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Getting Started Using Video Games in the Classroom

Getting Started Using Video Games in the Classroom

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Game Based Learning is quickly becoming a norm in terms of implementation and strategies in many classrooms around the globe, but with all the talk it sure can be overwhelming in terms of thinking about where to start.

Do I use a commercial off the shelf game?

Do I use an educational game?

How do I know if it is a good game?

What board games might I use?

As I work with teachers to implement game based learning, these are some of the first questions that come up. I have written many blogs about game based learning, and specifically about using video games, but I want to hear from the community.

If you were to give advice to a teacher who wanted to get started with using video games in the classroom, what would you tell them? What resources are available? How do you link it to learning objectives and standards?

I can't wait to read your ideas!

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Kristen Swanson's picture
Kristen Swanson
Teacher, Leader, Edcamper, Learner

I've been experimenting with gamification of both PD and student learning. One of the best resources for this has been For the Win by Werbach and Hunter (link here: It shows you really simple ways to gamify situations given your specific goals. It's not focused on education, but it's helped me create some really cool experiences for my learners.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Great topic, and very important at the moment, too. I've seen a few really good examples of GBL in the classroom. The most memorable was using Sim City to teach about civics and citizenship, as well as a host of other things. In fact, for a whole term, students played and compared their cities. The crucial thing, though was building in time for reflection and analysis of what they were learning. It's not just a matter of letting the kids loose on the games! I would also recommend reading or watching James Gee talk about it - here's a link:

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Personally, if I were teaching world studies, I would want kids to play a game of Civilization by Sid Meirs It walks you through starting a civilization from scratch, balancing science and infrastructure spending, trade, and more.
That said, there are plenty of games out there, such as the games attached as "interludes" to online study programs like "Study island" that I think are largely inane. The thing that makes games fun is the fact that the next challenge is just a bit harder than the current one, but likely doable or win-able, and that there are often puzzles or questions that need to be answered before advancing to the next level. This model can work just as well for normal classroom curriculum, if you challenge kids with interesting, open ended questions, and they have to wait until the next class to find out more. (The Cliff hanger of the day, so to speak...)
If you want to incorporate games into your curriculum, I think they must be done in such a way that the learning objective is clear, at least to you as the teacher, and that students get a chance to reflect on it, particularly in upper grades.
When we're speaking about early elementary, I think the games designed to reinforce reading, math and even typing skills are terrific, as they are geared towards skill building, and once the 'reward" structure of the game is removed, the kid is still left with the skill itself intact- the ability to read, or knowing your addition facts with automaticity.
So at the core, I think we have to ask the following questions:
1. Are we trying to use games as a way to disguise learning, like hiding spinach in spaghetti sauce to get kids to eat more vegetables? And if that's so, are kids going to feel suckered or coerced the next time, making the game scenario less effective overall?
2. Are we using games to reinforce skills that need repetition and practice? This may be a totally acceptable way to make rote learning more entertaining without as many of the downsides of disguising learning itself.
3. Why are we looking at games, and is this the best way to learn? Using games like Civilization, for example, may be a good way to get kids to think about the layers of history and infrastructure, which could lead to discussions about how damaging wars and natural disasters are, as they remove the very infrastructure that took so many years to build, leading to destabilization of the social fabric and community.... The game is a jumping off point to deeper discussions as lessons, not an end in and of itself.
4. Is the game harnessing the "zone of proximal development", urging kids to do just a bit more than they thought possible?
5. Is the game trying to inject fun, but the bottom line is the game just isn't engaging enough or challenging enough to accomplish the goals? (There are a lot of expensive games out there that are frankly, mind numbingly boring. If you can't stand playing for more than 5 minutes, neither will your class.)
6. Can you "gamify" your current curriculum by using game like features- cliff hangers, positive reinforcements at random intervals, etc.? That gets to the core reason to use games, after all- to use all those basic behavioral psych lessons to help kids get excited and motivated to learn, and making it worth their while by making their progress easy to see while offering incentives and rewards (Choose anything from good grades to stickers to chocolate...) that keep them working just a bit harder to reach the next level.
Games sound like a great idea, but I think they work best when the goal is clear, and the kids are participating because the activity itself in engaging and challenging. The learning doesn't have to feel like something sneaky.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Whitney, I think you've hit on something important--that there's difference between the artifacts of gamification (like badges) and the principles behind them. If a person employs the artifacts without understanding how and why they work, it's like building a car without an engine. It might look right, but it won't go very fast (if at all).

Judy Willis is a neurologist who wrote a blog post about how playing games affects the brain and the implications for learning:

I found it very helpful and accessible.

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

I had a great time pulling together this 5-Minute Film Festival of videos about game-based learning:

It's a great starting point to dip your toes into the vast waters of games for edu -- with links to related orgs and resources in addition to the videos to watch. I largely focused on digital video games for learning, but there are a few resources on the page for gamification as well (making activities in real life more game-like).

Institute of Play is also a fantastic source for game-based learning guides and tools -- check out this link to all of their resources for educators:

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I agree with Whitney that much of this comes down to being clear about what you're trying to teach and then using that clarity to guide the kinds of games you use and how you use them.

It's a small thing, but I've found that my own kids' teachers tend to use video game language in class to good effect. They'll talk about "leveling up" when they need kids to revise papers, for example. Just these small choices go a long way to helping my kids make sense of what's being asked of them.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Laura, I've used similar language with my nephew who is really big into video games. When he was learning to use chopsticks, he would get "experience points" every time he was successful in getting the food to his mouth. :-)

The simple shift in language re-framed the experience from "I don't know how to do this" to "this is something I can improve and get better at".

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