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Games Students Play

Edugames bring new dimensions to the school curriculum

DAVID MCDIVITT'S STUDENTS ARE GATHERED IN THE HALL between classes, talking excitedly about how tomorrow they can stop Hitler's terror. McDivitt isn't concerned, however. In fact, he's pleased. The discussion is about Making History, the computer game the kids are playing in his world history class. Each team tries to advance the interests of a key European country in the years leading up to WWII.

Making History isn't a shoot-'em-up game; it's part of a wave of "edugames" created specifically for the classroom. To McDivitt, a social studies teacher at Oak Hill High School in the Oak Hill United School Corporation in Kokomo, Indiana, the discussion is a great example of what computer games offer in school. His students are working as a team, using critical thinking skills, and they're excited about the topic. CAN I REALLY EDIT THIS?

Certainly there are doubters, from parents and administrators who can't see how playing a game is really learning, to teachers who can't figure out how to incorporate a game into their curriculum effectively. But for years, gaming advocates have pointed to the same benefits McDivitt has found in games, and today, playing edugames and commercial, off -the-shelf games such as Civilization, The Sims and Rollercoaster Tycoon is becoming an accepted classroom activity. In fact, the software and educational publishing industries are now trying to catch up with the demand from schools for games that have an educational factor built right in.

"It's the right thing for right now. We're teaching kids who have grown up with computers as part of their life. This is the direction we need to go to meet kids where they are," McDivitt says.

A Tipping Point

The notion of connecting to these students with games in class is not new. For years, younger kids have played relatively simple games such as Reader Rabbit, which uses graphics, stories and rewards to make learning basic skills fun. The games that have people like McDivitt excited, though, are more complex and burrow deeper into a student's brain.

Forty-five of 53 million K12 students in the country consider themselves "gamers."- Karen Billings, vice president,Software & Information Industry Association

In the past few years, enthusiasm for incorporating these kinds of games in the curriculum has grown. Computers and high-speed connections are more ubiquitous at schools, and today's students live in a tech world. Forty-five of 53 million K12 students in the country consider themselves "gamers," says Karen Billings, the vice president of the educational division of the Software & Information Industry Association.

Billings' organization recently created a new EduGames and Simulations Working Group, launched to reflect the enthusiastic response to a session on games in school at the 2006 Florida Educational Technology Conference. "Almost every week I hear from an association member who wants to be part of the working group," she says. "There's just a lot going on right now, more than I can ever remember."

For example, MIT's Education Arcade, a two-year old consortium that includes Microsoft's Games-to-Teach Project and MIT's Comparative Media Studies department, have both developed more than a dozen edugames and started to gather data on their effectiveness. Research papers published in the last two years investigated everything from how multiuser virtual environments can teach junior high students science to how students in West Virginia are improving endurance and muscle strength by playing Dance Dance Revolution in physical education class.

Many of the games being used in school are for older students. Civilization and Sim City, for instance, are best suited for the high school level. However, some elementary schools use games such as Zoo Tycoon-where kids learn how to run a zoo, including managing different animals, feeding schedules and habitats, and even strategies for bringing in more visitors-or Food Force, a free Internet game that teaches students about food relief missions and includes lessons tied to nutrition, transportation and politics.

Why Games Work

What's all the fuss about? Edugaming is more than just capturing the attention of an online generation, as important as that is. Supporters say that studies show games provide an array of educational benefits tied to how people learn, and that's why the military and other institutions have used them in training exercises for years. PROBLEM-SOLVING: In a world where 21st century skills are increasingly prized, helping students learn how to think, not just what to think, is important. This is where games in which students solve a puzzle excel. "These games require higher-order thinking skills. You really are using strategy, problem-solving skills," Billings notes. What's more, because games can monitor and evaluate how students perform, they provide an opportunity for authentic assessment of skills such as forward planning and lateral thinking, allowing educators to move beyond solely measuring a student's mastery of facts.

INTERACTION: Listening to a lecture, reading a book or watching a video are all passive ways of learning. Video games are active, requiring students to use a different part of their brain. Studies show that skills and data that have been acquired in the context of experiential learning are more deeply embedded.

