I was an exciting moment when my Dad surprised us with our first home computer. It was a sleek Tandy TRS-80 from Radio Shack. Soon, my siblings and I were vying for time playing games on the high-tech device. We spent many happy hours playing Pong, Scarfman, Hangman, and my personal favorite — the Olympic Decathlon. By the early 80’s, we also had a Nintendo, and the world of gaming had fully entered our lives. We wondered how we had ever survived without the Mario Brothers.
Looking back on those first years of computer gaming, it amazes me to think of how far the industry has come. We’ve gone from pole-vaulting stick people to building, navigating, and saving entire virtual worlds. With clunky desktop computers being replaced by lightweight laptops and mobile devices, we can now find people playing games anywhere and everywhere. From 2-year olds to senior-citizens, gaming has become a part of daily life for billions of people.
What’s in a Game?
So, what’s in a game that makes it so enticing? Why is it that the moment I offer students “free time” as a reward at school, they immediately ask if they can play games on their iPads? Why is it that when I say we’re going to do a game-based activity, students literally cheer? (I wish they would cheer like that for all my lessons!) Why are they so much more focused and better-behaved when on their devices?
I was really struck by the points made in Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk, which helped me understand some of the psychology behind gaming. McGonigal pointed out that “We feel that we are not as good in reality as we are at games,” and that when we are in game worlds, “we become the best version of ourselves.” Where we might feel overwhelmed and overcome by the challenges of real life, we are confident and capable in our ability to persevere and succeed in the game world. McGonigal also pointed out that in games, there’s always something important and specific to be done, things that are within our current realm of capability, but will also challenge us to work and think harder. I confess that I have been very skeptical about game-based learning, because I worry about the effects of too much screen-time on developing brains. But McGonigal has helped me to recognize that gaming can be very worthwhile if we can channel that passion into real-world learning and problem-solving. The talent and capability is within our students– we just have to show them that they can be as successful in the real world as they are in the virtual world.
Leading Students to an “Epic Win”
So, how can we help students to feel the same kind of confidence and belief in their ability to achieve an “epic win,” with real-life learning and challenges? It’s a question that will have to continue to be explored, but I feel like I have finally begun to see the possibilities.
Don’t we all want our students to recognize their own potential and work to reach the best that is in them? If game-based learning can help bridge that gap between “I’m not good at learning,” and “I’m awesome at learning,” then I think we need to do our best to make it an integral part of our instruction. Wouldn’t it be great if students were as motivated to “get to the next level” in Math and Reading skills as they are in Clash of Clans? As Dr. Ian Glover explains, “Adding simple game features could encourage unmotivated learners to be more engaged in their own learning process and interactions with other learners…existing associations between computers and games can be harnessed to encourage productive work…”
Gamification in the Learning Commons
While I have a lot to learn about using game-based learning effectively, I do provide some educational games in the Learning Commons. Last year, we were fortunate to receive two new Smart Tables for our space. The students absolutely love them. I regularly change out the activities to support learning of various subjects. Students have explored place-value, money skills, multiplication, landforms, music, and more. I currently have a continents game on one of the tables, and it’s great to see the students engaged not only in the game, but referencing and learning from the Atlas while they play. Students are also allowed to play Prodigy, a terrific game for building math skills, and I encourage them to read on Raz Kids, where they enjoy leveling up in their reading skills.
Last year, while teaching Digital Citizenship, I had the students complete game-based modules on Digital Passport. Not only did they have fun, but they had to really think about the digital citizenship topics we’d discussed in order to progress in the game. That experience showed me how meaningful it can be to integrate gaming into instruction. Learning is a serious business, but perhaps game-based learning can reduce the anxiety and self-imposed limitations many students face. Instead of shutting down because they feel overwhelmed by information, they can continually review within in the safety of the game until they grasp the concepts.
My students really love to play Kahoot, so I’ve been working on designing more Kahoot quizzes which teach and reinforce concepts. I hope to find many more ways of bringing games into my instruction. I have a long way to go with this, but I’ve seen the light in kids’ eyes when they successfully grasp a concept and achieve that epic win. That’s a light I want to see all the time. If playing games will help my students learn in a safe, comfortable way, then it’s win-win. And if we can go beyond that to use games as a means of building critical thinking and solving real-world challenges, it will be an epic win indeed.