Beyond Blowing Up Enemies: The Future of Games for Learning | Edutopia
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Beyond Blowing Up Enemies: The Future of Games for Learning

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If you've ever tried to pry a child away from some video game that seems to exert more influence over him than you could ever hope to, you might have asked yourself: Why can't we get a force this captivating in schools?

After two days at the Games for Change festival at New York University last week, I'm encouraged to say the answer is: we're working on it. This was a conference of, by and for game designers and researchers, so it was heavy on complex charts about research methods and far removed from how you might engage students in your classroom Monday morning. But the fruits of this conversation could be incredibly pertinent on a Monday morning just a few years from now.

Jam Session:

James Shelton talks with festival-goers about how to spark innovation in education.

Credit: Grace Rubenstein

These game designers and researchers, a couple hundred strong, are passionate about tapping the power of games to deliver learning -- and perhaps even to transform schools. And the U.S. Department of Education, in the person of Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement James Shelton, wants to use its power (and purse) to nourish a flowering of just this sort of innovation. We need it.

"We may have the perfect storm to help us break loose from the status quo," Shelton told the conference-goers. He was speaking about an education upheaval much bigger than games -- a new focus on building creativity and critical thinking, not just drilling basic content knowledge -- but games could be one potent part of it.

Whipping up this storm, he said, is a "consensus in Congress that something big needs to happen," along with economic strains that will force us to consider "radical solutions," and "the reality that people are becoming more aware that we're fooling ourselves. We've lulled ourselves, because of the status of our county and our achievements, into a false sense of security. That security has been disrupted, and people are more open to the notion that we need to do something very different." (Wait a sec -- I think that was just a high-ranking federal official saying that America isn't doing everything right, and we need to take a hard, humble look in the mirror and change our ways.)

The Power of Games

No doubt assessment will be key to this mission. And games could transform assessment. Scratch that: games could be assessment. One powerful form of it, at least. Instead of slaying pixel-painted dragons, for instance, I discovered that you could navigate a mid-air obstacle course using the laws of physics in a quest of save the world (that's a game in the works at Vanderbilt University) or try out different ways to save the real-life lake that is dying in your real-life town (a game being developed in Madison, Wisconsin, starring local Lake Mendota).

Game Quest:

Jan Plass, co-director of the Games for Learning Institute, addresses the crowd of game designers and researchers.

Credit: Grace Rubenstein

OK, these scenarios might sound less sexy than dragon-slaying, but the designers believe they can solve that. There's evidence that strong narratives will motivate kids to solve hard puzzles, said Jan Plass, co-director of the Games for Learning Institute. In one study, he said, a child pursued one problem for 45 minutes -- and this was a problem that the girl wasn't particularly interested in to begin with. Is that music to anyone's ears?

Games could also be a powerful means of differentiating instruction (by, say, adapting the quest to the learner's abilities) and personalizing -- putting the learner directly into the content they're studying. Richard Wainess of UCLA explained that something as simple as using the words "I" and "you" in a lesson -- saying "You look up and see clouds" vs. "There are clouds in the sky" -- yields significantly better learning outcomes. Learning through games is, almost by definition, learning by doing.

There's even some evidence that games, if designed right, can encourage kids to use more positive social behavior (cool!).

Designers at the conference envision taking this quest far beyond schools as we know them. Kurt Squire of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said: "Plugging this back into schools to get a few points higher on a standardized test misses the point. The whole point is that there's an opportunity for something much more revolutionary, letting kids build games, run their own guilds, direct their own learning."

What Teachers Want

Now for a dose of reality: we've got a ways to go, and the education sector isn't known for the speed of its innovation. Try out this stat from Shelton: 3 to 4 percent of spending in a mature industry typically goes to research and development. In education, it's 0.1 percent.

Shelton wants to change that by building a reform-minded R & D agenda and jumpstarting it with public investment (and, he hopes, private capital as well). At Games for Change, that vision was not a hard sell.

One important thing missing from the conversation in New York, though, was the strong voice of everyday educators (not to mention students). As we launch this surge of innovation, we need to explore not only what groundbreaking new things the designers can dream up, but also what real folks in schools want and need.

So let's start here. If you could pick anything, what kinds of new materials (video games or otherwise) would you want in your classroom? How would they engage kids -- individually, competitively or collaboratively? What kinds of lessons would they teach -- basic content, critical thinking skills or good social behavior? All of the above?

Think big. These could be tools that suit the kinds of schools we have now -- or they could radically transform those schools.

I'm eager to hear how you all want these seeds of progress to grow. Tell me, and I'll pass it on to the folks with the fertilizer.

-- Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia

Comments (57)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jessica Minotti Verderame's picture
Jessica Minotti Verderame
First Grade Teacher from Tampa, Florida

Thank you everyone for posting these tips about the SMART Board, they're fabulous! Grace R., the download is phenominal. I will share this with just about my ENTIRE school.

