You are here


K12 video games grow up

Designers create elaborate graphics and engrossing plots to engage students in lessons
In Filament Games’ Reach for the Sun, left, high school students ‘become’ a plant and must find the proper amount of water and nutrients to survive.
In Filament Games’ Reach for the Sun, left, high school students ‘become’ a plant and must find the proper amount of water and nutrients to survive.

The player gets to be an archaeologist trying to stop a criminal who’s defacing ancient Mayan temples. But the player doesn’t get laser cannons or magic swords. Catching this video game vandal requires solving geography puzzles, answering math questions, and passing reading comprehension tests.

While the graphics in this virtual world are as sharp as a Nickelodeon cartoon, the video game, Dig-It!’s “Mayan Mysteries,” isn’t about slaughtering zombies emerging from ancient tombs. The game, designed for middle school students, is purely educational—it aligns to Common Core standards in English and math, and students’ progress can be tracked by a teacher.

“It engages kids in the story, they take ownership of the story—they are taking ownership of their learning, and they want to proceed through the game,” says Suzi Wilczynski, a former middle school teacher who is president and founder of Dig-It! “That’s very different from just ‘Did you get the question right?’”

“Mayan Mysteries” is part of a trend in which designers are working to create educational games that can be as elaborate and engrossing as any computerized bird-flinging saga or mythical battle fantasy that students (or their teachers) might stay up all night playing.

“How education games are being made more engaging is they’re becoming more like commercial games,” says Ben Grimley, vice president of education products and services at Tribal Nova, a producer of PBS Kids Play. “They have the things that get you hooked on games, but in a good way.”

Designers and education experts say this evolution is key to engaging students in the learning embedded in this new wave of games that educators are using in and outside class to augment curriculum. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of people go into the education design space with a game perspective, trying to make the educational environment more game-like and thus, more engaging to learners,” says Richard Halverson, a professor in the school of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Learning drives play

To be effective education tools, games for students of any age should work like segments on “Sesame Street,” says Shalom Fisch, president and founder of game designer MediaKidz, and formerly vice president of program research at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces the legendary children’s program.

On the show, the letter “B,” for example, will be at the heart of the storyline and the main subject of skits, cartoons and banter between the puppets.

“If you want a kid to get some concept out of a game—or you want a kid to acquire some skill out of the game—then you have to have that concept or skill at the center of game play,” says Fisch.

“If it’s just something tangential along the side, it may be there on the screen but the kid won’t notice because they’re too busy playing the game.”

Math is at the core of DreamBox’s online K5 curriculum. But it’s the games embedded in DreamBox Learning Math that are designed to entice students not just to solve increasingly difficult problems, but also make sense of the math, says Tim Hudson, the company’s director of curriculum.

For example, younger students use manipulatives—or items they can move, like numbered tiles or flags—to build the number 10. This helps them to understand 10 isn’t just 10 ones, but can be made from two and eight, six and four, and so on, he says. “We don’t start by telling students how to figure things out,” he says. “We require them to explore and makes sense of things in their own mind.”

Another element that engages students is the ability to customize the games by choosing wallpaper, music, and themes. A theme called “Pet Friends” sends younger students on a search for six missing kittens. Each time they solve a series of questions, they may be rewarded by finding one of the kittens. They can also win coins they can redeem to play more math games. “If you ask a five-year-old, ‘What are you working on in DreamBox?’ they could be learning to count to 20, but they’re far more likely to tell you, ‘I’m looking for some missing kittens,’” Hudson says.

Science drives Filament Games’ intricate “Reach for the Sun,” which challenges high school students to become a plant and use the right amount of water and nutrients to grow. “You play through the growing season, and success is getting to the end of the season and dying but leaving enough seeds and fruit for plants to regenerate during the next growing season,” says Lee Wilson, Filament’s CEO.

Tammie Schrader, a seventh grade life science teacher at Cheney Middle School in Cheney Public Schools in Washington, says she uses a video game in each of the five or six units that make up the school year for one her classes. Students play the games after they have done traditional classroom and textbook work in a subject, such as genetics, she says.

