Playing Games to Learn – Ideas and Resources

LogicPuzzleMy 7th/8th grade math teacher, Ms. Whitney, always included logic puzzles at the end of every unit test given on each Friday. When reviewing the test answers on Monday morning, she always walked us through the solution of the puzzle. For all of us in her 7th and 8th grade math classes, those puzzles were the real reward for finishing the test, with the additional bonus of 10 extra credit points on the test if you completed a puzzle successfully. Sometimes I ran out of time and sometimes I finished them; I always loved to try. I still enjoy logic puzzles to this day, and I still feel very accomplished if I can finish one on the first try (very rare): they can be extremely hard, at times seem impossible to solve. These games were not frivolous or without real learning outcomes, despite the fact that we students didn’t know that. We had fun trying them and competing with each other to see who could finish one, and in the process, learned about strategy, elimination of facts, cross-referencing clues, referring back and anticipating forward: that is, how to think logically. The logic puzzles were contained within funny and appealing narratives (seven students tried out for the school play: figure out who got the lead role, who was understudy, who became a prop, etc. based on the clues provided).

Games are an integral part of learning. Ask any five-year old or, like me, a struggling 7th grade math student. When we play games, we fall down, get tagged out, get hit with the dodge ball, lose some/win some, take risks, try again, show up, work together, strategize, change tactics/approaches –we try. There is very little we won’t do or try  to succeed at a game – even if we don’t always win. Sometimes we walk away from a game out of frustration, disappointment, anger, boredom, hurt feelings, sour grapes; we quit, but the game stays with us, we usually come back and try again, or the sense of failing may follow us forever (despite being tall, I was never good at basketball; I’m still trying to land a layup).

Jane McGonigal believes that games can make a better world. Tom Chatfield connects gaming with brain rewards and intrinsic motivation. It’s worth your time to listen to these two TED Talks and consider how games may make your teaching and student learning explode with excitement, engagement, interactivity, and, most importantly, fun:

Jane McGonigal TED Talk: Gaming can make a better world

Tom Chatfield: 7 ways that games reward the brain

So now that we know how engaging gaming is (and this isn’t just about video games!), why aren’t we using more games in our classrooms? Or, why haven’t we found the game that will change the dynamic, light some fires, introduce fun, into our class? It’s not so easy to just think up a game that meets our content specifications, learning goals, and assessment/grading needs. Sometimes we just need to see what other people are doing out there, to be inspired and try something new for presenting or delivering conceptual material in our courses. So below you will find a whole list of examples from disciplines across the curriculum. Hopefully, you find something that appeals.

One of the foremost theorists on the connection between gaming and learning, employing what he calls “pedagogies that combine immersion with well-designed guidance” is James Paul Gee. His research article, “Game-Like Learning,” contains a wealth of examples on how to leverage video games for knowledge building, especially conceptual simulations that apply new knowledge and immerse students in environments that provide opportunities for making judgments and receiving formative feedback. Here –very condensed– are some of his examples (read the full article here: http://www.jamespaulgee.com/node/29):

  • Supercharged!

    “Kurt Squire and his colleagues (Squire et al. 2004; see also Jenkins, Squire, and Tan 2003; Squire 2003) have worked on a computer game called Supercharged! to help students learn physics. Supercharged! is an electro- magnetism simulation game developed in consultation with MIT physicist John Belcher by the Games-to-Teach project at MIT (run by Henry Jenkins; see http://www.educationarcade.org). Players use the game to explore electromag- netic mazes, placing charged particles and controlling a ship that navigates by altering its charge. The game play consists of two phases: planning and playing. Each time players encounter a new level, they are given a limited set of charges that they can place throughout the environment, enabling them to shape the trajectory of their ship.”

  • Augmented by reality: Madison 2020250px-SimCity_2013_Limited_Edition_cover

    “In their Madison 2020 project, David Shaffer and Kelly Beckett at the University of Wisconsin have developed, implemented, and assessed a game-like simulation that simulates some of the activities of professional urban planners (Beckett and Shaffer 2004; see also Shaffer et al. 2004). This game (and I will call it a game because it functions very much like a game in the learning environment in which it is used) and its learning environment incorporate many of the same deep learning principles that we have seen at play in Full Spectrum Warrior [a commercial video game Gee references earlier in the article –JD].

