Our students are playing video games, whether we like it or not. In the United States, there are 183 million active gamers – people who play games for an average of 13 hours a week, according to Jane McGonigal in her book “Reality Is Broken.” Rather than viewing this as a waste of time, some educators are seeing this as an opportunity and are using games in the classroom.
There is something about games that engages us, but how can teachers use them to teach important concepts? The answer is game based learning.
Why Games? - Games provide a learning environment that is often starkly different than the traditional learning environment. When you play a game, you have the opportunity to try and fail. In the classroom, students are often punished for practice, as it affects their grade. If you lose a game, you have the opportunity to try again.
Games also provide a “situated learning” environment. In the classroom, content is often disconnected from a relevant context. In a game, you learn content to perform tasks. Whether the game demands learning math content or social studies content, you are engaged because you are invested in winning.
Games also focus on critical thinking and solving complex problems. Instead of “drill and practice,” a good game demands that you use factual information to solve a complex problem.
Here are two examples of how teachers are implementing game based learning:
Games as Direct Lessons - iCivics uses educational games to teach a civics curriculum. Teachers are also using it to teach reading and argumentative writing, crucial foci in the Common Core Standards. In the game “Argument Wars,” players must evaluate arguments and evidence from a variety of court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona. Each case is a separate game, and the player takes on the role of a lawyer representing one side of the case. Students must identify the main idea of the argument they represent and choose the best supporting statements to satisfy the judge. They must also fend off the arguments of their opponent to win the case. The game is designed to be educational as well as fun. Teachers assess students through a written component, such as a traditional essay or persuasive letter to the Supreme Court. “Argument Wars” also tracks students’ answers and scores to give teachers more information on their progress.
Games as Secondary Lessons - Another popular game in the classroom is the puzzle game Portal, in which players have to create portals between two flat planes. The game was not designed to be educational, but teachers are creating contexts for students to learn science content while playing. For example, they can use Portal to help teach concepts like mass and velocity. After a traditional lesson on the topic, students are instructed to send cubes colliding in midair within the game environment. They can experiment with different speeds and collect data on the results. Teachers have students collaborate on different scenarios in the game to predict what will happen. The game provides an engaging and safe space to experiment and learn before applying the knowledge in an exam.
These are just two samples of how teachers are implementing game based learning. Some teachers are using more low-tech games, and some teachers are even turning their classrooms into games where students play every day. We have a unique opportunity now to use game based learning in the classroom as a way to encourage students to learn AND play.
Andrew K. Miller is an educational consultant who works with schools and game design companies.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.