January 3, 2013 by

Three Ways Game-Based Learning can be a Helpful Tool

“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.”
Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Game-based learning is fast becoming a trend in education. Teachers across the globe are experimenting with not only using games, but also game mechanics in the classroom. Games engage us. Our students are playing games whether we approve or not. Whether spending hours at home in the evening playing Call of Duty or more casually playing Angry Birds, students are spending time relentless trying to achieve. We can use games in the classroom to not only leverage engagement but also to align games to instructional principles.

Games as Assessment: As students play games they are being assessed on their progress, provided feedback, and allowed to try again without fear of failure. Our education system does not always align to that principle. Often we punish children with “points” as they practice with the content. Games do not do this. Players are given the freedom to fail and given specific feedback through formative assessment on how to improve. In fact, when players win the level or game (the summative assessment), they are rewarded with a true sense of accomplishment as the assessment is meaningful. Games are excellent models for assessment best practices.

Games as Engagement: Games are carefully and intentionally designed environments that create flow—the balance between challenge and progress. Great games are challenging but not too difficult and thus not boring. On the contrary, they have specific mechanics to create this game flow. It’s not necessary about winning—in games like Tetris you are destined to lose—but rather a game gives us multiple victories on rigorous challenges. The rigor engages us, and a game scaffolds that rigor intentionally and in an exemplary manner.

Authentic Learning Experiences: James Paul Gee, game-based learning advocate and guru refers to this as “situated learning.” We know that students must construct and apply knowledge for deeper learning. In great games, students are both learning content and applying in complex problems to solve. Take Portal for example. In this game, the player must create portals between two flat planes. The player not only experiences principles of physics, but must use this knowledge to solve related puzzles. In addition, the player takes on an authentic role. Although based in a fantasy world, the player becomes one with the playable character of the game and invests in the growth and story of that character. When playing in this authentic story and learning environment,the player sees the relevance in learning the content for the purposes of playing.

Games can be another tool for engaging in rigorous and authentic learning. There are many games available to classrooms, from educational games at iCivics, to educational versions of games, like Minecraft. There are even noneducational games that are being paired with instruction to make the game educational, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization or World of Warcraft. Explore what other teachers have done and start engaging students in meaningful play.

Andrew K. Miller is an educator and consultant. He is a national faculty member for ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. You can follow Miller on Twitter @betamiller.