As gaming technology evolves, the educational implications are almost endless
It seems you can’t go anywhere in the education world without hearing about game-based learning. At its core, game-based learning connects learning and meaning to content to give students an intrinsic learning experience, in which the games elevate the content in a meaningful and engaging way.
Games are particularly effective learning tools because they give students open-ended environments in which to explore, play, and create.
True game-based learning uses intrinsic experiences and moves away from a more simple extrinsic rewards-based system where students play the game in pursuit of a reward or achievement and are disconnected from the fundamental content.
Games combine just the right degree of challenge with just the right amount of engagement, said Lucien Vattel, CEO of GameDesk , a nonprofit focusing on research and development around game-based learning. GameDesk recently launched Educade, an online portal that links students, teachers, and parents to an online resource library full of apps, games, and hands-on activities.
(Next page: How games can impact learning)
The games cover a variety of curriculum areas, skills, concepts, and more. In each game, developers identify the concept or content students should learn, and then weave in 21st century skills such as problem solving, collaboration, and communication, Vitel said.
For instance, GameDesk developed a series of games on planetary and geological concepts that incorporate a variety of learning techniques to give students an immersive and engaging educational experience, including:
- Full-body field play in which students’ entire bodies are involved in and represent a fundamental procedure
- Simulation-based play, where students engage in interactive simulations to help them understand different concepts and processes
- Full-body tracking combines a digital simulation and body movement for an embodied simulation
- Embodied learning links particular concepts to hand motions so that students can use their hands to illustrate or explore concepts
“Games can help you speed up time, see the invisible—that’s the benefit of game-based learning,” Vattel said. “You can do things that you can’t often see or get your head around. How do we communicate knowledge? With words, or representations. Games take it to the next level, because the 3D and the simulation allow us to not just see a picture—the next level is experience. There’s nothing better than direct experience.
“Experiencing, interacting, playing, and making or creating—games can incorporate all of those elements,” Vattel said. “You can create cities, land forms, mountain ranges—you can interact with it, experiment, and try and fail and come up with a different ideas. This is a much more engaging medium for people to learn—people want to have a direct experience.”
Sometimes, the term “games” doesn’t do justice to the learning experience that games confer to learners.
“’Games’ is a funny word,” Vattel said. “It’s really a Trojan horse for referring to vehicles for direct experience.”
Experts have noted that simply adding a game to a course or curriculum is not an effective approach.
Rather, courses should be designed as games, with engagement and experiences in mind.
Speaking about gaming  during a panel discussion to launch Excelsior College’s Center for Game and Simulation-Based Learning in May, game designer Lee Sheldon said students don’t need “external awards” in order to become immersed in games.
At a June ISTE 2014 session, computer science teacher Douglas Kiang noted that games are powerful motivators .
Students frequently walk away from homework when it is too difficult, but difficult games are another matter–kids walk away from games when they’re too easy. Difficult games present a positive challenge for students. A challenging task “stretches” a student’s brain, and the more a person expects his or her brain to do different things, the more pathways that person’s brain will develop.
“Choice is a really important part of this equation, and gaming embodies choice–games are open-ended, and that’s part of the reason they’re so engaging for kids,” Kiang said.
Games also are another way to assess 21st-century skills that often aren’t measured by traditional assessments.
Sequence of actions, application of skills, thoughtfulness, and problem solving are all evidence, gathered from decisions students make while playing games, that students are mastering important skills that are not traditionally measured with assessments.