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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools Use Games for Learning and Assessment

Computer simulations are natural learning tools for a generation of video game players. More to this story.
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Narrator: The burgeoning realm of games and simulations has become a billion-dollar industry. Employing cutting-edge technology, many of the world's best minds are creating products that bedazzle and engage players of all ages in everything from killing bad guys, to performing life-saving surgeries.

Narrator: If we tilt the skull down a little bit we can see these others

Douglas: There's little doubt in anyone's mind that putting the people into an environment where they can experience the things that they need to learn, they can make mistakes without risk, they can try new things. The engagement that comes from that type of environment is a better way to learn than just sitting them in a classroom and just throwing information at them.

Narrator: Clients such as the U.S. Military spend millions to train personnel in simulated environments like this virtual residency called Pulse.

Douglas: The first version of Pulse was built to model Bethesda Naval Medical Intensive Care Unit. You work with other care givers, doctors and nurses, and you can see the things that you would be seeing in the real world. You can shine the light on the pupil and based on the physiological condition of that patient, the eye will dilate appropriately. You can check their ears, touch them, feel them, listen to them in the virtual world so that you can do the diagnosis and that's what we want to replicate is the real experience that the doctor or nurse would have in the real world.

Narrator: These days engaging simulations and games can be found just about anywhere critical thinking happens. Anywhere, that is, except the classroom.

Teacher: X over 360.

Kurt: Our schools are in trouble if our response to things like cellphones and new technology is to ban them, is to say "Well you can't bring that into school." And games I think really are the cutting edge because they probably more than anything are good at letting people start as novices and become experts.

Student: See?

Student: Oh yeah.

David: We don't live in an industrial economy anymore. We live in a knowledge economy and so we have to think about education in a fundamentally different way. We can't be focusing on basic facts and basic skills. We have to think about ways of thinking that are going to matter more than what we do in traditional schools right now.

Kurt: On the Wii we can do some of that.

Narrator: Kurt Squire and David Williamson Shaffer research educational games at the University of Wisconsin. In one study Squire gauged the impact of the game Civilization on a group of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders.

Kurt: A lot of the kids come in hating school and in particular really hating social studies. And we start them off just playing the game for fun, seeing if they can't get involved in the game. It's really quite complex. There's a lot of historical vocabulary, a lot of maps, a lot of terminology. They start to think about the model as a simulation of history that they can think with. So they start thinking about how does technology and geography influence the way civilizations grow and fade? From there we find they usually start producing their own games and all of them now that we work with have gone to straight "A"s in social studies and other areas. And these are 10 and 11 year old kids. If you look at one of the biggest crisis right now in schools it's underachieving boys who become labeled A.D.H.D. and then they're starting on the social problems, fighting and so on. And teachers are really running and "What do we do with these kids?" And we think games is a really powerful way to tap into their interests and channel it towards something that's more positive. The kids certainly love it.

Teacher: It's already 9:50. We've got two hours to work on this exam. What I want you to try to do is do a 3D version of a Donkey Kong animation.

Narrator: McKinley Technology High School in Washington D.C. has embraced the brave new virtual world.

Teacher: Any questions?

Narrator: Plagued by declining enrollment and campus violence the school was shut down in 1997 and reopened six years later as a tech magnet with the latest hardware and a revamped curriculum focusing on biotechnology and digital media.

Teacher: And then you're actually controlling the camera, that's good. Switch it so you're looking through that camera.

Daniel: We want our students not to be consumers of simulation technology, but designers of simulation technology where they are determining the structure of how that story is told. For that is where one is able to be creative and personalize it.

Student: You need to move our your camera.

Student: I'm saying it's locked.

Student: But you still need to move your camera.

Daniel: By enabling them to have the technical skills, they're able to express individualization and creative skills.

Ciarra: Basically what I did was I made the stadium and the stage and all the chairs and everything. Even though you see there's a whole bunch of chairs around, it actually didn't take that long at all to do. That was actually the easiest part.

Daniel: By bringing the students and the technologies together, we are able to insure that the kids see connections beyond just the standard written text or the math problem, to see why math feeds into videogame design, how algebra, physics, and geometry are part of what must be considered when trying to design an engaging and interactive experience.

Student: So basically this is the American Red Cross Fire Safety game that a couple of students at McKinley and myself created during the summer. We spent six weeks doing it. There's three to four different rooms because we have the bedroom, the bathroom, and the family room. The purpose of the game is to go through and assess all of the fire hazards. And what happens when you see a hazard, you have to click on it and then it zooms in and it gives you a little excerpt about the fire hazard like "Don't overload plugs" and things like that.