Max von Euw's picture

I was invited to the Games For Change event because I used my 11th grade students as guinea pigs for a gas laws simulation at the Create Lab at NYU. For 2 years in a row, 2 of my 3 sections used simulations modeling the gas laws while the other section did not. NYU administered pre and post tests to measure learning. I never saw the results, but the students who used the simulations were much more engaged and could better explain the gas laws on a particle level than the control group.

With that being said, I agree with what was said at the conference. Our surrounding world - meaning the world outside of the classroom - is changing at such a rapid pace that a new hand held device comes out every other week! As educators we need to keep up with the outside world. Isn't our job to prepare our students to not only survive but excel in the real world as well as change it for the better? How are we supposed to prepare our kids if they would rather text or surf the web on their phones than take notes and pay attention to the teacher?

I know we need to inject technology into the classroom, but what does this look like? Will our schools have the money to buy all the necessary equipment? Are all the "good" educational games going to go to the districts that have the means to pay for them? Are the schools in low-income schools going to shafted yet again? Let's be real here: All of the students in this day and age are distracted by the new gadgets, but the students who are the most disengaged are the ones in low-income neighborhoods. This technology should be available to all students but should target students who CAN'T learn the "traditional" way.

I want to use games to teach and assess my students in the classroom, but I don't want to have to worry about all the equipment that it necessitates - I have had 2 laptops stolen from me this year. I want something that can work on any computer (preferably desktops) with a decent internet connection.

Here comes my teacher wish list:
I want games that target specific standards.
I want games that measure mastery of standards, meaning if you can get to the 20th level that means you have mastered multiple parts of an overarching standard.
I want games with teacher guides and tutorials so that my students who want to listen to the computer can complete the online tutorial, and students who want a small lecture can listen to me and then jump right into the game for an assessment.
I want a game that takes chemistry concepts and applies them to the real world.
I want a game where my student can create a simple avatar to go back in time and solve the riddles of history using theories covered in class. For example, imagine if you can upload your picture to an avatar and go back as Archimedes to help the king determine if his crown is made of pure gold using density. Imagine you are Robert Boyle trying to solve the gas laws or one of Rutherford's students trying to figure out what the hell is inside an atom (because it sure as hell ain't plum pudding).

The possibilities are endless, but having 8 Xbox consoles in your classroom with 30 or more controllers so that all 32 of your students can play a cooperative or competitive game to learn is unrealistic. These games need to have a multifaceted approach: Engage, Teach, and Assess. Engagement is the easy part (even though little educational computer games are viewed as lame compared to "real" video games), the difficult part is creating games that enhance learning and have numbers to back it.

I thought the conference was amazing because using technology to benefit our students is an obvious must. The fact that students are graduating high school without the skills to attach a document in an email or graph using excel is appalling. Two major things from this conference struck me (of course I forget the names of the people who I'm about to paraphrase). Dude 1 said something like, the games need to be created so that students come away with concepts and skills, not just "cool, I played a video game as an ogre and killed a bunch of elves." Dude 2 said something like, imagine how cool it would be if your students could film themselves and then be virtually placed as an electron on a Bohr model or a proton in a nucleus about to go through natural transmutation. Technology is definitely the future in education, but it needs to be feasible for teachers and teachers need to know how to properly use it to benefit the students.

Mary Albrecht's picture
Mary Albrecht
Fourth grade language arts teacher from Georgia

I challenged myself this year. Our school was fortunate enough to have a handful of Mimios for a few teachers to pilot. I signed up even though I was nervous about mastering this new device. Luckily, the teacher next door to me did the same and we spent the last academic year understanding the uses of a Mimio.

We were both pleasantly surprised at how user friendly this item was in our classes. We were also thrilled when we discovered all the online resources available to us. has a huge collection of interactive lessons and movies. United Streaming has an entire library of fabulous grade level movies, especially in science and social studies. Pete's Powerpoint has a large collection of powerpoints in all subject areas and grade levels. Education City and Brain Pop are thoroughly enjoyed by my students. Successmaker is a fabulous way to enrich or remediate reading and math.

I am spending the summer time investigating I can pull lessons that are useful for me and save them to my desktop. What a great resource!

Mary Albrecht

Kristen Kornacki's picture
Kristen Kornacki
Teaching Assistant, Long Island, NY

Educational games are a fantastic idea for the classroom. We are teaching a generation of children who are very into technology and video games. By creating educational games where the children learn and the teacher is able to assess their learning is a phenomenal idea. I would like to see various games that cover math, ELA, science, and social studies. I would like for them to contain a variety of independent, competetive, and collaborative games. This will not only help the students grasp the material, but help improve their social skills as well.
There are already some great websites which contain educational games for students however, there is no way for the teacher to monitor student learning. Yes, the students may be learning and enjoying it, but there is no way for the teacher to see where the student is or is not having difficulties.

Jan L. Plass's picture

Congratulations, Grace, on a great blog post - the comments your report received are a testament to how strongly many educators feel about the use of games, and technology-based materials in general, for learning, but also how concerned they are as to whether games will indeed be able to foster the kind of learning many of us hope for.

