Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Years
The interest in game-based learning has accelerated considerably in recent years, driven by clear successes in military and industrial training as well as by emerging research into the cognitive benefits of game play. Developers and researchers are working in every area of game-based learning, including games that are goal-oriented; social game environments; non-digital games that are easy to construct and play; games developed expressly for education; and commercial games that lend themselves to refining team and group skills. At the low end of game technology, there are literally thousands of ways games can be — and are already being — applied in learning contexts. More complex approaches like role-playing, collaborative problem solving, and other forms of simulated experiences have broad applicability across a wide range of disciplines, and are beginning to be explored in more classrooms.
Game-based learning is an expansive category, ranging from simple paper-and-pencil games like word searches all the way up to complex, massively multiplayer online (MMO) and role-playing games. Educational games can be broadly grouped into three categories: games that are not digital; games that are digital, but that are not collaborative; and collaborative digital games. The first category includes many games already common in classrooms as supplemental learning tools. Digital games include games designed for computers, for console systems like the Nintendo Wii, and online games accessed either through a special game client (like IBM’s Power Up) or through a web interface (like Whyville).
The first digital games appeared with the first home computers in the early 1980s. Ten years later, the web was born, and games began to be delivered over the Internet. In 2003, the first full Internet service for mobile phones arrived in the US, bringing games to mobile devices. The three most recent cohorts of children — those born in the early 1980s, the early 1990s, and the early 2000s — have grown up in a world where digital games have always been an important part of their lives. Those born since the early 1990s have never lived in a world without a global network. The most recent kids to enter schools, those born since the early 2000s, have never known a world in which that global network was not accessible from the palm of your hand.
These three cohorts of kids define our school populations, and throughout their lives, they have always been immersed in the culture of digital games; it is like the air they breathe. The oldest of them are now becoming the teachers in our schools, and it will not be long before they also begin to fill out the administrative ranks. These young people continue to play games as adults: research has shown that the average age of a video gamer in the United States in 2009 was 35 years. As the UK’s Guardian wrote in 2005, a game-player today is as likely to have children as to be a child. Games are a natural way to reach young people today, and a great deal more is now known about how to develop good games both for entertainment and for education.
Research into games for educational purposes reveals some interesting trends. Early studies of consumer games helped to identify the aspects of games that make them especially engaging and appealing to players of various ages and of both genders: the feeling of working toward a goal; the possibility of attaining spectacular successes; the ability to problem-solve, collaborate with others, and socialize; an interesting story line; and other characteristics. These qualities are replicable, though they can be difficult to design well, and they can transfer to games featuring educational content. We are discovering that educational content can be embedded in games rather than tacked on, and that players readily engage with learning material when doing so will help them achieve personally meaningful goals.
A few years further out, but increasingly interesting, is the creation of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games designed for learning. Like their entertainment- or training-focused counterparts (World of Warcraft, Everquest, Lord of the Rings Online, America’s Army, and others), games of this type bring many players together to work on activities that require collaborative problem-solving. Games like these are complex, and include solo as well as group content and goals that are collaborative as well as some that are competitive. They are often goal-oriented in ways that tie to a storyline or theme, but the highest levels of interaction and play require outside learning and discovery. What makes MMO games especially compelling and effective is the variety of sub-games or paths of engagement that are available to players — there are social aspects, large and small goals to work towards, often an interesting back story that sets the context, and more. Players dedicate enormous amounts of time on task pursuing the goals of these games. The problem that needs to be solved, and which is being tackled on many fronts today, is that of embedding educational content in such a way that it becomes a natural part of playing the game.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, or Creative Expression
Educational games of some types have been in common use for some time, both in classrooms and at home. Many of these are single-player drill and practice games that can be played in 30- to 45-minute chunks and include explicit educational content, like Reader Rabbit or Math Blaster. Others, like the card game Quiddler, make use of key learning skills as part of game play — spelling and language, in this case. These games can be either non-digital, like the ecology-focused board game Earthopoly, or digital, and by and large, they are single-player or turn-based rather than truly collaborative. Subject mastery is generally emphasized over complex problem-solving. These skill-building games and small group games that foster discussion and teambuilding are not difficult to fit into the curriculum, and many examples of their use can be found. Their engaging nature makes them excellent learning aids, as kids will often willingly play them much longer than they would otherwise study the material in question.
Online games for single users are also popular, though access to them is often blocked at school. There are many free games designed for K-12 students that are accessible via a web browser and require no installation, such as The Potato Story (http://www.thepotatostory.co.uk), a UK-based game that teaches kids where food comes from. Games in this class are essentially engaging tutorials that cover a particular topic in age-appropriate depth. In Singapore, games designed for the Nintendo Wii platform teach students about the history of Singapore as they aid the country’s founders in solving problems that occurred as the nation was establishing itself.
The category of game-based learning that is still two to three years away for schools, but one that has tremendous potential to transform education, includes open-ended, challenge-based, truly collaborative games. Games like these, which occur in both massively multiplayer online (MMO) and non-digital forms, can draw on skills for research, writing, collaboration, problem-solving, public speaking, leadership, digital literacy, and media-making. When embedded in the curriculum, they offer a path into the material that allows the student to learn how to learn along with mastering, and truly owning, the subject matter. These games lend themselves to curricular content, requiring students to discover and construct knowledge in order to solve problems. They are challenging to design well, but the results can be transformative.
