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Gaming Gains Respect

Digital games are on the rise in classrooms.
gaming, minecraft
At PS 116 in New York City, students play “Minecraft” built in a Lego-like environment that allows players to build towers and roller coasters, and collaborate with others in virtual communities.

Seven-year-old Chanse, a first grader in Kathleen Gerard’s classroom at PS 116 in New York City, is in a “World of Goo.” On an iPad, he’s using his index finger to pull little black animated “goo balls” around the screen and to connect them in an attempt to build what will end up being a flimsy but balanced bridge made of oily glop. He’s building across chasms and cliffs, avoiding windmills and spikes, trying to connect to a pipe that will suck up any goo that he didn’t use to score him big points.

“It’s tricky, but it’s a lot of fun,” Chanse says. “There’s so many ways you can go. But I’m good at it. On my mom’s phone, I beat the whole game.”

But while his chief motivation might be to “beat the whole game,” Gerard says that Chanse and her other first-graders are also learning a whole bunch of important stuff in the context of play. “They’re developing problem-solving and ‘tinkering’ skills, learning how to use trial and error effectively, and learning some basic physics principles,” she says. “They spontaneously collaborate with and coach each other, and I have them write strategies for different levels to share with others, so they’re also developing their ability to reduce a series of complicated steps into a concise strategy and to communicate that clearly for an authentic audience. It’s pretty interesting to watch.”

The idea of learning through games isn’t necessarily new. In fact, over the past decade, researchers such as James Gee and David Williamson Shaffer of the University of Wisconsin have been espousing the use of games to help both children and adults learn. But it’s only been recently that games have begun to make serious inroads into classrooms. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, which aims to advance children’s learning in the digital age, conducted a study of over 500 teacher’s attitudes toward digital games in classrooms from across the United States. The findings, released in May, revealed that 32 percent of teachers use video games every week, while 18 percent use them every day. Seventy percent of teachers found that digital games increase motivation and engagement, and six out of 10 say that games “help personalize instruction, better assess knowledge, and collect helpful data.” Interestingly, 95 percent of teachers using games in their classrooms use ones that were created specifically for educational use, mostly having to do with reading, literacy and math.

Gaming Goes to School

As the world becomes more and more driven by mobile apps and tablet technologies, the games that kids are playing at home (and a variety of others) are slowly but surely making their way into classrooms across the world. Computing power and graphics are making games much more engaging. If what most observers say is true, we’re at the beginning of a serious shift in the way we think about and employ video games and simulations in learning situations. Students will learn not just the content of the traditional curriculum, but, more importantly, the skills and learning dispositions they need to create, to solve problems, and to collaborate throughout their lives.

Nowhere is that more true than at Quest to Learn, a three-year-old public charter school in New York City that uses game playing and development as its core instructional method. According to Rebecca Rupo-Teffer, director of integrated learning at the Institute of Play, the organization that helped create the school, the curriculum is built around the idea of “missions” and “quests.”

“All of our curricula are developed by teachers in collaboration with game designers, curriculum developers, and content experts,” Rupo-Teffer says. “The curriculum itself is gamelike in that it is immersive, participatory, allows for social engagement, and provides a challenge-based context for students to work within. Students are given immediate and constant feedback and don’t progress unless they have mastered certain knowledge and skills that are needed to complete a quest.”

Curriculum at the school is aligned to city and state standards and the Common Core, but it integrates “new literacies” such as systems and design thinking, as well. And rather than learning about archeology or engineering or mathematics, students step into the roles of archeologists or engineers and others in the context of a game, a demonstration of “learning to be rather than learning about.”

Why the sudden uptick? Factors range from a general shift in attitudes to the growing presence of game-playing devices to affordability, according to Eric Klopfer, associate director of MIT’s teacher education program and co-founder of the Learning Games Network, a games-based learning lab at MIT.

“There’s been this longstanding misconception that games are something that boys play in their basements in the dark,” Klopfer says. “But all of the social games that people are playing on Facebook and on their phones and iPads are changing perspectives of games for the positive.”

Edu-Tailored Games

Which games are better for learning and what exactly students learn when playing them are still topics of debate among educators and game developers alike. Some, like Sylvia Martinez, a former game developer and now president of Generation YES, which aspires to teach and empower students to use modern technology to solve problems in their schools and communities, feels that most games being used in schools are really just digitized versions of curriculum that is already in classrooms.

