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The right circumstances for games in education to work

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

That games in education “work” is without question. When used properly, games can uniquely motivate, teach, and encourage our students. If you really use games effectively, you can motivate poor performing or under-performing students; you can help bright students ask important questions and relevant questions about themselves and their world; you can help gifted kids simulate highly complex systems.

However, it is not simply a matter of sticking a kid in front of a computer game and hoping for the best.  There are a specific set of circumstances which must coalesce in order for games to work.

The Right Teacher

A good teacher must plan a lesson, measure learning, and ask the right question at the right time. Using computer games for learning, a teacher must have special clarity concerning learning objectives, scope, and assessment. But the teacher must also have strong technical acumen, a sense of adventure, and positive experience playing games.

Asking the right questions and setting context before the game is played is important. The right teacher will probably understand regularly interrupting game play is a bad idea. After the game is over (perhaps in the next class), it’s critical to debrief and discuss the learning experience.

Being a geek helps.

The Right Students


When planned well, games work for 90% of the students I’ve encountered (of all ability levels).  However, there is a group of students who simply don’t “do” computer games - no big deal, it’s simply not their thing.

Gifted and talented students require special mention here.

First of all, when I talk about gifted and talented students, I’m talking about the top 5% of the top 5%.  These students are quite rare, but you must understand something about this kid: they grok patterns REALLY quickly. And as we know, games are essentially really fun patterns (here and here). They also seem to have higher-than-average motivation to learn. 

I’ve not yet found a clear and consistent way for gifted kids to use games to enhance their learning - however, there is great promise in the modding community, and in the building of their own games. I wrote a brief piece about my confusion how to use games with talented kids. But I am increasingly aware that building complex systems fits well into the gifted realm (and games model complex system really well).

The Right Parents

It’s ok if your parents are clueless about technology, but you might run into some trouble with parents who are afraid of computers or computer games.  This is where clear planning plays an important role. If you can approach a parent, and clearly explain the activity, and demonstrate learning objectives, most parents will see that this isn’t a waste of time. It also helps if you’ve spent some building relationships with parents and at parent groups.

As if it needs to be said, this is an area where your choice of game, and your learning objectives will be tested. Most parents have a finely tuned bullshit meter. If you say “we are playing World of Warcraft and the kids are learning about swords”. You will have earned the right for them to complain to you and your administrator.


The Right Game

I have an opinion that the best type of game for use in education are COTS games (more).  Not everyone shares my opinion, for perfectly good reasons. However, as you read on, please understand I’m giving you my opinion - that COTS games are the best choice for games in education.

A game has to be a good game before it can be a good educational game. This is why I shun edutainment titles, and games designed especially for education (there are some magnificent exceptions).

This isn’t to say there isn’t value in edutainment titles, just not the kids of education I’m talking about here. So here is what makes a game educational:

1) The game has an educationally-accessible context (historical, contemporary, hard science-fiction)
2) Game play has genuinely educationally-accessible content (Age of Empires has a great educational context, but lousy educational gameplay)
3) Success depends on intelligent choices and decisions (not twitch)
4) Failure exists and teaches when it happens. It is possible to lose
5) The tutorial is crystal clear, and checks for understanding
6) There are multiple victory conditions
7) The feedback model is short - students can quickly see how a decision effects a larger whole picture
8) The game becomes increasingly challenging and difficult

You have to get four things right when you use a computer game:

It has to work right and well.  Technical problems are disastrous in games in education. Short classes and limited technical support make technical problems a serious issue.

It has to be fun. It doesn’t get boring.  A guiding mantra should be “if it’s not fun, why do it?”.  This is why we always think about the game first and then educational potential.

It has to be challenging at different levels of abilities.  Some students are naturally interested in technology and games, others are not.  As much as something which is very difficult can cause problems, so can something which is very easy.  Levels of difficulty help alleviate this situation.

The game need to be accessible for different types of players (ala Bartle player types). Explorers, achievers, griefers, and socializers.  There should be something in the game for everyone.

The Right Administrator

If you are working in a school with colossally stupid administrators, you will not be able to use games in your classroom.  However, I’ve found most administrators are not stupid. Most of them are open to new methodologies, but demand some sort of evidence or plan. 

I often talk about building credibility and trust with administrators. It is important to build trust with your building leaders. Games in education are a novel thing,and frought with potential failure. Most administrators should approach the topic with a measure of distrust. Thus it is up to the teacher to provide clear learning objectives and clear plan for using games. 


The Right Support

The right support comes from the teacher who is using the games in class.  In my experience, schools often have little technical support.  If there is a technical problem, the teacher must be able to solve the issue in class. It’s really that simple.  I suppose I could of put this in the right teacher section, but support deserves it’s own mention.



On 02 June 2008, Tonya inscribed the following thoughts about this post:

I absolutely agree that games can be effective instructional tools when they are used wisely.  The many elements you have described are necessary for games to have an impact on student learning.  In order to introduce and utilize computer games effectively on a regular basis, the classroom teacher must have EVERYONE on board including parents and administrators.  Many teachers shy away from the use of games in fear of being cornered by parents or administrators.  It is true that the most effective way to get these people on board is to be totally upfront about the use of computer games in your classroom.  In the past I have found that parents are much more apt to approve of computer games being used in my classroom when they are introduced to them during an information night. 
As you stated, it is vitally important to find the right game.  This entails much preparation and research by the classroom teacher.  In the past I have purchased

On 22 February 2009, Jesse Cigary inscribed the following thoughts about this post:

I am a student pursuing a Middle Grades teaching degree.  We are often asked to research ways to make teaching and content effective to our future students.  I have often wondered how to incorporate video games into lessons.  Reading your blog has really helped in my understanding of this subject.  I agree that video games when used properly can motivate students of all levels and also make a lesson fun and enjoyable.

On 14 June 2009, dmhickm inscribed the following thoughts about this post:

I am a high school special ed teacher. I teach a wide range of academics within my classroom. I try to include technology in as many ways as possible. I was so happy when I came across your blog, “The right circumstances for games in education to work”. I really enjoyed your take on how to successfully use computer games within your teaching. I always found it difficult to choose what games would go best with my activites. I really found it helpful when I read the part about what makes a game educational. I agree with you 100% when you stated that the game must be fun before it can be educational. I have stumbled across this as a problem numerous times. It is like your lessons within the classroom, if the students are not having fun then they are most likely not learning.  After reading what makes a game educational I found that I need to re-evaluate some of the games I am using in my classroom. It is so hard to find a good game to go along with my variety of lesson. I found it very useful when you recommended certain games. I teach mainly reading, math, and health. Do you know of any good sites I can use within my classroom? My student reading levels and math levels are in the 2nd-3rd grade range. Thank you for your excellent insights into technology games and education. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on your other blogs! smile



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Bill MacKenty, Chief Zuccini

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