FEEDBACK: Because games often unfold over time, they provide players with instant feedback about how well they are performing. "You don't need to give a kid a game and then test them at the end," says Michael Guerena, a program specialist in the educational technology department of the Orange County Department of Education in California. "Most games are built with a feedback loop. You know right away the positive and negative about what you've done. That's why people play games-they're always getting feedback on their performance-and that means that students quickly learn if they're 'getting it.'"

"The most important element in making a game eff ective is what the teacher does with it."- Nick deKanter, vice president, Muzzy Lane

SUPPORT FOR FAILURE: In a virtual world, failure has fewer consequences than in the real one. Many games allow students to feel comfortable taking chances, knowing that only the computer will know if it didn't work out. "Experience is the best teacher, but there are certain things you don't want to have to experience," says Sharon Sloane, CEO of Will Interactive, which produces a series of simulations that allow students to make choices around issues such as bullying, underage drinking and racism.

REAL WORLD SCENARIOS: Games can also allow a student to become adept at learning like a doctor, a lawyer or an urban planner-essentially any profession that requires innovative thinking. "Everything we know about innovation and creativity says that how people learn is to have an opportunity to work on problems they'll face in the profession and to talk about them and work with peers. Games allow us to recreate that," says David Williamson Shaffer, an associate professor of learning science in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of the book How Computer Games Help Children Learn.

Finding the Balance

Even fervent supporters of computer games are quick to say that the games are simply a tool for teachers to use, not a curriculum replacement. McDivitt, for example, uses the natural breaks in the game play to stop and discuss with the class what just happened and why. "There are a lot of teachable moments," he says. And computer games are just a small part of how he teaches. His Making History unit lasts for one week out of the year; in his sociology class, he uses a half-hour Sims session each week to reinforce concepts recently covered.

"We've always said up front that the most important element in making a game effective in the classroom is what the teacher does with it," according to Nick deKanter, a founder and the vice president for business development at Muzzy Lane, which publishes Making History. "The software is only one piece of the process. The rest is integrating the game into the course's learning objectives, the discussion during the game and how the teacher uses the lessons from the game afterward."

Muzzy Lane's games are built to be used in classrooms. They deliver content appropriate for a high school-early college level student and come with a teacher's guide. The game play is designed to fit within several 50-minute classes. Other edugames provide reports that give the teacher data to evaluate student performance. Factors such as these are why many educators are happy to see the software and educational publishing community collaborating in the creation of new edugames.

"In many ways, we're still at the exploratory, awareness stage. There are not a lot of good games yet developed for schools, but they are emerging as people are becoming aware of the potential," says Guerena. He and colleagues have created a Webcast about the idea to spread the word, including ideas from pioneers in the field such as Clark Aldrich, author of Simulations and the Future of Learning. "

There's no subject matter that can't be made into a game, it just depends on the kind of game. For example, in science, students could roam around a natural setting in a game, looking for evidence of natural phenomena and learning more about them," decanter says. "To me, language games will be big in the future. Why attach someone to headphones and a tape recorder when they can be immersed in a game to learn the language by interacting with virtual people?"

Shaffer's vision goes much further. He is working on several "epistemic games" that take a student deep into a specific slice of the real world. Urban Science, for instance, allows participants to work as urban planners to change the look and feel of Madison, Wis., including listening to virtual citizen concerns, taking into account environmental issues, redesigning the city and creating a 3-D model. A short version of the game might take two or three days, playing in three- or four-hour sessions; the full version would take nearly 60 hours over several weeks.

"Much of the real world does not solve challenging problems in a 40- minute chunk of time. To really take advantage of these kinds of games, we're going to have to reorganize school," he says. "But think about what the medical system would look like if everyone had experienced making choices of a doctor. And that's just for starters."

Shaffer is quick to point out that, even with his longer games, school must offer more than just time at the computer. And most edugame advocates aren't setting out to change the way schools work; they just want to introduce smart games into the mix with the established tools of books, assemblies, videos and lectures. "We want to develop a set of guidelines for teachers and administrators to help them use games in the classroom, what selection of games is out there, what the research says, what are the best practices," says Billings. "Games use what kids naturally want to do. They're a perfect match for the classroom."

Carl Vogel is a freelance writer based in Chicago.