Gaming in education: Why I think it’s important (and you should too)

Gaming in education is a very hot topic. It seems like everywhere you turn you see another company coming out with game strategies for your classroom or some guide on “making your classroom cool for your students.” While I’m a very vocal advocate for gaming in general, and in particular in education, I think these “strategies in a box” can not only be misleading but generally come across as ingenue to students.

Over the past year I’ve started sketching out different rationales and strategies I, and colleagues have tried out, and at this point I feel like I’d like to share some of our work with the world.

Gaming as a teaching tool is not a new concept. I know it is easy to look at things like Valve’s Portals for education, and say well they didn’t need to do that when I was in school, but believe it or not they did. Can you honestly sit there and say you went through an entire educational career without once playing a game? You never played Jeopardy? You never participated in a spelling bee? Your teacher never had team Q&A competitions where there was a winning team declared? Those are all games! Games and gaming today function on the same principal, just with some more flash. Maybe instead of having to keep score on the chalkboard we use an L.M.S. to do it for us. Maybe instead of students writing up a story for class, they get to create the world in Minecraft. While the delivery method has changed the principal stays the same: Creating a world or situation where competition happens and knowledge is applied or learned. Educators in the past took concepts from the games around them (board games for example). Why can’t educators take concepts from video games?

While some people probably are rolling their eyes at this, what is the number one complaint students have about school? It’s not fun. What’s the number one desire educators have when thinking about teaching? Making it fun. What’s the number one training request I get at work? How can I make this fun. Gaming can do all of this with a minimum of effort.

One of the newer concepts that a lot of educators are employing is rather than make a game for the class, the game is the class. You design your entire course as a game which immerses the students constantly in the game. For example. I had a colleague who was teaching a very small class of 10 students in a class. She wanted to make the class a game and we both decided that we would use The Avengers as the basis since that movie had just come out and was really popular. Each student started by creating their super hero, and they could pick from a list of super powers. Super powers each had benefits. For example a student that had super speed could get extra time on an exam twice during the semester. They could choose to use it when needed, and there were opportunities to gain extra power  uses throughout the course. Exams were designed out to be villan fights either alone or in groups (each group had their own name). Overall the students responded tremendously well to it. End of the year survey responses included things like, “So much fun” “Made the class a fun story” and my colleague reported about a 25% increase in grade scores across the board. Did I mention this was a COLLEGE honors math class? I’m not exactly sure of the science or even why, but gaming works.

Below are just a few basic ideas you can look at applying in your course:

1. Make your whole class a game. Rather than having the end goal of the course “master the material” give it a purpose: “Save the galaxy” “Build a new city” “Create a new society”, giving a course focus above “Learn or Fail” invites students to invest their time into the course.

2.  Look at what games are out there and take what they do – Video games today have 25-50 people competing arguing, laughing, and competing at the same time to do something. Look at games like Angry Birds, Minecraft, Online RPGs like World of Warcraft and look at what they teach. Angry Birds taught me more about mathematics and physics than any high school math class I took. Sim City taught me about money and how I can use it. RPGs taught me about working together with others to achieve a common goal. Why is it that these ideas are so rare in this in the classroom?

3. Achievements are a great way to motivate – I’m going to be working on a new post this week about setting up achievements in an L.M.S. and what exactly they are all about, but achievements can be a really easy way to harness everyone’s natural competitiveness to promote learning. Not to go into a long winded explanation, but achievements are things students (or game players) can unlock while playing they game. They count literally for nothing, but people become obsessed with them since some you can see and others are hidden waiting to be found. In the classroom you can use achievements to create an incentive system to get students to keep working. Simply by creating a system and posting a leaderboard you can create a huge desire to keep working in your course.

In closing I really hope I might have at least peaked your interest in looking at gaming for education. Feel free to post a comment if you’d like some help setting something up.

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