This is the same tension an English teacher might be forced to mediate when picking a text. For example, as much as I might want to assign James Joyce’s "Ulysses" to a class of sixth-graders, the chance that it will engage them is pretty slim. They would likely struggle with the complexity of the language and we would hardly be able to address the thematics. It would be an uphill battle against student boredom that would not serve anyone.
A great literature curriculum considers the particular students in the class and chooses books that are simultaneously fun to read, academically challenging and provide important canonical touchstones that can help contextualize future learning. Satisfying any one of these criteria, without the others, is problematic. The same is true for learning games. But for some reason, when it comes to games, many teachers are confused about the difference between “cool” and “fun.”
Cool and fun are not the same thing. Cool has to do with a game’s aesthetics: the art, sound design, characters, narrative, et cetera. But a game does not need to be cool in order to to be fun. Don’t be seduced by the spectacle. Making coolness a priority is tantamount to choosing to teach literature with "People" magazine because the students like to read it. Sure, pop culture gossip would satisfy the engagement criteria, but it wouldn’t satisfy any of the other academic criteria.
Think about games the same way. There’s nothing wrong with cool, but if it's our primary criterion, we are catering to our students instead of challenging them. Don’t meet the students where they are: Help them to move incrementally from one place to another. Look for games that are fun rather than games that are cool.
The Mechanics Matter Most
The best learning games are always fun. Try playing them yourself and see if you enjoy them. No matter how advanced your understanding of the subject matter, a good game should still be fun. I’ve understood algebra and number partitions for decades, but "DragonBox" and "Wuzzit Trouble" are still challenging puzzlers that I like to fiddle with on long airline flights. All good games offer challenges in intuitive ways. In fact, this is the reason games work so well for learning: Players are intrinsically motivated to identify and succeed at understanding the game’s mechanics.
Mechanics are what game designers call the collection of rules and structures that produce the actual game play. The mechanics organize the game’s components in the way that defines how a player’s actions will have an impact. In good learning games, the subject matter is always embedded into the mechanics themselves. Learning to navigate the game’s mechanics and learning the academic subject matter are one and the same.
Bad games sometimes attempt to simply graft a topic onto existing game mechanics. They might add vocabulary words to "Angry Birds," or multiplication tables to "Temple Run." It never works. The best learning games teach in the same way good teachers teach: They don’t trick students into being interested, they help students find genuine excitement in learning a subject.
Are You Comfortable?
In order to find genuine excitement in learning a subject, students need to be comfortable with the game. In order to leverage the potential of learning games in the classroom, teachers need to be comfortable, too. When choosing a game for the classroom, you’ll need to assess comfort levels. And the factors that influence a teacher’s comfort level are not necessarily the same factors that will influence the students’.
For students, playability is the most important comfort factor. If the game is too complicated, they’ll spend more time trying to play than they do learning from playing. Look for games that seem simple to play. Paradoxically, the games that seem the simplest are usually the most complex. That’s because they do a good job at instructing students slowly. They teach one action at a time, in baby steps, until the complex world of the game seems intuitive. Suddenly, the students get it. And simultaneously, because the mechanics and the academics are one and the same, they’ve succeeded in meeting the learning objectives.
In order to facilitate this, teachers need to be comfortable, too. You should be comfortable not only playing the game, but also integrating it into your curriculum. Make sure that you remain in the curricular driver's seat. Don’t allow the game to dictate the curriculum, nor the assessment strategy.
From a curricular perspective, the best implementations see learning games as just one of many learning activities. The combination of activities are designed to offer multiple entry points to a key academic lesson. Each entry point is a perspective -- a single lens into a complex subject. Allowing any one perspective to dominate the conversation does your students a disservice. Look for games that enhance what you already do, not for games that disrupt your current strategies.
When it comes to assessment, many games have robust back ends that provide assessment data about the students that play them. The data can be extremely useful, providing information about your students that is applicable well beyond the game itself. Teachers, however, need to make sure they’re comfortable with the game’s assessment strategies. Don’t allow the game to tell you how to assess, make sure it strengthens your current practices.
Remember, the games are tools to make your work more efficient and effective. Make sure you’re using the game, and that the game is not using you. And make sure you explain to your students how and why the game fits into the larger context of the classroom.
Students might play the game willingly, but that doesn’t mean they understand how it relates to the other activities. Take the time to explain why you’ve chosen the game. Or, even better, let it be a class discussion. Ask your students to discuss what they’ve learned from the game and how it fits into the larger class context. You’ll likely discover that the game is working in ways you never could have imagined.