How Students Learn From Games

In the second of a three-part series, a professor looks at the use of simulation games in the classroom

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August 25, 2014

Kurt Squire first recognized the learning potential of games in 1987 in his history class in high school. When his teacher asked the students if they knew the differences between English and Spanish colonization strategies in the Caribbean, he was the only one who knew the answer (the Spanish sailed galleons and held forts across the Caribbean for transporting gold, while the English sought to establish permanent settlements). But Squire hadn’t been reading ahead in the textbook: He had inadvertently learned the history of Caribbean colonization from spending countless hours playing a video game called Sid Meier’s Pirates! on his Commodore 64 computer.

Today Squire is a professor of digital media in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and director of the Games+Learning+Society Center at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. His research interest, sparked in that classic single-player video game released all the way back in 1987, focuses on the design of games for learning and their impact.

More on the series

In last month’s column, I provided an introduction to Reacting to the Past, a teaching methodology pioneered by Mark Carnes at Barnard College in the 1990’s, and now spreading rapidly across higher education. Reacting to the Past assigns students roles in historical-simulation games in order to encourage intensive reading of complex texts, help students develop core intellectual skills (writing, speaking, thinking), and motivate them to take a deep approach to their learning. Although these games were initially developed for history courses, they now span the disciplines, in fields as varied as political science and chemistry. Faculty members and students play simulation games at institutions of every type, from community colleges to research universities.

I promised that in this month’s column I would delve into the mechanics of teaching a Reacting game. I asked Kurt Squire to deepen my analysis by helping me to understand the connections between games and learning, identify what kinds of learning are best stimulated by games, and note the potential pitfalls of using games in the classroom.

Faculty members who are interested in exploring the use of Reacting to the Past games should begin with two important steps. First, attend the annual Reacting conference, at Barnard College, in June. There you will have the opportunity to play two different games over the course of four days, run by experienced instructors. Nothing you read here or elsewhere about Reacting games will compare to the experience of actually playing one. The conference also includes traditional academic sessions or panel discussions on aspects of game playing and development, including some talks designed to help faculty members use these games for the first time.

Second, visit the RTTP website to learn about the existing games and those in development. The site provides suggestions for which games are most suitable for beginners. All of the published games have a separate bank of instructor resources available through the site.

A typical game takes three to six weeks of class time during the semester, which means that one or two games can be played in a 15-week semester (weeklong "chapter" games also exist for those not ready to commit such a large chunk of time to a regular game). Before I attended the conference, I assumed that faculty members would spend the first five or six weeks familiarizing students with course content before launching them into a game, but I was wrong. Most of the participants with whom I spoke spent only a few class sessions preparing students to play the game, and then jumped in early in the semester.

In doing so, according to Squire, they are capitalizing on one of the main strengths of games in learning: the ability to capture student interest. "Games are a good model for introducing a topic and raising interest," he said, "because they situate content for learners so that they understand why it’s relevant."

The games accomplish that by establishing immediate goals that students can attain only by learning and applying course content. We often spend weeks throwing content at our students, and perhaps by the end of the semester we hope to have convinced them that what they have learned is relevant beyond the classroom. In a simulation game, by contrast, you are confronted immediately with the realization that what you are learning will help achieve a goal, one usually based on a real-world scenario.

In the history game I played at a Reacting conference, I was reading essays by Gandhi and other Indian thinkers in order to help me make arguments about the future of India. In Virulent, a digital game developed at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, players learn about cells, proteins, and the immune system as they try to prevent the spread of a nasty virus. The goal-based nature of both games spurs deep engagement with the material and multiple readings of challenging texts.

Each student receives a published game book, which includes long summaries of the historical content and additional background readings, and a role sheet that outlines the specific objectives of the character. In the India game I played at the conference, my role sheets (around 20 pages of material) specified that I would "win" if we finished our conference with a united India. If I failed in that objective, it was possible for me to win in another way, but that route required a complex set of contingencies falling into place, which pushed me to focus on the simplest path to success (or, as it turned out, failure).

Once the students have done the initial reading and understand their role sheets, the games begin. For the faculty member, that means stepping back and letting students take charge. Class sessions during the weeks of the game are filled with students giving speeches, meeting in factions or groups to strategize, cutting back-door deals, or taking notes, drafting essays, and planning their next moves. The faculty member observes, ensures that the game stays on the rails, and intervenes when necessary. In the India game I played, our game master occasionally passed notes to individuals or groups offering reminders or suggestions, and sometimes announced developments or events that forced us back to the drawing board.

Of course the faculty member has to assess student performance during the game sessions, and plenty of leeway exists in terms of what will be evaluated for their grades. The most substantive materials that students produce are the essays and speeches they write within their game roles. But some faculty members also observe and grade student participation on a more holistic level, noting and crediting them for their contributions to debates, meetings, and more.

In our email conversation, Squire said it’s better to evaluate student performance in a broad way. If students sense that, in spite of the fun and fascinating nature of the game they are playing, the assessment will focus narrowly on their written work, they may turn their focus to that writing and ignore the rest.

"Students are really good at identifying the ways in which they will be assessed and working backwards from there," Squire said. "If students are going to be assessed through memorization tasks, it’s not uncommon to see them disregard learning activities (of all sorts) and go straight to their trusted strategies."

At the conclusion of a Reacting to the Past game, the instructor decides which students or factions have won, and then does some exit processing with the students. After that, the course continues. Ideally, students take what they have learned through the game and build on it through further activities and assignments in the rest of the course. A course that includes a single four-week game might still conclude with conventional exams, papers, or other assignments that enable students to translate their game-based learning into traditional scholarly forms. Creating meaningful connections between the game and the rest of the course, according to Squire, will determine the power of the overall experience for students.

Squire’s final point was that "games succeed when teachers bring an open and inquisitive spirit to their teaching." I saw that spirit in action at the conference. From my encounter with Reacting to the Past, I felt revitalized both as an intellectual and as a teacher—not to mention convinced of the game’s power as a teaching methodology. I feel ready to try my first game when I return from sabbatical next year.

In the finale of this three-part series, I will conclude by exploring more deeply the work of Mark Carnes, who has a new book out soon on Reacting. In that book, he offers a fascinating account of the history of subversive play in higher education, from students’ drinking rituals to fraternity hazing, and argues that role-immersion games like Reacting to the Past can help channel the energy that students put into those subversive role-play worlds into powerful learning experiences.