Educational gaming is a well-known concept in educational technology by now, though many schools have yet to implement it in their classrooms. But as experts often agree, gaming can have a positive effect on student achievement and engagement.
The focus should not be solely on games, but on good games, said Dan White, CEO and a founding partner of Filament Games. Filament aims to merge best practices from learning with best practices from commercial game development to leverage the power of games and technology for learning fully.
“The question of ‘how’ is important, because this isn’t yet a part of mainstream reality for us,” he said.
Effective games use specific learning objectives in which students perform certain actions. Empowered identity is another component: Students are put in roles that give them access to those learning objectives. Games also need interactive systems that interest students and motivate them to interact with the game in order to master the learning objectives.
(Next page: What educational gaming offers students; how teachers can use games in the classroom)
Hands-on experiences, including situated learning that educates students as they become involved. Games are the definition of experience.
Learning before experience is gained: Video games give students the opportunity to do something before they realize they know how to do it. Students learn through a process of trial and error, and using video games, students have a two-way interactive and have an opportunity to provide “input” into the game and evaluate the outcomes.
Challenge and reward: “When people stop being challenged, they quit,” White said. The challenge-and-reward aspect of video games involves what is known as the “zone of proximal development,” which is the area between what a person can do alone and what they can’t yet do. Good games challenge students to the edge of their abilities, yet still give students what they need to succeed. “Doable” challenges are extremely motivating, and this, White said, is where video games really excel. Students might go through several try-and-fail challenges before they succeed, but once they succeed, they are instantly rewarded.
Games are a medium, which essentially makes them a blank canvas, White said. Print applications are going away, and “this is where educational games have the opportunity to be disruptive,” White said. “It’s a digital opportunity.”
The next step is to prove that educational gaming works, and the way to prove that something works, White said, has traditionally been to judge whether someone performs better on a test after engaging with a type of intervention. The easiest way to prove that is to design an intervention like the test that will follow it.
But video games are different, and educators must focus on how the games teach and how students express their knowledge after they have played a game, White said.
Teachers should play games first to become familiar with what students will be playing, said Tammie Schrader, a science teacher at Cheney Middle School in Washington state and an adjunct science instructor at Gonzaga University.
Because students often have more technical expertise when it comes to video games, teachers should be willing to let students take over a bit of classroom control and help their peers or offer tips and suggestions.
“The engagement was amazing,” Schrader said, adding that her students with individual education plans did the best with the games. In fact, those students interacted with classmates in a way they never had before, and they interacted better with the information presented in the games than did their peers. One student in particular, Schrader said, came out of his shell and thrived while playing the game.
“It was really interesting and it was really great to see him, because this is a student who historically doesn’t engage much,” she said.
Logistically, thinking in advance about computer lab sign-up procedures, as well as login or other technical issues, and forming a backup and a second backup plan will help, Schrader added.
Letting students converse and toss ideas around during and after game-playing will most likely lead to higher-level conversations about what certain successes or restrictions within the game mean in the larger scheme of things, she said.