Although they are not often integrated in the classroom, game-based approaches like this have been used effectively in extracurricular programs like Odyssey of the Mind, Destination ImagiNation, and Math and Science Olympiads for some time. These programs involve students in interdisciplinary problem-solving competitions that exercise and develop a wide range of skills. A digital counterpart to these activities is the Global Kids Gaming Initiative, which uses online games to promote digital literacy skills, global awareness, and citizenship among young people. Urban youth taking part in Global Kids’ Playing 4 Keeps program create and play games about social issues of global significance. Designing and developing games is another way to bring games into the curriculum. Good game design involves research, creative thinking, the ability to envision both problems and solutions, and many other learning skills.
Open-ended, collaborative games also play out as alternate reality games (ARGs), in which players find clues and solve puzzles in experiences that blur the boundary between the game and real life. Recent examples of large-scale ARGs include the educational games World Without Oil and Superstruct, and the promotional game I Love Bees. The Tower of Babel, an ARG designed by the European ARGuing Project, was used in schools as well as by learners of all ages. It was developed to engage students in learning languages other than their own.
Another promising area for development is educational MMO gaming. As yet, there are few examples of these games designed specifically for education. Early efforts include Mithril (http://stanford.edu/~pnaqlada/mithril), a multiplayer online role-playing game developed by students at Stanford University. Mithril draws on the look and feel of MMOs but is math-based; players must master mathematical concepts in order to cast spells, defeat foes, and progress in the game.
As gaming and the science of engagement become better understood, we are likely to see significant investment in large-scale educational games. The compelling nature of MMO games in particular is attracting researchers and educators who appreciate the revolutionary power of including games in the curriculum, though this is not the only area of gaming being explored. In New York City, a school named Quest to Learn (http://www.q2l.org/) has embedded games at the deepest levels of its infrastructure. Founded in 2009, the school currently includes grades 6 and 7 and plans to expand up to 12th grade. The school’s curriculum is created using the principles of game design; in class, games and problem-based learning activities help students develop critical skills and literacies.
Research and experience are starting to show that games can clearly be applied very effectively in many learning contexts. Games can engage learners in ways other tools and approaches cannot, and their value for learning has been established through research. We know more about how games work and how to apply them to teaching and learning than we ever have, and that understanding is increasing. Education in general is still a few years away from embracing games as mainstream practice, but given the exciting results coming from game-based research, they are clearly a space to watch.
A sampling of applications of game-based learning across the curriculum includes the following:
- The Arts. Twenty schools in Victoria, Australia, used a drag-and-drop animation game to produce stories using backgrounds, characters, and objects from high-quality digital reproductions from The Floating World, the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection of Edo period Japanese woodblock prints. The game was incorporated across the curriculum, touching on world language, cultural studies, English, and science as well as the arts.
- Media Literacy. The World of Warcraft (WoW) in School Project (http://wowinschool.pbworks.com) engages at-risk students at Suffern Middle School in New York and Cape Fear Middle School in North Carolina in an afterschool program that teaches skills in communication, digital literacy, online safety, mathematics, and leadership through game play.
- World Languages. Students at Keysborough Primary School in Victoria, Australia, used the 3D-world authoring tool Kahootz to produce a series of treasure hunt games demonstrating their understanding of giving and asking for directions in French. Students wrote their own dialogues in French and recorded them in their own voices.
Game-Based Learning in Practice
The following links provide examples of how educational games are being used in schools.
Arcademic Skill Builders: Online Educational Games
Arcademic Skill Builders offers free, Flash-based math and language arts games, aligned with current educational standards, for K-12 students.
Developed at the University of Southern California in collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District, GameDesk is an approach that combines project-based learning with engaging game design for high school students.
Mathematics In A Non-Mathematical Context, Porto, Portugal
Students work in small groups using laptops to design and develop their own projects for presentation at science fairs and other events. The project, supported by an HP Innovations in Education grant, helps foster collaboration, teaches problem solving and exposes students to the kind of interdisciplinary work that they will encounter in later life.
Scalable Game Design
A collaboration between the University of Colorado’s departments of Computer Science and Education, its Science Discovery Outreach Program, and AgentSheets, the Scalable Game Design project aims to teach computer science through game design at the middle school level. Students recreate well-known arcade games as well as developing their own games.
Urgent EVOKE is a collaborative online game that uses the principles of challenge-based learning to encourage young people to research and take action on issues of global significance. More than 13,000 players from all over the world, including several high school classes, are participating in the ten-week game at the time of this writing.
The online community Whyville is designed to help young students explore different topics, from recycling to programming. WhyReef teaches students about coral reef ecosystems.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about game-based learning.
Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry
(Entertainment Software Association, 2009.) This report discusses trends, demographics and sales information about video and computer games in the United States based on survey data collected in 2008.
Deep Learning Properties of Good Digital Games: How Far Can They Go?
(James Paul Gee, Arizona State University, January 2009.) This study by noted educational games researcher James Paul Gee discusses the merits of good digital games and their design along with the learning that can accompany them.
Moving Learning Games Forward
(E. Klopfer, S. Osterweil and K. Salen, The Education Arcade, MIT, 2009.) This white paper provides an overview of the current state of the field of game-based learning and proposes strategies for those wishing to enter the domain.
Using the Technology of Today, in the Classroom Today
(E. Klopfer, S. Osterweil, J. Groff, J. Haas, The Education Arcade, MIT, 2009.) This paper discusses effective learning in a gaming context and explores games as more than just single person experiences, but also part of social networks.
What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy
(James Paul Gee, Palgrave Macmillan, May 2003.) Gee examines the cognitive development that occurs during game play and considers the application of games to learning.
Delicious: Game-Based Learning
(Tagged by K-12 Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2010). Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hzk10” and “educational_games” when you save them to Delicious.