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How Games Promote Learning

Marianne Malmstrom has been using video games in the classroom for over eight years. She recently completed a 3-month professional development tour of New Zealand focused on investigating successful learning strategies including games. Mitch Weisburgh is co-founder of Games4Ed.org, a nonprofit that fosters collaborations between educators, policy makers, game developers, and researchers to increase the use of game-based learning in the U.S. education system. Here is their recent conversation about the use of games in education.

Please join us this Thursday, January 21 at 8pm Eastern on Twitter for #GlobalEdChat where we will be discussing the importance of games for global education.

By guest bloggers Mitch Weisburgh and Marianne Malmstrom


Are games useful in education?
Mitch: Two-thirds of all households in the US have at least one video gamer, and 97% of kids ages 2-17 are already playing video games, with an average of over 11 hours a week. Video games are a $110B industry.

Child development pioneer Jean Piaget noted that humans use play to understand social dynamics, exercise imagination and creativity, and experiment with materials and resources. It's as if the human mind was deliberately wired to learn through games.

But do kids actually learn anything useful from playing games? Can video games be used in schools?

Marianne: New media is always subject to questions as to whether it will improve the human condition or be the source of our demise. Going back to the emergence of the written language, debates raged over concerns about the impact on thinking and memory. When I was a kid, I remember adults worrying that TV would deteriorate our vision and make us stupid. It's our nature to question that which is new. In spite of our parents' worst fears, we survived TV. I'm sure video games will endure as well.

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What is not new are games. They are one of the oldest recorded forms of human interaction. And games are not new to schools. Teachers have been using all kinds of games in the classroom since I was a kid. I think the fact that the emergence of digital games has taken the world by storm is at the heart our anxiety. We are simply riding that wave of concern that accompanies all transformative technology.

What puzzles me is not that we worry about the impact of games, but that we think games are intrinsically devoid of learning. Why do we think learning only happens if it is being dispensed by a teacher? I think this is at the core of what holds us back from understanding the kind of learning kids need today. Anne Collier makes this point eloquently in her article about what John Seely Brown has to say about the importance of play.

You asked if we are wired to learn through games. Actually, we are wired to learn through play, and games provide us an excellent vehicle to do that.

What do we learn through games?
Mitch: What do we learn through games? Or even more specifically, what do students learn from the video games that they use with their teachers? Let's start with academic skills and knowledge.

Research shows playing some games is a type of practice, so the more time playing, the greater the gain in skills and knowledge. Time on task is especially highly related to math proficiency. Spatial skills predict achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Action video games can enhance spatial skills in a relatively brief period, and the improvement lasts over an extended period of time and is transferable to other spatial tasks. Players of action video games show increased efficiency of neural processing.

Marianne: All excellent examples of different skills one can develop from playing video games. It makes sense that teachers are starting to use these games to hone skills across the curriculum. The ways in which teachers are using these games are as diverse and varied as the games themselves. Examples span games like iCivics, created expressly to teach students how our government works, to the creative use of World of Warcraft to help students make connections in their study of humanities. Of course, drill games, which are like dressed up quiz games, similar to the use of flash cards, remain a staple in many classrooms. The thing these games have in common is that they are all used to support traditional curricular goals.

Personally, I'm more curious about what games can teach us, as teachers, about learning and how to keep our curriculum relevant in a constantly changing world. 

Firstly, a well-designed game is a perfect learning system, scaffolded to move a player successfully through increasingly difficult challenges. How can we more effectively emulate that in our own curriculum design? 

Secondly, and the most fascinating aspect of games for me, how do kids intrinsically learn while playing games on their own? One of the best examples of that is Minecraft. Millions of children all over the world are playing this game without any instructions. What are they learning through their play? Educators and researchers alike are taking a much closer look, and what they are discovering is that kids are naturally learning an array of skills that have been identified as critical to "21st century" or modern learning, such as design thinking and programming. 

I believe this is the true transformation that games offer as they provide us with clues about the skills we need to focus on to keep curriculum relevant for today's students.

What are some globally focused games?
Mitch: Can you think of some international examples? Fantasy Geopolitics is a game that pulls articles from the New York Times: Students participate in a competition, just like a fantasy sports league, but based on current events, culture, and history. Google has created Smarty Pins, which is a map-based trivia game. And GeoGuessr is a game that lets you explore the world.

Marianne: Yes, while this is still a largely untapped area, there are plenty of examples to demonstrate the power of games for connecting people across borders, both inside and outside of school.

Outside of the classroom, international game play has been taking place for years in virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online role-play games (MMORPGs) such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. Apps like Clash of Clans are providing new kinds of opportunities for groups to test their skills in strategy and teamwork. Ingress, a massive "Capture the Flag" style game, is played worldwide between just two teams: Enlightenment and Resistance. As I travel throughout New Zealand, I love playing Ingress as it guides me to discover points of interests that I would otherwise miss.

All of these commercial games give us important clues about what will work in connecting students.

Educators are already experimenting with these platforms. Quest Atlantis, was one of the earliest examples of a thoughtful multiplayer environment created exclusively for students around the world to collaboratively solve problems presented in the form of quests. Although it has since closed, it provided some valuable lessons as to the untapped potential of virtual worlds and MMORPGs to develop skills in problem solving, design thinking, computational thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and citizenship. JokaidiaGrid continues to offer virtual spaces for educators to connect, create, and experiment. Mine Class, the brainchild of Matt Richards, is a space where classes connect, collaborate, design, and build in Minecraft.

Creative teachers are connecting their classes by creating their own games. Mystery Skype is one such game. Teachers introduce their classes via Skype and students have to deduce the location of the other class through a series of questions requiring a "yes" or "no" response. Paul Darvasi (Canada) and John Fallon (USA) took collaboration to a whole new level when they co-created a live action role-play game (LARP) called Blind Protocol. Their game is specifically designed to connect both classes in the study of online surveillance. The work they did behind the scenes was massively complex, but it is an excellent example of the untapped potential of classes working together to understand issues we face on a global scale.

One of the most exciting ways in which students connect is through game design. Communities are forming around the world on platforms such as Scratch and Game Froot which allow kids of all ages to design, program, and publish their own games. Playing Mondo introduces an interesting twist by offering tools that utilize GPS coordinates and movement sensors to create physically interactive games similar to Ingress. As more schools develop game design programs, more classes will connect to play-test each other's games. Escape To Morrow, a game designed by my former students in New Jersey, was recently play-tested by Yvonne Harrison's students in Perth, Australia. It's this kind of collaborative design work that holds some of the most powerful opportunities for learning. 

While playing and designing games is still in its infancy in respect to international collaboration, I believe there is enough evidence to predict that games will play a major role as we learn to work together globally.

Additional Resources:

Follow Marianne, Mitch, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter. 

Image courtesy of GraphicStock.

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