Ciarra: Just the energy of McKinley is so different. It makes you want to learn. They teach us programming and animation and 3D modeling and Maya and things like that and that's really exciting.

Narrator: McKinley students are also asked to test games and simulations like this virtual lab developed and distributed for free by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Dennis: There is no question that some of our virtual labs for example, the Bacterial I.D. lab which involves obtaining D.N.A. sequence, using that to identify an unknown microbe. That's the kind of experiment that is hard to do in most high school settings so it does allow some teachers to expose students to things that they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. The other thing that animation and media is good for is revealing the hidden worlds that simply aren't tangible to people in any other way and you can tell people it's exciting and interesting, but it's always better to just show them.

Eitan: And this is actually how your body deals with some sort of bacterial infection, how it clears it out, you know, minus the really cool graphics.

Narrator: Another game McKinley students helped incubate is Immune Attack, a multimillion dollar project underwritten by the Federation of American Scientists.

Eitan: In the game you have to reactivate somebody's defunct immune system and teach them how to cope with bacterial and viral infections.

Student: That's the macrophage?

Etian: Yep, that's the macrophage right there.

Every month or so we have a new build that we're very interested in getting feedback from students how does this work? What's complicated about this? What's clear? How can we improve the game? And more recently we've taken on two McKinley high school seniors as interns at FAS and they're actually helping to develop the game now so it's been a very mutually beneficial relationship working with McKinley High School.

Narrator: Whether they are debugging simulations for scientists or test driving the latest commercial games, kids seem hard-wired to the task. And with a little guidance they can become expert designers.

Eric: What should these guys do?

Ben: Again, knock you back, but then roll over you.

Eric: Okay.

Narrator: When he was 9 cancer patient, Ben Duskin approached the Make-A-Wish Foundation with an unusual request.

Eric: His wish was to make a video game where the player fights cancer cells so that he could send it back to the kids who were still in the treatment center. This was just after he had finished his chemo. And Ben was in a position to know uniquely what would help and his primary motive was to distract and entertain.

Narrator: Enlisting the aid of Software Engineer, Eric Johnston Ben designed a game that is engaging and enlightening.

Eric: One of the things that was I think a fantastic idea of Ben's was to take the side effects, not the cancer cells themselves, but the side effects are represented in the game as the monsters, a monster for each one. So there's a giant chicken for chicken pox, and there's a robot that flings barf at you that's the vomit monster. By making those monsters large and then as you attack them they grow smaller and smaller and less scary was a part of making the game engaging.

Right, so now we've got billiard balls shooting at us.

For parents and siblings it really provided a look into how from the kids' point of view, how the treatment process looks.

Ben: Whoa!

Eric: Oh yeah, I added that.

David: We have technologies that can help kids learn in new ways and we can essentially build models of what an education for the future might look like. And my hope in doing that is that parents and teachers and school board members, and kids, and politicians and all of us will look at what happens in these environments and say "Wow, why can't school be more like that?"

Teacher: You're going to have three choices for what you want to work on during this class.

Narrator: Seeing their potential to transform public education, the Federation of American Scientists has called for a major federal effort to fund serious games.

Henry: The potential here is so huge that it just seems a national shame that we're not putting money on the table to find out if this is right. I mean the payoff is spectacular. You have to think about using this technology that could actually completely turn productivity in education and get people who are otherwise be uninterested or underserved by this system fully engaged, and we just can't afford to leave anybody behind.

Student: Land, that's like geography.

Student: That's geography.

Douglas: I think the advances in technology these days are going to allow the gaming and simulation community to create simulations of anything, and when we can deploy that over the Internet we will then have on every desktop the best teacher in the world available to every student.

Kurt: Good games are really compelling for their players to the point that people are worried about addiction and things. And you know it's ironic, can you imagine is there a world in which we'd have addiction to school? You know, someone would walk in and say "I'm addicted to learning, I need more."

Students: Whoo!

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Karen Sutherland


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Brian Cardello
  • Duncan Sutherland
  • Yellow Cat Productions


  • Kris Welch

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Additional Footage Courtesy of

  • BreakAway, Ltd.
  • EA / Electronic Arts
  • Firaxis Games, Inc.
  • LucasArts
  • Make-A-Wish Foundation
  • McKinley Technology High School
  • Silicon Graphics, Inc.
  • Take-Two Interactive
  • University of California - San Diego
  • University of Wisconsin
  • U.S. Army

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