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Game Changers

How digital games are creating new learning experiences

Using games to teach discrete topics in the classroom is not a new phenomenon; however, games can also be used to teach higher-order thinking skills such as critical thinking, decision-making, creativity and communication. These so-called “long-form” games need to be contextualized by the teacher and woven into a robust curriculum of complimentary activities. Innovative educational gaming companies focus on developing high-quality digital content but also on the pedagogical implications of embedding the game in existing curriculum. Data collected from long-form digital games can be used to personalize instruction for students who are getting stuck on certain concepts or learn in a particular way. As games get more sophisticated, so must the teacher’s understanding of the way students use them in the classroom.

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In my first year as a high-school teacher I was des-perate for ways to hook the kids. I was tasked with teaching science and math to students who had failed multiple times in a credit recovery program. My meticulously crafted lesson plans were no match for an easily distracted 16-year-old.

I soon realized that one of the only things that would keep them engaged was a game. From memorizing Jeopardy clues to calculating probability in the throw of dice, these games added an element of frivolity around achievement, one that decoupled accomplishment from grades and peer judgment, but focused on score bars and points.

The games I used were pretty lightweight: they were engaging but not innovative. One of their favorites, Periodic Table Bingo, consisted of a bingo card filled out with symbols of elements. With games like these, there is no direct connection between the content of the game and the design of the game mechanics. The bingo cards could have been filled out with French vocab or math questions.

Contrast this with The History of Biology, a game from Toronto’s Spongelab Interactive with over 64,000 players worldwide. “Devices we use to advance the storyline are actually teaching them things about biology,” says game creator and Spongelab CEO Jeremy Friedberg. In the game, users are led on a DaVinci Code-like scavenger hunt around the web, decoding clues.

“One of the characters has hidden a secret message in a genetic sequence,” says Friedberg, “and the player has to translate it to get the message.” The game sends kids to “real websites, fake websites, and real websites hosting fake content, which teaches students digital literacy and research skills.” So not only are they learning about biology, but they are learning 21st century learning skills of use in any course.

This is the kind of innovative game that could not have existed in past generations. Digital technologies have allowed game design to reach beyond mere memorization and into the complex, multi-layered world of digital story-telling.

In 2011, game designer Jane McGonigal published Reality is Broken, where she outlined four simple rules that define a game: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. Both Jeopardy and The History of Biology fit this definition, but clearly there is a difference between games that teach the recall of facts and those that teach higher-order thinking skills.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, based at children’s media powerhouse Sesame Workshop, published a paper in 2011 called “Games for a Digital Age.” They distinguish between short-form games, “which provide tools for practice and focused concepts,” and long-form games, “which are focused on higher order thinking skills.” This is a useful first distinction teachers can use when evaluating games for use in the classroom.

Other taxonomies apply, which can be used to filter games based on the learning goals of each lesson. Massive multi-player games like World of Warcraft are great at encouraging cooperation, whereas strategy games like Civilization emphasize decision making in the face of complexity. So-called “sandbox games” like Minecraft encourage creativity, curiosity and experimentation.

A theme that comes up with teachers who use long-form video games is teaching empathy. “When I first started teaching natural disasters in Grade 7, there were case studies in the textbook, or videos,” says Mike Farley, a high-school teacher at the University of Toronto Schools (UTS). “When we invite students to play a simulation like Stop Disasters or Inside the Haiti Earthquake, they are more immersed; there’s more of an emotional learning.”

When playing Inside the Haiti Earthquake, students can experience the event from the point of view of a journalist, a survivor, or an aid worker. They are given choices based on their character, which increases their level of engagement. “They start to understand the complexities of planning for a disaster or planning for the after-effects,” says Farley.

This effect was multiplied when the students worked in small groups, he adds, because they needed to justify their choices to the group members. “They couldn’t just click through the game to see what happened. There was a certain creative friction in the groups.”

The innovation here is not the high-quality digital interface, nor the idea of using games to represent experiences in the classroom. The innovation is in combining the two into a new pedagogical reality. Scenarios, set up so kids can experience different perspectives, are “played out” in a highly realistic, immersive environment, which serves to increase their feeling of connection to the topic.

A unique learning experience

UTS Principal Rosemary Evans sees these as “unique learning experiences,” different for each student with each session of play. “What excites me is the experiential component,” she says. “The simulations lead to an authentic experience, where the game environment represents different points of view.”

