During an edWeb webinar, Chamberlin compared games to museum-based learning and explored the crucial factors that make museums so engaging and fun for children. Those factors include interactivity, open-endedness, variety in activities, self-directed nature, age-appropriate activities, and the availability of immediate feedback.

“What people talk about in gameplay all the time is that it makes something fun,” Chamberlin said. “What makes something fun is not that it’s a game—what makes it fun is that it’s interactive, open-ended, self-directed, etc.”

Aside from wondering if games can help students learn, educators should focus on other questions—it’s not the act of playing a game that makes students learn, but rather, it’s the content and design of those products that lead to learning, Chamberlin said.

“Rather than trying to define learning by the media in which it’s delivered, let’s look at it by what it delivers,” she said.

“The cardinal rule of ed tech in classrooms is that if the technology doesn’t do it better, don’t use it. Gaming in classrooms isn’t [intended] to increase technology in the classroom—it’s to do things and teach things that we couldn’t do previously, and do and teach them better.”

Chamberlin outlined four important hallmarks of games.

1. Games and gameplay allow learning to be self-directed

Self-directed learning means that students get to ask their own questions, figure out what’s happening, “and then the learning that you do is that much more valuable because you’ve learned it for yourself,” Chamberlin said. Minecraft is an example of a self-directed game due to its sandbox nature and completely open-ended building environment. Players set their own goals and engage in inquiry-based activities.

2. Gameplay can provide screen time

“When people place an emphasis on screen time, they lose the emphasis on what screen time can be—what is screen time anymore? Is it time on a phone? On a console? With an eBook? What counts as screen time? Unless your concerns are strictly about the light that enters the eye from a lit background, screen time may not matter,” Chamberlin said.

3. Gameplay changes things

Gameplay can help young children learn skills in more relatable ways, using technology and devices that these young students have grown up with. Games and technology also help keep people connected.

“It’s not the technology that makes us antisocial—it’s how we use it and integrate with it,” Chamberlin said. “It’s crucial to help students learn how to use it today.”

4. Gameplay facilitates teaching

The challenge of teaching is reaching each learner where he or she is, and gameplay meets that challenge by enabling guided exploration and individualized learning as learners investigate that which they are interested in, Chamberlin said.

Students can learn in classrooms as much as they want, but if they are immersed in a game and must learn a concept or arrive at an answer to move forward in the game, they have learned at a time and place that is important to their progress, thus making that learning more impactful and lasting, she said.

“Games in the classroom are especially powerful when there’s a teacher there to guide,” Chamberlin said. “If you’re using games in the classroom, that’s not the time to sit and get caught up—you’re still the facilitator of the learning that happens during that gameplay.”