Learning With Games

We’re working on an episode for Season Three of iQ: smartparent about learning with games, so I’ve had games for learning on the brain this summer. In June, we hosted a Family Game Day at WQED in conjunction with the winners’ celebration for the National STEM Video Game Challenge, and I attended the Serious Play Conference at CMU in July. Meanwhile, I’ve been editing and reviewing more and more products for Graphite in the games category, from a product with an unpleasant number of in-app purchase that will remain nameless to super-cool games like Odd Squad Blob Chase (full disclosure: that’s a PBS KIDS app and I work for a public television station) and LEGO Mindstorms Fix the Factory (I don’t work for LEGO, but I sort of wish I did).

I feel like I’ve been thinking about games for learning a LOT recently, and I have a lot more to think about and ultimately say on the subject. I’ve thought about this some with my rant about my life on the Oregon Trail, but here’s a bit more about where games might live in the education landscape.

At Serious Play, I was struck that people were talking about games and (everyone’s favorite term) “gamification” from three distinct perspectives. They’re all more complicated and more thoughtful than I’ll portray them here, but, in broad strokes, these were:

  • PERSPECTIVE A: Games are the answer to revolutionizing how we do school and deliver course content. Games should be integrated directly into the curriculum and can be used to fundamentally transform teaching, learning, and assessment.
  • PERSPECTIVE B: Games can help but shouldn’t replace the heart of what’s going on in classrooms. Games should never be used for the main action of delivering course content, as kids could be turned off. Use games to augment and support learning, but not in place of what’s already happening.
  • PERSPECTIVE C: Games don’t belong in schools. Games can promote learning, but they’re something different from the business of school and the delivery of core course content.

While it’s great that all three perspectives could co-exist at this conference, I was struck — and a little alarmed — that there wasn’t more of a consensus on the subject. Certainly different kinds of games can address different kinds of needs: A game where kids model different molecules and devise experiments to understand their structures could potentially boost learning and even replace some elements of an existing chemistry curriculum, while something like Oregon Trail really isn’t a substitute for an actual history course that covers westward expansion and Manifest Destiny.

Maybe the best lesson I’ve gleaned from this summer is that games aren’t just one thing. Games can and do address any of those three perspectives, but I think games’ proponents sometimes err too hard on the side of Perspective A and their detractors swing hard in the other direction toward Perspective C. Maybe the hard work ahead for talking about games for learning is to talk about what games actually are. If we can help parents and teachers understand that games can be powerful tools for learning, we might be able to shake that stigma that games are just frivolous distractions from the hard, meaningful work of school.

It’s fascinating to see how game products fare under Graphite‘s review rubric: we score products based on Engagement, Pedagogy, and Support (read more about how we rate here), and it’s striking how many products can soar on Engagement (it’s fun! it looks cool!) and Support (your progress is tracked! you know what to do!) but flounder on Pedagogy. If the product doesn’t teach you anything in particular, then it’s not good for learning, period. It can still get rewarded for being crazy cool, but that doesn’t necessarily make an app, website, or game good for learning. Since I spend so much of my time thinking about the voice and spirit of Graphite, that seems obvious to me, but maybe it’s less intuitive if you don’t spend half your day thinking about how edtech lives up to those ratings. In general, I think it’s important to consider those dimensions of a product separately, especially if you’re thinking about a game. If a game is classroom-ready, it teaches something in particular and it does so in a supportive, effective way. If it doesn’t score high on pedagogy — either from a Graphite perspective or from a teacher’s perspective — then it’s not going to be a helpful tool for boosting learning in the classroom.

There’s more to say on this for sure, but that’s where I am for now. In the meantime, please check out two amazing books I’ve read in the last year about this: Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out is a serious academic study that looks at how games and gaming culture impact learning; and Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World is a subtle, superb examination of how games can shape our lives. Both are great and far more eloquent than I. Check them out to unpack and explore these topics further.

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