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How Can Developers Make Meaningful Learning Games for Classrooms?

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Though many educators are excited about game-based learning, the movement is still very much in a state of transition. Commercial game developers have quickly discovered it’s easier and quicker to develop mobile apps aimed at parent consumers than it is to create an easy-to-use yet robust product to make a meaningful impact on classroom learning. Meanwhile, the education sector is focusing on how to use assessments with games, because although test scores certainly don’t paint the whole picture, they remain the main data point for administrators and policymakers assessing schools and teachers.

As game developers look at a complicated education marketplace studded with persistent challenges, a few guidelines have begun to emerge to help make it easier for teachers to use and see value in educational games.

One big misperception of educational games and a turn-off for some educators is the idea that games are meant to entertain students when they're in school. “Learning is already fun,” said Dan White, CEO and founder of educational gaming company Filament Games in a recent edWeb webinar. “The objective of game technology isn’t to sugar coat learning, it’s to give a nice entree into the learning. If you are really teaching somebody something, they’ll have a good time.”

Not every student will love every educational game, but that's not the point -- the point is to help different types of learners access the information. White says the term “game” can lead to the misperception that it's all about entertainment, when to him the point is reaching learning goals and targeting the kinds of classroom challenges that traditional teaching has difficulty addressing.

Creating games that tackle tough concepts is a huge challenge. “It’s not obvious what sort of pain points we are trying to address by creating learning games,” White said. “If it was easy, a McGraw or Pearson would be waiting at the top, they’d have already figured this out.” Topics that games have the potential to add a meaningful learning layer are those that require a lot of class time to do in the real world, like watching a plant grow; subjects that would cost money, like science experiments; or concepts that students persistently have difficulty grasping. But to find out what schools really need, developers have to ask teachers and listen closely to the answers.


“Historically, we’ve done a bad job about this,” White said. But if developers want games used in classrooms, they must be responsive to teachers. “When we integrated teachers directly into the design process and asked them to help us address some of the misperceptions about fractions, they pointed us in the direction of a game where you just mess around with fractions a whole bunch,” White said. The final product had little narrative and no complex graphics to get in the way of the goal.

One way to help teachers use games in the classroom is to build support materials that flow seamlessly from the game. With strong professional development, lesson plans, discussion questions and assessment tools, the game developer can help scaffold learning in classrooms, an important element of transferring in-game learning from the virtual to real world.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner’s brainchild iCivics is a great example of how well this strategy can work, White said. “In addition to creating the games, they created an entire website with tools for how to implement the games in the classroom,” White said. The game boasts 10 million plays, partly because it’s free and partly because Justice O’Conner used her position to promote it. But the supportive material also made using the game feel more comfortable for teachers.

“The games can’t do it all,” White said. “Games are great at drilling deep and relatively narrow, but they’re not great at covering a wide swath.” That’s important to know if teachers want to take advantage of the powerful teaching moments that games can produce. They help get students excited about a topic and its the teacher’s job to connect it to other learning, he said. “Games are really awesome and rich content for a student to experience before going on to do a more traditional learning experience, like reading,” White said.


Filament is now experimenting with ways to leverage the unique qualities of school -- mainly, that they're in one physical space together at the same time -- into another iteration of games. White wants to figure out how to create a game that would focus on increasing students' interactions with each other, as much as with their gaming devices. He's also interested in creating mobile games that capitalize on their mobility, rather than providing the same desktop game for mobile devices.

All of these new ideas go back to the core challenge of finding the connection between formal and informal learning. “It’s where we can make the most impact,” White said. “Good parents are going to go out and find ways to educate their children, but in schools we have an opportunity to reach everybody.” That’s why he thinks it's so important to help teachers along the gaming path. White isn’t interested in only reaching eager early adopters; he wants to reach the average, harried, reticent teacher and he understands they’re under a lot of pressure to prove that any educational tool they use is effective and worth the time.

Proving the effectiveness of a game is no simple proposition. Games are all different. When students play a game that focuses on a particular skill, often called “drill-and-kill” games, they often see improved test scores. But those games don’t necessarily get at the higher order thinking skills that games have the potential to help develop. But more complex games often don’t offer clearly correlated outcomes that a teacher can use to prove effectiveness.

The debate has led some game developers and their funders to focus on how the game itself can be used to assess learning -- how the game can become a test. But White says that also changes the nature of the game. When a child sits down to play a game, he assumes it’s "failure agnostic" and that allows him to experiment and meander his way through the game freely. When assessment is involved, it changes his relationship to the game. White isn’t against using games for assessment, but he doesn’t think anyone has really figured out how to accurately use the data that games provide to assess in a meaningful way.

Glasslab’s SimCityEDU, funded by the Gates and MacArthur Foundations, is the highest profile example of gaming for assessment. White says if they can crack the code he’ll license it from them, but it’s a lot easier to pull analytics and metrics for a single game than it is to generalize those principles into something that could be applied to all educational games. And, when assessment is involved, the price of developing a game skyrockets.


White doesn’t want to sell the idea that games can be assessment tools to his customers until it has been proven to really work. He’s actually a little conflicted about the idea. He’d love the game to provide a deep and unique learning experience separate from assessment, but he understands that, from a practical point of view, using games for assessment meets a real need in education.