How Games Can Influence Learning

By Nathan Maton

What do games have anything to do with learning? We spoke to
nationally recognized researchers, teachers, game-based schools and
companies that develop educational games and asked how they see games
fitting into the education landscape.

of the day, a game is successful only if each individual gamer has an
interaction with it that makes him or her want to come back for more,”
says Nt Etuk, CEO of Dimension U, an educational games company.  “Even
the massively multi-player games [such as World of Warcaft] are
successful only because they have tapped into a million individual need
to interact, or to compete, or to form groups.”

GAMES CAN HELP STRUGGLING STUDENTS.  “[Games] don’t cause behavior problems but eliminate them,” Ananth Pai says. Pai teaches students from second to fifth grade in Parkview/Center Point Elementary school in Maplewood, Minnesota. Pai
took the time to develop a game-based curricula, and says he’s seen the
rewards of his efforts.

In his gamified classroom, students who performed below proficiency
contributed the most to the double-digit growth in achievement. “These
are the students that make up the whole education reform debate.
Gamification helps them from falling through the ever widening
achievement gap as they move forward from third grade,” he said.

IT’S HIGHLY PERSONALIZED. With the best games, the
player is challenged at exactly the right level and in the right way to
keep the player playing. “Maybe the question we need to ask is what
about games causes youth to engage that our traditional approach to
education lacks,” says Brian Alspach, Executive Vice President of E-Line
Media, an educational games publisher well known for their game Gamestar Mechanic. “Perhaps applying games to classes is hard because they work on a
different educational philosophy than our current education system.
Classes are designed to get the lowest common denominator engaged, while
games are an interactive, ‘lean-forward’ medium in which players can
progress at their own pace while trying and failing in a safe
environment. A well-designed game offers an intricate balance of
challenges and rewards that continually pushes players to, and then
beyond, the limits of their knowledge and skill.”

a school led by renowned game designer Katie Salen that integrates
games across all classes and subjects, is one of the leading examples of
how games fit into schools. Yet even there, according to Rebecca
Rufo-Tepper, Director of Integrated Learning, none of their teachers
teach exclusively through games.  Even when they do use games, they’re
frequently not what you’d imagine.

“Games are very flexible and can be used in different ways,”
Rufo-Tepper says. “It’s not like they’re in the classroom playing a
video game or playing cards everyday but there is this larger contextual
experience that is game like. We use the word ‘game-like’ a lot instead
of ‘game.'”

She gives an example of how the school’s seventh-grade literacy class, in which they read a book called Chains
by Laurie Halse Anderson, about New York City during the American
Revolution. Students are asked to write about the different types of
power represented in the book, to give literary examples, and to write a
literary essay with multiple drafts. Sounds like a typical English
class, except the small twist here is that Oprah Winfrey has “visited”
them in a video created by game designers and the teacher, and asked
them to join her book club. “There’s a fictionalized game-like
experience and the kids know that it isn’t really Oprah but it is all
couched in this game like experience,” she said.

fact is, many of the games out there suck,” said Ralph Vacca, a
doctoral student at New York University’s Educational Communications and
Technology Program. “They don’t tackle genuine learning needs as
teachers see them, they don’t address practical limitations, as teachers
see them, and they don’t live up to the hype around them, as teachers
see them.” Those who design games need to recognize the “logistical,
organizational, and cultural obstacles teachers have to deal with that
underlie lots of perceived ‘resistance’ to innovations in the
classroom.” For busy teachers, spending days or weeks prepping to use a
game in just one or two classes is not the best use of time, he said.

Even Quest To Learn, which hopes to be a leading example in
implementing games in schools in game design, admits to the challenge of
developing useful games. They’ve pulled together the best and brightest
of both the teaching and game-design worlds and carefully thought
through their plan. Even so, some of their games, particularly in their
first year, were frequently over-designed and over-complicated.

“We’ll have designed a board game where we realize that it has taken
45 minutes of class for the kids just to understand how to play it,”
Rebecca says.  “And we’ll have said we’ll take 15 minutes to explain it
and then they’ll play around and then we’re in a classroom. Forty-five
minutes have gone by and the kids are still trying to figure out how to
play it.” Add to that the fact that it was a Friday, by the time student
return on Monday, “they’ve forgotten everything that you’ve talked

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