Justin Medved , the Director of Instructional Innovation at The York School, likes to talk about “layers of learning” taking place in the best games. “To what extent does the game offer an experience that offers some critical thinking, decision making, complexity, or opportunity for discussion and debate?” says Medved. The content is the first layer the students interact with, but meta-content skills can take longer to teach. Medved looks for “any opportunity for players to go out and do some research and thinking before coming back to the game.” Many games, says Medved, are super-fast and he tries to intentionally slow them down to allow for deeper thinking. “We want some level of learning to be slow, to discuss bias or different perspectives. Over time you can see a narrative unfolding.”

Reflection after game play is crucial to develop meta-cognitive skills related to regulation and understanding consequences: key skills that are just emerging in the teenage years. “The game can’t do it all for you,” says Medved. “We need to teach out the best bits of the game and know when to stop, when to take a break.” Innovative teachers like Medved have gone beyond the knee-jerk reaction against “kids staring at screens” and have developed rich curricula by using new and powerful game engines.

Music teachers around the world have been trying to strike a balance between hooking kids to games like Guitar Hero and picking up real instruments. Rock Band 3 has been the source of academic study on whether its use increases learning of music. One study from 2011 looked at 26 students in an after-school program structured around Rock Band. The study found a “a significant correlation between the number of Rock Band sessions and the overall scores on the traditional music assessments.”

The researchers found that it was not the mechanics of game play that allowed for musical learning (the instruments themselves are not “real” instruments but game controllers that look like the real thing). Rather, the development of the skills of listening to musical phrases was the key variable. This combined with a mechanism for immediate formative assessment by the game allowed for rapid improvement.

Kids are naturally pulled in by this emphasis on “play.” In New York City, the Institute of Play has created an entire school based on game mechanics called Quest to Learn. The school “mimics the design principles of games by framing every piece of the curriculum as a mission that involves game strategies like collaboration, role-playing and simulation.” Teachers send kids on “missions” to dig up content, much like The History of Biology treats knowledge discovery as a giant scavenger hunt.

This complex game-world is a long way from some of the first simulations, such as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?(1985) and Oregon Trail (1971). Educational games have since grown to a 2-billion dollar industry. Friedberg sees this market being fueled by the promise of differentiating instruction for students. “Games are the most sophisticated data collection tool we have ever found,” he says.

Properly constructed game engines, like Spongelab, can tell exactly when and where a student gets stuck on a concept, or how they find their way through game. “For the first time we have the ability to use data to understand how you learn, and what you need,” he says.

Game developers can collect millions of data points from the way a student plays a game and give pointed, personalized feedback, or direct students through content in a certain way. The innovative component is not the game itself, but the way the game is used to guide the child’s learning.

Friedberg points out the strong connection between in-game performance and real-life performance. Flight simulators, for example, can learn a pilot’s weaknesses and test those to a breaking point. “The simulator allows players to think critically in stressful situations, to be creative when things go wrong.” These critical failure scenarios cannot be tried out in real life. “Exploring, trying and failure are incredibly valuable,” he says. “Games allow us to train and assess those abilities.”

Games like this provide a safe place for students to grapple with complex topics and fail. In games, failure is expected. The consequence of failure in a game is that you hit restart and begin again. There are no grades inside games, no letters home to parents.

The question of whether to game or not game in class is not one of technology. It is one of pedagogy that starts and ends with the teacher. It is our job to provide a framework for deciding which games can be used in which contexts, and to use the best of the game world to inspire our students to higher-order thinking.

Illustration: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, November 2013


EN BREF - L’utilisation de jeux pour enseigner des sujets précis en classe n’a rien de nouveau. Les jeux peuvent toutefois servir, également, à développer des capacités de raisonnement d’ordre supérieur comme la pensée critique, la prise de décision, la créativité et la communication. L’enseignant doit contextualiser les jeux dits « de longue durée » et les incorporer à un robuste programme d’activités complémentaires. Des sociétés innovatrices produisant des jeux éducatifs développent du contenu numérique de grande qualité, en tenant compte des implications pédagogiques de l’intégration d’un jeu dans un programme éducatif existant. Les données recueillies de ces jeux numériques peuvent servir à personnaliser l’enseignement donné aux élèves qui bloquent sur certains concepts ou qui apprennent d’une façon particulière. Au fur et à mesure que les jeux se raffinent, l’enseignant doit approfondir sa connaissance de la façon dont les élèves les utilisent en classe.