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Parents and teachers are often wary of letting kids spend time playing video games, and would rather they spend time playing outside or reading. But a number of game developers are introducing exciting mods of popular games like Minecraft and SimCity into the classroom and re-imagining how video games can support traditional educational objectives, like learning about ecology 10 Environmental Games That Teach Kids About Earth, Ecology & Conservation 10 Environmental Games That Teach Kids About Earth, Ecology & Conservation Read More , math, and physics.

Why Video Games?

It may seem obvious to some, but there are plenty of people out there who are wondering why we would even consider video games as a learning tool in the first place. According to an article by Kurt Squire and Dennis Ramirez on Amplify’s website:

For decades, psychologists have studied video games as models of intrinsically motivated learning. The techniques that games use—fantasy, control, challenge, curiosity, collaboration and competition—are now the cornerstones of motivational theory.

From a psychological perspective, it makes perfect sense: teachers have been using games for ages. Did you ever play Jeopardy in biology class? A quiz game in English? Have a popsicle-stick bridge building competition in physics?

These are the kinds of things that get kids excited; they’re challenging, motivating, and maybe most importantly, fun. Emotion is linked closely to memory, and using teaching methods—like video games—that evoke emotions 3 Video Games That Will Touch You Emotionally 3 Video Games That Will Touch You Emotionally In spite of being a young medium, a game comes along every now and then with a story that truly hits you deep in your heart. Certain games actually use the interactive nature of games... Read More are more likely to “stick.”

preschool-kids-playing-game

Video games “can be so much more immersive [than board games or other classic games] that students tend to respond more energetically and passionately,” says Joel Levin, Education Director at TeacherGaming.

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It’s this immersion and excitement that drives the efficacy of video games as learning tools; when kids are really absorbed in the learning experience, they’re more likely not only to learn, but to want to continue learning through the medium of the game.

While there is scientific evidence that games are correlated with positive learning outcomes and increased motivation to learn, Levin says that some teachers are holding onto the “waste of time” stigma that has long stuck with video games. 

As more research is published, however (like this SRI meta-analysis that shows a 12% increase in learning outcomes with a combination of game-based and traditional instruction), and more successful case studies are publicized, we’re likely to see an increase in the use of game-based teaching. “I don’t see this as a serious obstacle for much longer,” Levin told MakeUseOf.

Video Games in Education Today

While the stigma that works against games can still be found, it’s clear that it’s not much of a serious obstacle anyway: Jessica Lindl, the Executive Director of GlassLab, told MakeUseOf that educational gaming is currently a $1.55 billion industry, and it’s forecasted to reach $2.3 billion by 2017 (interestingly, only 14% of that is predicted to come from the preK-12 world; the rest, presumably will be from games like those developed by Serious Games Interactive for PTSD sufferers and Siemens Wind Power).

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While video games are starting to penetrate the educational market, they haven’t had as much success as many people (particularly the game developers) would like. However, it’s safe to say that they’re shaping the current world of education, and that they’ve come a long way since I played Number Munchers on an Apple IIe in elementary school.

If you’ve been out of school as long as I have, you might be surprised to find out what kinds of games kids are playing in schools right now. Minecraft, one of the most popular games in the world right now, has been adapted to MinecraftEdu, an educational version of the game that, according to Levin, allows students to “explore empathy, cooperation, and leadership.” It’s been used in over 40 countries.

GlassLab has transformed SimCity into SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge!, which teaches students about systems thinking and environmental impact. GameGurus has a game in which students have to predict the motion of particles based on Newtonian physics.

Games are even starting to replace examinations in some places, as teachers realize that success in game-based assessments requires deeper learning than the rote memorization Memorize Anything In Double Quick Time With AnyMemo Free [Android] Memorize Anything In Double Quick Time With AnyMemo Free [Android] If you thought that flash cards (or flashcards) were only for students in vocabulary training, you wouldn’t be more wrong. Flashcards can be used to memorize anything that requires retention through repetitive repetition; and that... Read More that is often the crucial factor in more traditional types of tests. Lindl also points out that games provide a very rich view of the learner; instead of having 20, 30, or 50 test answers, teachers are given large amounts of data that can be analyzed in various ways to monitor the progression of the student.

This can even be used for adaptive learning, ensuring that the student is always challenged, but not so much so that they become frustrated and disengaged.

The Future of Games in the Classroom

While it’s hard to predict what the future of educational games will look like, it’s clear that they’ll be sticking around for a while. With dedicated developers like Amplify, TeacherGaming, GlassLab, Serious Games, GameGurus, and dozens of others, there’s a lot of world-class talent working in the industry.

