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Games in the Classroom (part 1)

Old Video Games at the Manitou Arcade

Many of us here at ProfHacker enjoy playing to learn. As an avid gamer, one of my favorite parts about summer is the chance to pick up something new and spend some time battling for the future of cyberspace or capturing animated critters. But that playful spirit doesn’t have to end as summer fades and the fall semester overtakes us. Games can offer great opportunities for experimenting with playful learning in all disciplines, but the range of games available and the plethora of options for incorporating games and game tools into the classroom can be daunting. As you are finalizing your syllabus, you might be thinking of trying a new type of digital project or learning experience for this year, and games can be a valuable resource.

I’ve written in the past on my experiment in running a “gamified” course, which is one of many examples of ways to use games to overhaul an entire syllabus. But games can be effective in small doses, and it doesn’t take a redesign to make use of the tools and ideas that are already available. And chances are that games, simulations or tools already exist that can be used to meet your goals.

We’ve come a long way from games like Math Blaster and other “edutainment” titles that amounted to thinly disguised classroom drills. In his recent book Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age, Kurt Squire points out that “good games find ‘the game in the content’” (19). This is an essential distinction between trying to force playfulness or gaming on something and using the ideas of games to approach ideas in a new way. Games and education that are meaningfully content-driven are still evolving, and even as games are becoming a familiar part of pedagogical conversations there’s a lot left unexplored.

Games can bring a number of opportunities into the classroom, including:

  • The opportunity to explore content from a new point of view. Inhabiting a character (a staple aspect of role-playing games) has clear parallels in English and History classes, as the MENIS project and Ivanhoe have explored. But simulations have been used in a number of disciplines, and going digital allows the computer to handle the variables while students negotiate peace in the Middle East or defend against network security attacks.
  • The challenge to learn through teaching and simulating by building a game. Trying to design a game requires enough understanding to express concepts in a way others can understand, and it needn’t be limited to students in technical programs. There are lots of great tools for non-programmers designed with accessible interfaces, such as Inform 7, Scratch, Alice, Game Salad, and Game Maker. And building board games doesn’t require any technology at all. As an added bonus, working with some of these digital tools is an opportunity to sharpen digital skills. (You might even consider diving into game design yourself!)
  • The reinforcement of teamwork and collaboration. There’s a trailer up for the upcoming documentary “The Raid” that offers a glimpse into the complexity of high-level play in the massive multiplayer game World of Warcraft. The structures of games both demand and reward teamwork and use systems of clearly-defined roles and objectives to create better outcomes than any individual could achieve. While these games have been part of our culture–and our students’ lives–for years now, they are still only beginning to be fuel for our own pedagogy.

Over the next few posts, I’ll share some specific tools for getting started with building and using games for a range of disciplines. Are you planning on using games in your classroom this fall? What are your concerns or goals for adding games to your pedagogy toolbox?

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