We asked some serious-game experts about how teachers can get the most out of them in the classroom. Here's their advice:
Do a Dry Run
First, give yourself some gaming homework. Familiarize yourself with the game's rules, strategies, and keyboard commands so you'll be ready if someone accidentally hits the wrong key and needs a rescue. On game day, try using a projector or an interactive whiteboard to give the whole class a demo before letting the students take over.
Let the Kids Go Nuts
Make sure the students get enough time with the game to thoroughly explore different scenarios and make their own mistakes. "Get the heck out of the way," urges high school social studies teacher Scott Deckelmann, who uses the game PeaceMaker in his classes. "Don't be afraid to let them totally fail and try again." If the classroom smart alecks want to push the simulation to its limits -- Deckelmann says his students always spend the first round of the game trying to blow up the Middle East -- that's fine, too. Ultimately, they'll figure it out: "It ends the game, which is no fun," he explains. The class will wise up and move on.
Have a Postgame Plan
"No matter what the game or the subject, the important thing to do is to use the game as a catalyst for something else," says Ian Bogost, associate professor of computational and digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who is also an adviser for the Serious Games Summit at the annual Game Developers Conference. "There is some natural learning that takes place on its own within the game, but unpacking that is the job of the teacher; the kids can't do it themselves."
Help students link the game's content to events in the real world with classroom talks and writing assignments or by providing other media, such as documentaries and news clips. Some games now offer free downloadable curricula or discussion guides, or you can create your own.
Deckelmann and colleague Karl Atkins help their students explore cause and effect by having them create charts that record the choices they make while playing PeaceMaker and the results of each decision. They then use an analytical yet creative writing assignment -- such as having students take on the role of a secret adviser writing a memo about how to resolve a real-life international conflict -- to wrap up the unit.
Encourage Open Conversation
Let free debate reign in postgame chats as long as students support their arguments with evidence. "When kids are talking about their experiences with the game but feel like the teacher is lecturing them, or they can only agree with the teachers' perspective, or the teacher doesn't really care about their perspective but is just focused on facts, then that will hurt," says Joseph Kahne, dean of the School of Education at Mills College, in Oakland, California, and an expert on the social side of video games.
He adds, "For young people, one of the most important things from a civic standpoint is to feel that there is an open climate for discussion."
Kara Platoni is a freelance science writer in Oakland, California.