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Teaching Tools: Using Online Simulations and Games

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
Related Tags: Game-Based Learning
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Students who are passionate gamers can talk a blue streak about the virtual online worlds where they invest their free time and energy. Usually, of course, they get to play only when they're not at school. But why not bring gaming into the classroom? Could teachers tap that same passion to spark learning?

Gaming remains new territory for most schools. As the following examples show, educators on the frontiers are eager to share what they're learning. Here are just a few examples.

Evoke Social Change

This spring, several teachers introduced their high school students to an alternate reality game that challenges players to solve big global challenges. Evoke attracted nearly 20,000 players from around the world during its 10-week run. Game designer Jane McGonigal, who developed Evoke for the World Bank Institute, calls it "a crash course in changing the world."

Here's how it works: Each week, a new chapter from a graphic novel introduces players to a different challenge from the not-so-distant future. These "missions" range from food scarcity to human trafficking. Players respond -- and earn points -- by posting blogs, videos, or photos that convey their proposed solutions or reactions. They also comment on other players' postings, sparking dialogue, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Paul Allison, an English teacher at East-West School of International Studies in New York, has been playing Evoke right alongside his students. He's one of several teachers from the New York Writing Project who decided to experiment with the game as a springboard for digital literacy. These colleagues have been comparing teaching strategies and student responses. They have also taken their conversation to a larger audience by talking about gaming and learning during recent episodes of the weekly webcast, "Teachers Teaching Teachers," which Allison hosts.

Allison has seen a mix of reactions among students, who are also reflecting on their experience on a site called Youth Voices. Some say they enjoy the novelty of being virtual "agents" who tackle global crises with their own wits. Others are more critical, suggesting that Evoke lacks the excitement of commercial games. One student said being asked to write blog posts about global issues feels too much like regular homework.

Now that the game is nearly over, some students are taking their online creativity into the real world (which was exactly what game designer McGonigal had in mind). Allison's students, for instance, are using a local garden to investigate questions about culture and community.

As Allison explains in this recent blog post:

This work has become such a passion this spring. My colleagues have wondered why. And it has to do with how many of the missions in Evoke can be answered in our garden. It's about Social Innovation, Food Security, Water Crisis, Urban Resilience, and Indigenous Knowledge. Because of Evoke, these words have a resonance that bounces from Africa to India to China and Cuba and back to our wonderful community garden in Flushing, Queens."

WoW and Tech Standards?

World of Warcraft (WoW) is a commercial blockbuster, with millions of subscribers from around the world. Dean Groom, an Australian educator and advocate of the Web 2.0 classroom, suggests that teachers use a free, 10-day trial of WoW to meet standards, such as the Educational Technology Standards for Students.

In a post on his Design 4 Learning blog Groom explains how to use backward design to plan a robust, game-based project that meets important learning goals. The game is a hook to grab interest, but the real learning happens through inquiry. "It's not about what you learn by playing a game," Groom insists, "but how the game can be use to foster inquiry skills, critical thinking, and student learning."

SimCEO: Innovation Platform

When Derek Luebbe was a social studies teacher, he used to run a stock market simulation to teach students about finance. But in six weeks of picking stocks, he found that students didn't learn much more than the mechanics of the market. And they tended to pick companies with well-known names rather making critical judgments.

So Luebbe began imagining a better approach. What if students created their own companies, complete with business plans? What if they could also buy and sell stocks in classmates' companies? What if they could see how stock prices fluctuated over a 10-year period rather than just a few weeks?

The result of that brainstorming became an online simulation called SimCEO. Luebbe, principal of American International School of Budapest, has been fine-tuning his creation by sharing it with educators around the world. They have surprised him by taking projects in directions he never imagined.

He expected teachers to focus on financial literacy and entrepreneurship. But some have brought in different content. "They might set the simulation in Colonial America or New York in the 1920s," Luebbe says, then ask students to consider how historical factors would have affected market prices. Because teachers determine all the content, he adds, "they can bring in demographic data, real or fictional news, historical events -- whatever they want." The game becomes an open platform for teacher innovation.

For Earth Day, for instance, one teacher challenged students to propose ideas for reducing their school's carbon footprint. Using SimCEO, they bid on each other's proposals. Dynamic stock prices gave them immediate feedback for adjusting their plans.

If you're a teacher interested in bringing gaming into your classroom, there's no shortage of opportunities to get started. Luebbe invites teachers to set up a free SimCEO account (use the promotional code: edutopia), and see where your creativity takes you. Meanwhile, the first run of Evoke has just ended, but teachers are already brainstorming a future version customized for the classroom.