    Shaffer and Beckett’s game is not a stand-alone entity but is used as part of a larger learning system. Shaffer and Beckett call their approach to game- like learning “augmented by reality,” because a virtual reality – that is, the game simulation – is augmented or supplemented by real-world activities; in this case, further activities of the sort in which urban planners engage. Minority high school students in a summer enrichment program engaged with Shaffer and Beckett’s urban planning simulation game, and, as they did so, their problem-solving work in the game was guided by real-world tools and practices taken from the domain of professional urban planners.

    As in the game SimCity, in Shaffer and Beckett’s game, students make land- use decisions and consider the complex results of their decisions. However, unlike in SimCity, they use real-world data and authentic planning practices to inform those decisions.”

  • Assessing Learning Through Games

    “Why, then, would we need any assessment apart from the game itself? One reason – indeed, a reason Janie herself would – is that Janie might want to know, at a somewhat more abstract level than moment-by-moment play, how she is doing and how she can do better. She might want to know which features of her activities and strategies in the game are indicative of progress or success and which are not. Of course, the game is very complex, so this won’t be any particular score or grade. What Janie needs is a formative or developmental assessment that can let her theorize her play and change it for the better, and this is what the game gives her.

    At the end of any play session in Rise of Nations [a commercial real-time strategy game, discussed by Gee earlier in the article to provide an example of a complex, real-time, competitive game that is challenging and has built-in learning assessments –JD], the player does not just get the message “you win” or “you lose,” but rather a dozen charts and graphs detailing a myriad of aspects of her activities and strategies across the whole time span of her play (and her civilization’s life). This gives Janie a more abstract view of her play; it models her play session and gets her to see her play session as one “type” of game, one way to play the game against other ways. It gives her a meta-representation of the game and her game play in terms of which she can become a theoretician of her own play and learning. From this information, she does not learn just to be faster or “better”; she learns how to think strategically about the game in ways that allow her to transform old strategies and try out new ones. She comes to see the game as a system of interconnected relationships.”

madlibsThere are many other examples, some more or less sophisticated than the ones Gee describes, of educators using gaming to teach disciplinary concepts, or, more meta-cognitively, to teach higher-order thinking, strategy, creativity, and problem-solving using “real-life” situational simulations. In addition to my experience with logic puzzles, I know of English professors who use Mad Libs to teach linguistics, concepts of semiology, etc. I have read of professors who use the board game Clue to teach deductive vs. inductive reasoning. Here is a list of other higher education practices and programs who are successfully using games in their teaching:Clue Classic Boardgame $13.00

  • Stanford University Med School: EteRNA. Players arrange colored discs into two-dimensional chain-link shapes to create blueprints for RNA molecules. Link: http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2011/january/eterna.html
  • McGill University, Montreal, Canada: Phylo. An online game that anyone can play (try it out, it’s cool!), it is a simply puzzle format that has players shift genetic sequences to find the best possible matches for up to eight species at a time. Link: http://phylo.cs.mcgill.ca/
  • Magazine2CoverArtworkMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Education Arcade. Features The Radix Endeavor, designed to resemble World of Warcraft type game experience, a multi-player environment that is competitive, where knowledge is collected and hoarded, and problems solved using mathematical and scientific concepts.
  • CancerZap! Needs players! Opportunity for science educators to get students involved in research simulation. Read more: http://www.photonics.com/Article.aspx?AID=51398
  • RTTP Picture 2Barnard College, Dr. Mark Carnes: Reacting to the Past. Involves role playing, classic texts, historical settings, period costumes, and is currently used on over 300 campuses to teach and immerse students in history and literature. Link: http://reacting.barnard.edu/

For those of you who are already game-users or early classroom-game adopters, please share your practice or experience! I will publish each comment or email that comes in that details how to use game play (of any nature) to teach a concept or course material. I’d love to turn this post into a centralized resource to inspire educators to try out games in their course design.

References/Additional Reading:

“Games for Science” The Scientist, 1 Jan. 2013. Web <http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/33715/title/Games-for-Science/>

“Colleges Latest Thrust in Learning: Video Games,” USA Today, 29 Nov. 2011. Web. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2011-11-29/video-games-college-learning/51478224/1>

“Where Does Gamification Fit in Higher Education?” EdTech, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. <http://www.edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2012/11/where-does-gamification-fit-higher-education-infographic>

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