“Many games designed for the classroom are ‘game-like’ in that they borrow the vocabulary and graphics from games, yet the experience of the ‘player’ is no different from using and working on a paper worksheet, Martinez writes on her Games in Education Resources wiki. “Calling a 10-question multiple-choice test ‘leveling up’ does not change the fact that it’s a multiple-choice test.”

As Martinez suggests, there is an important distinction between games that ask players to provide “the answer” and those that challenge players to devise the best of what might be many different solutions to problems. In many cases, it means immersing players in simulated worlds or environments where their virtual decisions are the basis for game play. Harvard University’s Chris Dede, one of the creators of EcoMUVE, a multiuser virtual environment for the collaborative study of ecological systems, says there is a not-so-subtle difference between games and simulations.

“I think the games community [developers] assumes that games are always better, but that’s not always true,” according to Dede. “When it comes to things that kids are not intrinsically motivated to learn, then fine, build a game. But it’s much more effective, I think, to create spaces for kids to problem solve and collaborate, which a great deal of research tells us is really what kids enjoy.”

EcoMUVE is exactly that. By creating a virtual world that simulates real-world pond and forest ecosystems, students can be introduced to a variety of environmental problems that require collaborative analysis. In the pond simulation, for example, after spending a few days investigating the ecosystem both above ground and under the water, students suddenly find that many fish in the pond have died inexplicably. Their job becomes to solve the mystery and develop solutions.

While research is still limited, the National Research Council found in 2011 that in science, “simulations and games have potential to advance multiple science learning goals, including motivation to learn science, conceptual understanding, science process skills, understanding of the nature of science, scientific discourse and argumentation, and identification with science and science learning.”

Students Become Gaming Gurus

What many think may be even more important than playing games, however, is creating them through sites such as Gamestar Mechanic or Scratch, or one of the growing number of mobile app development platforms now coming online. According to Klopfer of MIT, when kids create games around issues in their local communities, the benefits increase even more. “We had one group of kids find a bunch of dead bats in their town, and they created a game around trying to find out why the bats died,” Klopfer said. “They opened it up for members of the community to play as well, making it a learning experience for everyone.”

Ben Stern, a technology integration specialist at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, uses Gamestar Mechanic, which is both a game and a game development platform, to deepen students’ understanding of algebra. Before students can begin to build games, though, they must play and complete certain levels of existing games that can teach them the building process.

“We have students build a game to teach their peers some concept that they’ve learned in prealgebra throughout the year,” Stern says. “It requires a certain amount of higher-level thinking for the students to anticipate the ‘playability’ of their game as they build it.”

In other words, it’s not the algebra review that is most effective about the game. It’s the work students do to determine how to effectively present relevant material in engaging ways. As a bonus, students can publish their games to the Gamestar Mechanic Web site for a global audience, a fact that Stern says adds an element of authenticity and permanence.

Finally, while doing much to promote those important learning skills and dispositions that can support academic learning, Gamestar Mechanic, World of Goo and many others may simply inject a much needed dose of play into the school day, a dose that we might all do well to have. According to a recent article in the American Journal of Play, children’s time for play has been on a steady decline, which has led to a rise in anxiety and depression as well as problems with attention and self-control.

“Games are such an important part of learning for 3- to 8-year-olds outside of school, but play just vanishes from elementary school to high school,” Klopfer says. “We need to bring play back into the learning process in schools, and well-chosen learning games are one important way to do that.”

Either way, there’s no question that the world of game-based learning has come a long way from the Oregon Trail adventures that many teachers went on when they were students themselves in the 1970s and 1980s. And we’re well past the days of sitting in front of old VGA monitors tethered to slow, bulky computers playing games limited in scope and scale. This new world of gaming is decidedly high-definition, engaging, mobile and personal, all of which suggests some amazing things to come for learners of all stripes.

“The classroom is the perfect place to get kids reflecting on the really sophisticated thinking they do while playing these games,” says Gerard, Chanse’s teacher. “When they collaborate, they can solve more-complex problems than they can alone, and when they share strategies, it encourages that metacognition. Ultimately, they can apply those same problem-solving strategies in their real lives as well, and that’s where the real payoff is.” DA

Will Richardson is a DA columnist, an author and an educator who blogs about teaching and learning at