Have you used gaming in your classroom? Please tell us about your experience.

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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Comments (43) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Westrum's picture

I love this new perspective on gaming. I've used online games in my classroom some, but generally on a more limited basis (math games or word games). It's exciting to read about other options that can be used to help students develop both technological literacy and thinking skills. AS students are already using the technology, I think it's great for teachers to embrace it and use it to help us teach. Thanks so much for sharing these ideas!

Derek's picture
HS Principal AIS Budapest and founder of simCEO - classroom simulation

Just to provide a bit of feedback on your comments. We've had 4th graders play simCEO, so it can certainly be successful at that level. Without sounding a like a salesman, the simulation is easy to adapt for varying grade levels. For example, instead of asking students to develop an elaborate business plan, an elementary student might simply try to describe a product of service that would be useful in the school/city/state (and bypass all of the other aspects of a business plan).

Similarly, the "news" that students need to respond to is added by the teacher and therefore suited for any age or complexity level.

The real "kick" comes from the natural student engagement in an environment where it is easy for the teacher to integrate content - for any age group. And because they understand the purpose, their application of this content takes on meaning and usually results in some of the students' best work.

Just wanted to let you know what was possible. Thanks for your positive feedback and best of luck with your experience.

Paul Burkhardt's picture

I like the way you mention world of warcraft as a teaching media.
As a long time gamer (I was playing Dungeons & Dragons 30 years ago and now play several online games)I realize how much discipline and strategy is required to play world of warcraft well with a group. Most people don't think of online gaming as anymore than a waste of time but I disagree.
WOW Strategy Guide

Lucas Gillispie's picture
Lucas Gillispie
Director of Academic and Digital Learning, Surry County Schools, NC

[quote]I loved reading this installment of this blog. I think this a great idea and very useful teaching tool - to use online gaming as a platform for learning. I don't know exactly how I could use it in my context as a K-2 teacher, but am willing to check it out to see how it could be adapted for younger students. I am left wondering though... What do your administrators think of your usage of online gaming in your teaching? Also, in my district ALL of the sites that were mentioned are blocked... Does anyone else have this problem?[/quote]

The buzz that our WoWinSchool Project has generated is catching the attention of some of our K-2 folks. A group of them recently approached me asking for a suggestion for a virtual world/game to teach communities. Currently, I haven't found a perfect fit (for that age group), but one game I'm exploring is Animal Crossing: City Folk for the Nintendo Wii. The reading level may be a bit high for the Kindergartners, but with teacher guidance, it could be a valuable experience. Another commercial, online game that might have some value is Club Penguin.

Regarding district administrators and technology staff, I am fortunate to work in a small, forward-thinking school district that isn't afraid to take risks. I can simply walk next door to our technology department and say, "Hey, this game site is blocked, but we want to use it in the classroom," and they'll open it for me. The administrators, upon seeing our after-school program in action (and the extreme student engagement), were very willing to let us expand the program into the regular school day. Now there's talk of expanding it to another school. Exciting times!


rose john's picture

Including games or any other interactive module makes the content easy to understand. There are many site which offers videos on various topics. Such initiative is really appreciable. Simple text is not so attractive so addition of certain additional things makes it interesting.
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Felisha's picture

I really enjoyed learning about leveraging online gaming to teach students essential skills. It would appear that this method, although new, should definitely be introduced in schools as cutting-edge new education technologies .

KB's picture

These are great examples of ways to use online games with students. When I was student teaching, we had a simulation game that students could play that practiced budgeting and decision making, and the students loved it! I am a huge user of technology in my classroom, and think that it is important for us to engage students in 21st century methods of teaching!

Doug Bergman's picture
Doug Bergman
Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC

By age 21, the average person has spent 10000 hours playing computer games(3 or 4 times as much time as they have spent reading books). That is the approximate time a typical kid spends in the classroom from 5th to 12th grade. (that is paraphrased from p. 266 "Reality is Broken" (McGonical)). What if school were as engaging as those games? What might a typical classroom look like? What is it about games that makes us WANT to play them? What if we were able to harness some of that into education?
If you have not read Jane McGonical's book, run, don't walk, to get it(or at least click fast on Amazon)

Jason Pikul's picture
Jason Pikul
High School Business Education Teacher from Princeton, New Jersey

After school, I work at a financial literacy start-up with a website specifically for teens and money, We're about to launch a stock market game called I Rule Stocks Market Challenge. Our test game will have 250 participants (high school aged teens) so space is limited. Let me know if you have students that may be interested in testing out our game.

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