George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

Games in Education: Teacher Takeaways

Matt Farber shares his observations from the Games in Education symposium, where he learned about students as designers, assessment possibilities, and adaptive video games.

October 9, 2014
Photo credit: Institute of Play

This August I attended the Games in Education Symposium, a free, two-day event held in upstate New York. Co-presented by 1st Playable Productions, it focused on practical implementations of game-based learning for K-12 teaching. Much of what I learned there has made its way into my lesson planning for this current school year.

Game design professor and Multiplayer Classroom author Lee Sheldon gave the first day's keynote address. He spoke about what teachers should look for in learning games. To a teacher, the marketplace can be bewildering. Sheldon suggested seeking "balanced" games -- a middle ground where learning and fun intersect. He also discussed the screenwriting technique called double-coding, where content is so rich that every viewer becomes engaged. A film with both romance and action is an example. Games and lessons double-coded for wide appeal can make learning engaging for all.

Paul Darvasi gave the second day's keynote about alternate reality games (ARGs). There was also a session led by English teacher John Fallon, who demonstrated how games put learning into authentic contexts by using ARGs as a tool to teach Homer's Odyssey. Carefully constructed lessons can be delivered in an engaging, game-like setting.

Students as Designers

There were several workshops about teaching game design. Educator Steve Isaacs led a workshop on Game Maker: Studio, a popular authoring tool with a drag-and-drop interface. Another session presented MinecraftEdu as a tool for teaching STEM concepts.

I learned more about the basics of paper prototyping, the paper-and-pencil testing of game mechanics prior to being digitally rendered. The paper-prototyping process lends itself to critical thinking skills. Paper-based games:

  1. Have a low barrier to adoption (no technology needed!)
  2. Model systems thinking (everything is interconnected)
  3. Model the iterative design process (prototype, test, gather feedback, iterate).

The argument can be made that most commercial board games (off-the-shelf, from Scattegories to Settlers of Catan) meet Common Core State Standards. The mechanics of play (what you do in a game) can reinforce argumentative thinking. Christopher Harris, co-author of Libraries Got Game: Aligned Learning Through Modern Board Games, led one of the presentations on non-digital games. He is a regular contributor to the School Library Journal, and his new site, PlayPlayLearn, relates board games and education. It is an excellent resource to discover effective games to bring to your classroom -- for any discipline.

Scott Nicholson, a professor from Syracuse University, presented the Tabletop Game Jam. Tabletop games involve little to no technology, other than paper, pencils, dice or spinners, and other tokens to use in play. Game jams resemble hack-a-thons, marathon sessions of computer coding. (For more, check out the Global Game Jam and #WHGameJam, an Educational Game Jam recently hosted by the White House.) Nicholson's session used templates (e.g., gameboards with blank spaces) and general concepts (e.g., modify rules to a common game like tic-tac-toe). Working in small groups, participants created simple paper-based games and then wrote down the rules (informational/technical writing: a Common Core skill). The fun began when teams moved about the room to playtest other group's games -- using only the instructions provided.

In 2010, Nicholson published Everyone Plays at the Library: Creating Great Gaming Experiences for All Ages, illustrating how games bring local communities together. He describes his Tabletop Game Jam workshop here:

Assessing with Games

Video games can seamlessly provide formative assessments to teachers. Like an exit ticket at the end of a lesson, badges and achievements can serve as a check for understanding. One example presented was the Teacher Dashboard for GlassLab's Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy. Using a simple login, the teacher can assess students' grasp of claims-based argumentation concepts. BrainPOP's SnapThought was also featured as a game-based reflection tool. Using it, students can write about their decisions made during play.

Chris Haskell, from Boise State University, gave an exciting Prezi (presentation) called The Game-Based Curriculum. In it, he shared the successes of the 3D Game Lab, which he co-developed. It's a learning management system (LMS) to track assessed skills and knowledge in a gamified platform. Presented with what is essentially the "back end" of a massive multiplayer game (think: World of Warcraft), the student is put on a quest built on choice.

I presented at Games in Education, too. My workshop was about Let's Play, the video genre in which players screencast gameplay while providing commentary. It meets many Common Core State Standards, including the ability to explain information. Using simple tools like Screencast-O-Matic, students can record what they create in "sandbox" virtual worlds and explain their creations. MinecraftEdu, the digital rocket kit, Kerbal Space Program, as well as the physics canvas Algodoo, all work well for Let's Play in a classroom. The assessment of their gameplay should be "authentic," graded by rubric, like the culminating activity of other project-based learning activities.

There are so many approaches to game-based learning -- assessments, students as designers, and adaptive video games, to name a few. I am looking forward to attending Games in Education next year to learn more!

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