For games to further penetrate the market, however, there are a number of educators that will need to be convinced. Lindl says that:

[M]ost games today do not demonstrate a learning impact against critical standards like 21st century skill or Common Core [a nationwide framework detailing what students should know in English and math at the end of each grade]. In addition, most games are difficult to implement in a traditional classroom and have very little professional development support.

However, she’s confident that as games continue to develop and are tested, they’ll show a stronger correlation with positive Common Core outcomes, making it easier to widely implement them in classrooms. There are always hazards with standardized systems like Common Core, however, and Levin points out that, with video games, “[l]ike all efforts to standardize testing, there is a danger that students will only be evaluated on vectors that are easy to measure.”

college-women-computers

In addition to difficulties with standards and testing, there are also other difficulties that currently stand in the way of wider adoption. Says Levin:

I think the bigger problems have to do with budgets, resources, aging equipment, etc. If you don’t have decent computers Can You Really Get A Good Performing Gaming PC For Under $1000? Can You Really Get A Good Performing Gaming PC For Under $1000? For many the $1000 mark is an important cut-off. Computers under this are generally considered affordable, even “mainstream,” while those exceeding it are looked at as luxurious items. The average selling price for a PC... Read More , you can’t play games.  Also socio-economic inequality is challenging.  The kids that can play games at home end up having a different experience than those who cannot.

Despite these concerns, however, it looks like educational video games are here to stay. More and more people—academics and the public alike—are recognizing the value of games in learning, and developers are creating more immersive environments Play It Your Way: 4 Sandbox Games That Reign Above the Rest Play It Your Way: 4 Sandbox Games That Reign Above the Rest A poorly executed sandbox game is a waste of time, but when it's done right, it can transport you to an entirely new world full of wonder, excitement, and experiences. Read More that draw students in and motivate them to learn. Multiplayer games are also on the rise, addressing the solitary nature of many games, which Levin says is a potential drawback of this type of education.

Whether or not video games become a mainstay of education in the future remains to be seen, but the current state of the industry is promising. With an increased focus on 21st-century skills by employers Tech Jobs of the Future: What To Study If You Want a Cool Job Tomorrow Tech Jobs of the Future: What To Study If You Want a Cool Job Tomorrow If you're a student and looking to land a good technology job of the future, understanding the direction of technology will help you position yourself to succeed, and figure out what to study to get... Read More , governments, and higher education, it seems inevitable that younger students will start to learn via games, which incorporate many technical factors that can be used as learning elements. And Lindl told MakeUseOf that 90% of kids between the ages of 2 and 17 are already playing video games, so there’s certainly a familiarity with the medium.

kids-making-video-games

Even though I’ve been out of school a long time (I remember thinking that playing Oregon Trail in color, instead of on a green screen, was pretty impressive!), I’m really looking forward to staying in touch with the industry and watching it develop. All signs point to great things ahead for the educational games industry.

What do you think about educational games? Do you think they increase the depth and applicability of learning? Have you used these kinds of games in the past? What was your experience? Share your thoughts below!

Image credits: Kid learning or playing with tablet computer (edited) via Shutterstockhappy preschool kids group have fun and play game on outdoor classes in nature via Shutterstock, US Department of Education via flickrcollege students sitting in a classroom using laptop computers during class (shallow DOF) via Shutterstock, Franklin Park Library via flickr.

  1. Saikat Basu
    October 26, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Great post Dann.

    One of the people to be checked out is Jane McGonigal. She speaks a lot on developing games for social good. Here's her TED Talk and her book, Reality is Broken is a good read too.

    • Dann Albright
      October 27, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Glad you liked it, Saikat! I've never heard of Jane McGonigal, but her book sounds really interesting! I'll add it to my (ever growing) reading list.

  2. bob Myers
    October 9, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Games were on a lot of business computers back in the dark ages. They were there to help the adults become comfortable with computers.

    It did work for adults, and may still be. It will work for the youngens. Why? because the youngens are not afraid to experiment or to restart when something goes flooie.

    They don't curse the dark, they find a game with the brightest screen and keep on truckin'.

    I mentored some 3-5 grade kids one summer way back when, using learning computer programs. They became bored quickly bored and had figured out how to beat the game. They really learned, just not what the programmers wanted them to learn.

    They told me they were bored by the games. I loaded MBasic and told them "write your on game". Once the kids got going, I was the one who learned.

    • Dann Albright
      October 13, 2014 at 7:59 am

      I think you're onto something there! As we get older, it can get harder to experiment, restart, and think outside the box. But that's what really helps us learn—stepping outside of our comfort zone. And if games can help us do that, then they'll always be a great learning tool.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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