One of the most popular games she uses is Filament’s “Crazy Plant Shop,” in which students get requests from customers to breed imaginary plants, such as a cactus cats and rainbow flowers. Players have to understand how dominant and recessive genes combine to create genetic traits.

Schrader says video games are appropriate for students of all abilities. Gifted students and other higher-level thinkers are engaged by video games because the level of difficulty can be increased beyond what teachers can offer through textbooks, homework and lectures. At the same time, kids who have trouble reading may be more comfortable with video games than they are with the traditional teaching methods. “My favorite thing about video games is they even the playing the field,” Schrader says.

Changing pastries

History is not the only subject driving “Mayan Mysteries,” says Wilczynski, who taught middle school geography and physics in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Games have an advantage over other classroom methods because they can combine several subjects at once, she says.

“What my games do is they combine a variety of educational topics,” she says. “Kids who play my games may ostensibly be learning about Mayan numbers, but in the process they’re doing math. They’re also engaging in culture, they’re practicing reading comprehension, they’re paying attention.”

Many newer games allow teachers to track students’ progress. For example, “Mayan Mysteries” includes a management system that teachers can access from their own computer. Teachers can spot students who are repeating the same mistake on a certain math problem, and assist them. Teachers also can compare students’ and classes’ performance to national standards for the game.

“My thinking is that games aren’t being used as effectively as they could be,” Wilczynski says. “But teachers are starting to bring games into the classroom as more than just a reward. It’s still a somewhat new concept to use a game as a teaching tool, but that’s exactly what it is.”

Grimley, of Tribal Nova, says his company has an advantage in that it can use PBS’ popular TV characters to entice K5 students to play games over and over. But it’s about more than just Elmo. “What keeps them coming back is an element of challenge that walks a fine line between not too hard but not too easy,” Grimley says.

In “Bakery Brouhaha,” for example, the storybook character Curious George goes into a bakery and knocks cakes, pies, and other goodies off a shelf, and the player has to put it all back. In one round, the player may have to sort the toppled items by shape, in the next rounds, it may be by size, color, or type. “When we design an educational game we make sure challenges run in a different order each time,” he adds. “This prevents rote learning, and also prevents boredom. It makes it more exciting when you’re not sure what you’re going to get.”

Games also allow students to take chances they might not take in the real world. Ed Dawson, director of federal programs and school improvement at Sunnyside USD in Tucson, Ariz., says middle school students in his district especially enjoy educational games that they can play through an “avatar,” or character, that they create. As avatars, they can move around in the game and make mistakes in a private setting rather than in front of a class.

Sunnyside has begun using games created both by SKO Learning, a private company, and the Center for Games & Impact at Arizona State University. Games are being embedded into the curricula in K5 and middle school. “What’s really cool about a game, and what students really like, is being able to try something, and getting immediate feedback,” Dawson says.

Games that make games

Among the games that are catching on most widely are those that allow students to create their own video games or other virtual worlds. E-Line Media, along with a nonprofit game-design studio called The Institute of Play, created “Gamestar Mechanic,” which sends students on a series of design missions to build their own video game. For instance, students learn how to design mazes by solving them.

Over the last two years, the game has been used in 5,000 schools and afterschool programs. Students have made more than 4,000 games that have been played 15 million times in 100 countries, says E-Line’s CEO, Michael Angst.

The game helps students develop important job skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and design engineering. “There’s a level of talent coming into making games for learning—talented game-makers are having children and seeing the ubiquity of games on devices like tablets and phones,” Angst says. “There’s a level of talent in the last few years in the education space that wasn’t there before.”

Perhaps the big question about games that hasn’t been answered yet is whether the skills students develop in games will transfer to the real world, says Pam Betten, Sunnyside’s director of 1-to-1 and middle schools.

“Games very quickly get a bad rap,” says Betten, whose district is expanding its use of educational games this school year. “But our teachers are really beginning to understand the value that games can have in education.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.