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Games In The Classroom: What the Research Says

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Brad Flickinger
Brad Flickinger

Part 9 of MindShift's Guide to Games and Learning.

The games-and-learning landscape is changing quickly. What's happening in classrooms now will look very different in a decade, so what really matters right now is how we frame the conversation. The way we understand the expectations and promises of today’s game-based approaches will have a long-term impact on how we imagine and implement them in the future.

It's critical that teachers, parents, and administrators understand not only the research, but also the way corporations, foundations, and research organizations are thinking about games and learning. There are big players involved in researching the benefits of game-based learning in schools. Companies and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), Pearson, Inc., Electronic Arts (EA), and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) are all involved. Each has a different role in the matter and teachers have different perceptions of what those roles are.

We have a sense of what research says about the general benefits of gaming, so now we'll look at summarizing a bit of the scant research that’s specific to the classroom.

Some of the most significant research on game-based learning is done by GlassLab (the Games and Learning Assessment Lab), which was established with a “significant investment” from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in cooperation with the MacArthur Foundation. GlassLab designs and implements game-based formative assessments which, according to SRI, “are being developed in response to the climate of student disengagement that currently exists in many classrooms.” The concept is simple: kids like video games and the hope is that “by applying Evidence Centered Design (ECD), the game-based formative assessments address the needs of both students and teachers for reliable and valid real-time actionable data within a motivating learning environment.”

So far, the research seems to be showing success. The 2013 study, which is the most significant to date, found that “when digital games were compared to other instruction conditions without digital games, there was a moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games in terms of broad cognitive competencies.”


“For a student sitting in the median who doesn’t have a game, his or her learning achievement would have increased by 12 percent if he or she had that game,” said Ed Dieterle, Senior Program Officer for Research, Measurement, and Evaluation for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in a MindShift article last year. In the world of education achievement, 12 percent is significant.

In the same study, SRI also looked at simulations, and in those studies, students improved by 25 percent. That’s huge. But how do they define a simulation? Think of something that’s more interactive than an animated anatomy lesson and less game-like than Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers.

The SRI report describes it this way: “A computer simulation is a tool used to explore a real-world or hypothetical phenomenon or system by approximating the behavior of the phenomenon or operation of the system.” According to the SRI study, a simulation differs from a game in that it does not employ a points or “currency” based reward system and it doesn’t have level based achievement goals. In addition, simulations have an “underlying model that is based on some real-world behavior.”

The promise of game-based learning lies in the premise that the technology provides an efficient and effective tool with which to replace a points-based extrinsic motivation system with a contextualized hands-on learning experience. Unlike this SRI study, which uses the word “simulation” to describe this kind of learning, I’ve made the distinction between “gamification” and “game-based learning.” As I've  argued before, “we don’t need gamification if gamification is about competition and commodification of learning, there’s no need for more commodified motivation. We don’t need more gold coins or badges.” SRI’s findings provide evidence to support this claim.

The key point here is that games themselves are not necessarily competitive. Play is useful because it simulates real life experience -- physical, emotional, and/or intellectual -- in a safe, iterative and social environment, not because it has winners and losers. The achievement lies in the act of learning and understanding itself. Whether or not we make a distinction between “simulation” and “games” the SRI study shows that interactive digital tools can offer an efficient means to provide effective contextualized learning experiences.

For some of us, these findings are hardly surprising. Many teachers have already intuited how beneficial game-based learning can be. According to the recent teacher’s survey undertaken by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, 55 percent of students play games at least weekly and 78 percent reported using games in the classroom at all.

These teachers are not newbies. The 694 K-8 teachers surveyed have an average of 14.5 years of experience in the classroom. And 30 percent of the teachers said the games are equally beneficial for all students. But there also seemed to be a trend that identified games as most beneficial for “low-performing students,” “students with emotional/behavioral issues,” “student with cognitive or developmental issues.” In other words, students who have been labeled and/or diagnosed because they struggle within the traditional school environment, benefit from game-based approaches. From the study: “65 percent of teachers note that lower-performing students show increased engagement with content, versus only 3 percent who show a decrease.” This is good news.


In addition, 53 percent of teachers find that video games foster positive collaboration between students. Anyone who has watched kids play video games together has seen this trend: They give each other tips and advice, they share tricks. They teach each other to understand the games’ systems. No wonder gameplay YouTube videos are so popular. Gaming inherently involves systems-thinking which is best taught through collaborative learning. Still, 52 percent of teachers assign digital games as independent activities for students. Only about a third (34 percent) “assign digital games to groups of 3-5 students.” And only 29 percent “direct the whole classroom to use digital games together.”

What accounts for this preference toward independent gameplay among teachers? Perhaps it is leftover residue from an old paradigm that values individual achievement over collaboration.

It's becoming more apparent that teachers will need to do more than just embrace new technologies. They will also need to embrace the epistemological foundations of these technologies. There are connected, networked ways of knowing that will dominate the digital future. Sharing and collaboration go hand-in-hand with integrating non-competitive and non-commodified ways of playing. The way students play and learn today is the way they will work tomorrow.


The MindShift Guide to Games and Learning is made possible through the generous support of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and is a project of the Games and Learning Publishing Council.

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