How to engage girls with gaming

Girls prefer to engage in simulations that put them in real-life situations.

Many people associate video games and gaming with boys, but researchers have discovered that girls become just as engaged when playing interactive educational games featuring certain motivating elements.

According to 2012 data from the Entertainment Software Association, 47 percent of all game-players are women, though their data patterns of play differ from those of men. Sixty-one percent of casual gamers, who play games such as “Words with Friends” and “FarmVille,” are women. Sixty-two percent of gamers play games with others, either online or in person.

“There’s a great social nature to games,” said Jayne C. Lammers, who has studied girls and gaming extensively and is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.

Research indicates that girls prefer to engage in interactive educational games that put them in real-life situations, such as “The Sims,” a popular computer game where players take control of an avatar and navigate it through real-life scenarios. Girls also enjoy playing casual games such as “FarmVille” and “Diner Dash,” animal games, and transmedia content where characters in games can be seen in books, movies, and toys—this includes familiar characters such as Barbie or Harry Potter.

(Next page: More findings on how gaming can engage girls)
“We saw a disconnect between how kids interact with technology and games versus how they interact with texts,” said Victoria Van Voorhis, founder and CEO of Second Avenue Software and a former educator. “We saw an opportunity to create best-in-class learning materials.”

Van Voorhis said her research revealed that girls need to “see the connection from the classroom out into the real world” to be motivated and use interactive educational games to learn about math and science.

Girls also absorb lessons if they engage in games that produce a social good, such as a game called “Pet Vet,” in which players operate an animal clinic and care for a variety of animals.

Van Voorhis said part of her research focuses on how to design interactive educational games that can produce better learning outcomes.

To that end, Van Voorhis and Second Avenue Learning received a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation to work on developing “Martha Madison’s Marvelous Machines,” a game that uses collaboration to teach physical science to middle school students.

A prototype was built in 2011, and research will continue with the NSF funding. For instance, Van Voorhis said that after playing the game, urban student performance increased dramatically from pre-test STEM knowledge.

See also:

How mainstream video games are being used as learning tools

Educational gaming gaining steam

Research also revealed that girls enjoy playing open-ended games, using problem solving and tools in a realistic way. Female students who were asked about certain physical science concepts’ real-world relevance were unable to relate the two, until they experienced those concepts in the game.

After playing the game, all participants showed a marked increase in their STEM interest, Van Voorhis said.

Games also lead to what Lammers described as “affinity spaces,” or “what happens around the game when players get together and create content,” she said. This includes fan forums where participants talk about gaming strategies and create original programming.

“Kids move from being consumers of digital output and media to being producers,” Van Voorhis said. “That’s something we really want to encourage in our students. They can be mentors, tutors, and producers of content.”

“As we think about how girls are developing these skills outside of classrooms, such as in game spaces, [we wonder] how could we then bring it back into the classroom,” Lammers said.

Interactive educational games also cover many 21st-century learning principles, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation, the experts said.

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Laura Ascione

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