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How games can engage students and improve learning

Understanding how games create a sense of flow and engagement can help teachers make better choices about their instructional use of games

headshotTeachers have used games as a part of instruction long before the advent of computer games.

The reason is that teachers recognize the emotional energy that is created when students play games, and they strive to take advantage of the level of excitement and commitment to succeed that is difficult to achieve through other instructional strategies.

In order to be able to make the best use of educational games that achieve this level of engagement it is important to understand how this commitment to a game is fostered.

Games that are highly engaging create a sense of “flow” for the players. Flow is the experience of being totally involved in an activity and usually involves high levels of both concentration and enjoyment. Game developers strive to create a sense of flow during game play because when a player achieves a state of total or compete focus, complete immersion, and limited awareness of time, there is also created a strong desire to repeat or extend the experience.

Developers identify this as a compulsion to play, the drive to play a game over and over. This feeling is exactly what a teacher wants to establish during instruction: to create an emotional connection with the content and a desire to repeat the experience.

There are a number of game features that have been identified as helping create a sense of flow. Some of these include, for example, ease of use, simplicity of play, clear goals, feedback, interactivity, competition, control over actions, and a sense of community. These features of a game do not have to be a part of the educational content of the game and can actually involve actions that are separate from the content that is the focus of the game.

These features are able to generate a connection to the content through the overall commitment to continuing and succeeding in the game that is established through the sense of flow felt by the player. Arcade-style games in which speed and competition are critical features can be used to engage students with content that is as simple as math facts or as complex as scientific argumentation.

Understanding how games create a sense of flow and engagement can help teachers make better choices about their instructional use of games to introduce or reinforce learning academic content.

Watch this clip from Reason Racer on science and space.

Marilyn Ault is an Associate Research Scientist at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. She and her colleagues have conducted research on the use of targeted games in the learning of complex skills such as Reason Racer. This game uses a rally-race format to engage middle school students in the skills and knowledge related to scientific argumentation.

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