The comments by Liz and Erica illustrate one of the questions we are asking in our research at the Games for Learning Institute - which subject matter lends itself to which kind of game? Of all the game genres to choose from - puzzle games, platformers, adventure games, role-playing games, open-ended simulation games, and even first-person shooters - which of these might be best suited to support learners in developing expertise in specific skills and subject matters? And, perhaps more importantly, what role should games play - should they prepare students for learning by giving them a common experience to which they can later relate during class, should the games introduce new materials, or should they be used to elaborate, apply, and practice what students have already learned? I particularly agree with Erica's comment - making everything a game is most likely not the way to go. Especially in English, where computers are still not very good at providing feedback to natural language input by the students, games are probably not the best way to teach some of the more advanced (and abstract) concepts. But when integrated into other activities, games might provide a great context for teachers, as a narrative to analyze, as story to further develop, or as a way to inspire students to read and write.

But we are also concerned about the questions James raised - are games just the newest fad that is supposed to solve all of the problems of our education system but will fail to deliver, as many other technologies have before? Our research, and that of many others in our community, aims at identifying the potential of games to realize some of the dreams educators have had for a long time - and that we had to give up (or, at least, greatly limit) when we were faced with teaching 25-30 students in a room with little more than a blackboard. What if we could provide exploratory environments in which students could develop and test hypotheses in science, immerse themselves in different cultures and languages, or take on roles otherwise left to 'professionals', as medical practitioners, researchers, engineers, or artists? James is concerned that this may cost too much money to build, but isn't this kind of investment into the minds and hearts of our children, the very people who soon will run our society, the best investment we can make?

And I absolutely love the guidance and input many posters have provided for researchers and game designers. Especially Max has given us many things to consider, many challenges to solve, especially with his concern that we should not create a new digital divide in the process of introducing games by using high-end technology that many schools in less affluent areas may not have access to. And I could not agree more with Kristen's request that games would need to include assessments that would provide feedback to teachers about students' progress - this is another area that many of us are working on, and where games can, better than any other genre, provide opportunities to gain insights into learners' thinking and problem solving that can provide invaluable information for teachers.

We believe that games are an exciting new genre with enormous educational potential, but many questions need to be answered in order to actually take advantage of what they have to offer. This is the mission of the Games for Learning Institute, to study how games for learning have to be designed to live up to their potential, both related to fostering learning and to assessing learners' progress.

Catherine's picture

Great article! I'm a K-5 elementary technology teacher. Technology integration has been one of the key components in ending two years of being in "School Improvement." With the possibility of state santions for low Math scores, it was imperative that our school create a PLC that targeted specific needs. We collaboratively met to discuss and brainstorm interventions. The Hispanic and African-American subgroups were struggling academically. We decided to utilize my position as a means of reinforcement. Technology integration would target needed interventions that would promote motivation as well as provide additional help for students with language barriers. Each grade level sent me their monthly grade level plans. I then added grade level links to my web page that provided fun, game-oriented reinforcement activities. Needless to say, the EOG scores proved that all students of all cultures and academic levels excelled. We are out of School Improvement! Learning can and should be fun.

Katie Hermansen's picture

When I began browsing Edutopia blog posts, the title of this one immediately caught my eye. I recently finished a course that was connected to a week-long summer camp in which students created games, music, animations, and movies (if you're interested in finding out more, the website is located at While I knew how much kids enjoy playing games and music, I was shocked at how much they actually enjoyed creating it as well. In addition to this, students created educational games without even realizing it! I think that we should remember our goals of creativity and innovation and encourage kids to be producers as well as consumers.

While reading this post and its comments I was reminded of the games I played when I was in school. Through mystery, action, and other types of games, we practiced our math, science, social studies, and always our reading skills, all without realizing just how much we were learning.

I'm currently a preservice teacher, but I will be a full time classroom teacher beginning next fall, and through my education I have been working on gathering tools that will engage my students and further their learning. While Rubenstein mentions that this is certainly not a change that will occur anytime in the near future, I'm very excited for the day these games become mainstream, and help continue to make learning more effective, enjoyable, and relevant for our students, at all ages!

Tracee's picture

I love the idea of bringing games into the classroom as learning tools. Technology is a great motivator for students and so it competition. Students tend to focus more and challenge themselves better when they are playing a game. I have seen in the classroom where students make connections to reading or experiments that we did in class to something they did on a video game or computer game.

Catherine Haight's picture

Gaming is one of my favorite things to do. It is my hope that the gaming community starts developing ways for us to use virtual reality in the classroom environment. I hope the developers keep in mind though as appealing as game play is the reality is that teachers in schools have to give standardized test and it reflects on our schools and on us. The skills that are tested need to be integrated into the game is a "spoon full of sugar" kind of way. I do not see any end to testing in the near future so we have to work within the framework we are dealt. My school was rated a D last year by the Florida Dept of Education and I can tell you it took a huge emotional toll on everyone. Teachers felt like failures, students felt stupid, admin felt lost, and parents felt defeated. The moral of the staff and students was low and it was a battle all year to keep going. School grade are more traumatizing than you would think, I just pray it goes up this year. I want to do all the fun and innovative things but you have to show me that its' not going to hurt us on the other end we have no control over.

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