a solution for the game, a sequence of moves that will always win, and present this to the rest of the class, perhaps as a screencast with voice-over. This will force students to verbally explain their thinking about their thinking, and help develop the habit of metacognition. One can then use the awareness of this experience to bring similar processes to bear on other, more serious problems.