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How Games Can Influence Learning

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Students at Question to Learn school in New York use game techniques to learn about every subject.
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.

IT'S ABOUT INTERACTION, NOT ISOLATION. “At the end 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.”


GAMES ARE NOT ALWAYS THE MAIN POINT. Quest To Learn, 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.

GOOD EDUCATIONAL GAMES ARE DIFFICULT TO DEVELOP. "The 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 about.”

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Nathan Maton is an educational games designer and the community manager on Jane McGonigal's website