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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

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Comments (57) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Yamile Castillo's picture
Yamile Castillo
Kindergarten Teacher From Miami, Fl

I think that these blogs that edutopia offers are great tools. Incorporating educational games in the classroom is very beneficial to our students because they believe they are playing a game but in reality they are reviewing concepts that they might have learned in class or they are learning new concepts. I think that educational games are also beneficial to ESL students. Next school year I will be teaching ESL students and I think this might allow my students to learn English at a faster pace.

Yamile Castillo's picture
Yamile Castillo
Kindergarten Teacher From Miami, Fl

I think that these blogs that edutopia offers are great tools. Incorporating educational games in the classroom is very beneficial to our students because they believe they are playing a game but in reality they are reviewing concepts that they might have learned in class or they are learning new concepts. I think that educational games are also beneficial to ESL students. Next school year I will be teaching ESL students and I think this might allow my students to learn English at a faster pace.

Alan Murphy's picture

Gaming and education, in my opinion, is a field that has already been blended, but not in a way that is applicable in schools. Lately, there has been a large output of reality-based war games that focus on real events. With the various World War II games and exploration games available, many kids don't realize they're learning, even if it is on a minimal knowledge-based scale. I learned a lot about history by accident, just by playing Sid Meier's "Civilization" on the computer, and I only played it because it had war scenarios. I don't even like computer games and have never played another ever since! Granted, it wasn't very educational aside from teaching me basic facts from history, but I still learned about the different types of government, all the famous world leaders of centuries past and present, and significant countries and peoples. The point is, with the amount of dedication and time that kids put into these games, they quickly become experts of a fictional world. If that false world can be replaced with a real life scenario, our students could achieve new heights in education.

Most video games today have a high level of action or risk to the central character involved. In war games, the character can die. In exploration and civilization development games, resources can run low and your country won't develop. In sports games, the quarterback can throw an interception and the team can lose. The sense of accomplishing something at the end is the hook that keeps players engaged. If for instance a game can be created for a class discussing the economy, and in that game they have to maintain a miniature economy, create a tax rate and establish trade with another country, then the students could get a better hands-on sense of how delicate the whole system is, and come away with a better apprecaition for where America stands in the world.

If we can harness the excitement offered by regular video games, and substitute the fictional plot for something that's more school-focused and realistic, I believe we can bring a new meaning to hands-on learning and really engage the students on a level they're not yet reaching. Teachers already use games and various forms of entertainment to make information relevant and easier to recall; it's actually surprising to think that education in gaming hasn't moved beyond 1980's The Oregon Trail and Number Munchers, and I really enjoyed both of those, in elementary school!

To close, I'd like to leave one final thought. Imagine you're teaching a Social Studies class, and you're showing a video to the students about the Vietnam War and it's impact on American society. Are all of your students watching? Are all of them even awake...? Now, imagine a multi-player video game projected on the wall, larger than life-sized, four students at the controls, their characters roaming through the jungle into the unknown... Granted, it's your job to blend relevant information and learning into the action, but are they at least engaged and interested?

Bob Sukesh's picture

Wow! I never thought about it in this way. Sure, games have a 'spell'ing effect on kids and the teen. Using the power of games to help them in studying will be a dream breakthrough!

Monique Flowers's picture

I would also find a list of online games very helpful. I recently got a job as the computer teacher for a k-5 elementary school. Although much of our (the students' and mine) time will be devoted to SuccessMaker, I am sure there will be times when this list of games would be beneficial.

Emily's picture

It is very exciting to hear that video game companies are finally joining with the education world. During center time in my classroom, the computer center is always the favorite. I have created a website where I have linked many learning games for students to play. Children today live in a digital world. They were born into the world of the internet, cell phones, texting, i-pods, television, and video games. No wonder students today seem unmotivated in schools where they do worksheets and work out of textbooks. To engage students, they need to be given opportunities to create and explore. Video games captivate students and involve them in the learning process. I can't wait to see the exciting ideas of these educational video games develop into reality.

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Emily, your website sounds like a really helpful resource. Would you mind sharing the link with us?


Daniel Schwarz's picture
Daniel Schwarz
Managing partner & creative director of takomat GmbH

Here are some links about our R&D projects- we initialized the interdisciplinary research on digital game-based learning in Europe with ELEKTRA (2006-2008, 3.2Mio Euros budget) and continued that with 80Days (2008-2010, 3.4 Mio Euros budget):

TV-coverage on EURONEWS about the ELEKTRA-project:

Project Website ELEKTRA:

Project Website 80Days:

Short video about the content of the Neuroscientific studies in ELEKTRA:

Video Lecture that explains the LEARNING GAME DESIGN in 80Days:

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