“What we try to avoid is edutainment, where the play becomes the reward for doing the problem,” she said. “This leads to chocolate-covered broccoli—it gets the kid to eat the broccoli, but it doesn’t promote healthy eating, and what happens when the chocolate goes away?”

When used correctly, “gaming is fun, but gaming is hard,” she said. Merging games’ potential with learning opportunities, then, can take learning to another level.

Games can be used in a traditional in-class approach, which is good for extra monitoring. They also can be used at home for extra practice or as assigned homework in a flipped style. Teachers might use games to introduce a new topic, or might opt for group game play as part of core instruction on a particular concept.

Educators should identify how they plan to use games in their instruction. Four key questions, with supporting follow-up questions, can help educators with their implementation planning.

Why

  • Will you use games:
    In a pre-instruction context setting
    For post-instruction applications
    For post-instruction practice
    For formative assessment
    To boost engagement

What

  • What kind of game is most appropriate or will have the most impact?
    Short play games
    immersive role-playing games
    Puzzle-based games
    Board games

Where

  • In what settings will you use games?
    At home
    In class
    At the library or in a computer lab

How

  • How will games be played and how will they be integrated into teaching and learning?
    Formal lesson plans for individual students, groups of students, or for the entire class
    For free individual, group, or whole-class play and exploration
    As homework
    For enrichment or extra credit
    For competition

Often, games offer a chance for students to engage in playful explorations of complex concepts.

One such game is Radix Endeavor, an immersive virtual learning game for high school math and biology students. The game was created by MIT’s Education Arcade and Scheller Teacher Education Program, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the game, students explore a virtual island world with unknown plants and animals. They investigate and collect evidence to help inhabitants solve some of the island’s problems. In many cases, there are no “right” answers, forcing students to explore, use trial-and-error, and be self-sufficient in the game.

Lure of the Labyrinth is another MIT Education Arcade game, this one targeted to middle school math students.

“Part of solving problems is discovering what problem you’re solving,” said Carole Urbano, outreach specialist at the MIT Education Arcade. “Textbooks tend to outline a problem in a methodical way and give us all the information we need to solve the puzzle.”

But getting students to the point where they can identify the problem before solving it is an important 21st-century skill.

Lure of the Labyrinth aims to help students strengthen strategy and problem-solving skills through playful exploration and patient problem solving.

“We don’t want to encourage teachers to use playful learning and then tell kids what the answers are,” Urbano said. “We want to provide teachers with the tools to be that guide on the side.”

“Games are a lot of fun, but they’re also often handed to teachers in a vacuum, and they’re only effective if teachers are comfortable using them and if they understand their value,” Gordon-Messer said.