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Bringing Games into the Classroom

July 31, 2008

All this week and last, I have been working with art educators to answer a question they all had: how can we use our students’ love of games to our benefit and ultimately the students’ benefit too?

The answer isn’t obvious to many educators, but it is this: integrate game design into your classroom and bring good games in as an example. How do you integrate game design into your classroom and what good games am I talking about?

In a minute…

Why games?

When video games really started to gain a whole lot of steam in the 1990s with the release of the PS1 and then the PS2, there were two general schools of thought. Teachers wondered why a student with ADHD would tune out after 10 minutes of lecture while the exact same student would “stare” at a video game screen “doing nothing” for hours at a time. Some cursed games. Others wondered what they could learn from them. One of those people was Professor Jim Gee at the University of Madison at Wisconsin. He wrote a great book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Second Edition: Revised and Updated Edition, and I highly recommend it.

The truth is this: kids aren’t “staring” or “doing nothing.” Rather, games are like, well, knitting. Unlike lectures, they are an active medium that keep our brains busy with continuous series of choices about what positive action to do next. Game players have to think about these choices, much like you think about what you’re going to do in Tetris each time a piece falls from the top or how you’re going to maneuver a busy road when you’re in a super hurry to get somewhere. The skill of the game designer is to create something which continuously presents the player with a series of positive meaningful choices.

So, for at least as long as it takes to read this article, consider the range of things about which we could make positive, meaningful choices.

This week alone, I have worked with art educators to prototype:

  • Two games about art principles
  • Two games about art elements
  • A game about being a starving artist
  • A game about owning a gallery and collecting the master works

There were multiple ways that we could do these things, including the race-to-the-end game exercise I recently posted here.

Get a Bit Literate

Games are an enormous cultural force, and as educators, if you want to use games in your classroom, you need to get a bit literate so that you can converse with your students. Honestly, I think most will be utterly thrilled that you’re welcoming games in this way, and will likely help you to learn.

First off, understand the scope of games. Your students probably see games as these things played on their console, but of course games have always been with us. All mammals play games as a means of teaching their young. Armies play “war” games. Games are something we instinctively do to experiment and learn without real consequence. As our lives have generally improved through the centuries, the consequences for which games trained us ultimately were factored out of the equation, and we were left with games for entertainment only (for the most part). There’s nothing wrong with that at all. However, one of your first jobs as an educator is to discover the whole massive big fat world that is games. Take it all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the Olympics. Now, fast forward it to today’s latest console hit. There, you have the scope in one dimension.

I highly recommend getting Bob Bates’ book Game Design, Second Edition. It provides an excellent overview of the game industry, the types of games and the basics of the game making process.

Here’s a high-level overview of the big genres, though:

  • FPSs or First-person shooter: These are the games you’ve heard about. A character, usually a soldier, goes through the world and shoots stuff. Very often, these are war games set in war settings. Popular games in this genre include Gears of War and the Halo series. Think action movies, but now with a controller
  • RPGs or Role-playing games: Think Lord of the Rings but on a machine. These are games where you create a character and head off into the world. You may or may not meet up with other characters. Generally, these games are story-heavy.
  • MMOs or Massively multiplayer RPGS: Think Lord of the Rings but on the internet with 8 million other people. You’re not all in the same place at once, but hundreds of you are. It’s a damn big place, though, so it’s not like you’re stacked up like cord wood. In general, you fulfill quests and work to make your character better through doing things. This is called “leveling.” You level up from level 1 to 2 and so on.
  • Sports games or Madden: Madden is a franchise by EA, and it effectively owns football on consoles.

To be continued…

(I had originally hoped to write the whole thing an post it, but if I do that, then you’ll see no posts for a week)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2008 10:57 pm

    This is a fascinating topic, and I think it’s great you have the opportunity to work directly with educators on the impact games can have in a learning environment.

    Are you aware of any broader movement for educating teachers in game design concepts so they can apply them in their classrooms?

    One of my most memorable college classes was one in investing, simply because a good portion of the class involved playing a stock market simulation game where we actively traded fake stocks. I’m not convinced that particular game was effective in teaching me all the concepts (perhaps the teacher could have tied everything together better during the discussion?) but I was definitely engaged. That’s more than I can say about my other college classes. 🙂

  2. Chris Pioli permalink
    August 2, 2008 12:27 am

    I remember getting the first edition of James Paul Gee’s book for a research paper I did on video games for my writing course in college. Got an A on it, too. I’d be happy to show it to you if you’d like to see it. I’ll look into buying Bates’ book, too.

  3. August 2, 2008 2:11 am

    This is excellent!

    There have been many times I’ve brought this topic up with friends. I whole-hearted believe that games can teach subject matter that would otherwise be a chore to study. Many subjects from pre-school to university level could be taught in this manner.

    In college one of my portfolio projects was a game design document for a game that teaches how to manage diabetes through practice on a virtual pet. Being a type 1 diabetic of 14 years I had enough knowledge on the subject and didn’t need to research very much. (there still was quite a bit of research put into the project as not all diabetics are created equal)
    Put into the context of a ‘virtual patient’ newly diagnosed diabetics could gain knowledge and practice that is beneficial.

    Now, it would be interesting to take what you have done with the subject of art and apply it to other subject matter such as chemistry, physics and philosophy… just to name a few.

    Suddenly cramming for that chemistry class has turned into a night of gaming with purpose.

    Learning through gaming isn’t new, as stated above. We learn through play as we grow and mature. But what happens as we mature and we see ‘play’ as something trivial and entertaining? Why not continue beneficial play throughout our lives and apply it to more advanced academia?

  4. JCaskey permalink
    August 3, 2008 3:00 pm

    I almost wish I could go back and experience these kinds of teaching techniques.

    Oh, and just to nit-pick Gears of War is technically a third-person shooter. It may seem trivial, but I’m sure I don’t have to explain the impact seeing your character vs not seeing them makes on immersion and identity.

  5. August 3, 2008 11:15 pm

    Yeah I agree, i too wish i could go back and experience teaching like this. Good article, I agree that gaming needs to be incorporated more into all aspects of our lives, it’s already established itself as a medium that is here to stay.

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