Sunday, March 24, 2013

Introduction to Game Based Learning

Educational gaming: 

Review of Chapter 9 'Educational Gaming' by John Rice (2012) in What School Leaders  Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media.
Image from Learning Games Network:

“Could something that holds so much interest for the young be hijacked and used for pedagogical purposes?” (Rice, 2012)

The quote by Rice provides a great question and context for this chapter and continued research on the topic of the value of gaming in education.     This is a very exciting time to be involved in game based learning, as there has been an explosion in terms of interest, research, and utilization of games as a vehicle for learning. 

The chapter in the text in addition to other research by Rice (2007) on assessing higher order thinking in video games highlights the different uses for games in education.  Generally speaking, games are often used to encourage lower order skill development (i.e. drill and practice), but the true potentia is seen when we utilize games to encourage higher order skill development. It is important to note the concern that is prevalent in the study of game based learning regarding the correlation between learning through games and achievement (typically based on improved standardized test results).  This raises the question of when is the best time to use video games to teach? (Rice, 2012)

According to Rice (2012), the 3 Rs of instructional gaming include repetition, reward, and reason.  Repetition can be used to reinforce classroom instruction and often provide a fun outlet for what might otherwise be tedious repetitive work.  Games lend well to providing built in rewards that motivate players.  One of the key gamification principles relates to providing rewards to encourage success.  Finally, reason refers to advanced educational games that provide complex environments that are intellectually stimulating.  In games that focus on reasoning, the scientific method is often incorporated.  This generally applies to commercial games that are not intended for education. Teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, experiential education, higher level reasoning, and abstract reasoning are also characteristic of games that capitalize on reasoning (Rice, 2012).

Assessment is an important question when it comes to bringing games into the learning environment.  Some games have built in tracking and statistics (Rice, 2012).  This can provide valuable data for teachers in terms of progress, how much time is being spent on certain activities, determining which objectives are met and where students are encountering difficulty.  As such, this can help to guide instruction and help a teacher to direct students while using the game.  Off the shelf software most often lacks the direct curricular integration and poses a challenge for assessment compared to software designed for education that is aligned to standards (Rice, 2012). 

While games can be quite effective teaching tools, there are concerns regarding the time that can be dedicated to playing.  This involves the amount of class time that can be allocated for the game as well as logistical concerns regarding saving progress.  Another question that comes up is related to whether or not the game can be customized to meet the learning objectives.  While very time consuming, this can be a critical factor as many off the shelf games have great educational value but might not have a direct tie in to the curriculum. In an article written by Rice (2007) he explores the question of higher order thinking in games in greater detail.  Compared to edutainment titles that focus on lower order thinking (reinforcement of skills), higher order skills involve a very different approach.  Rice (2007) attests that in order to teach higher order skills, the learning must take place in a Virtual Interactive Environment (VIE).  Generally, this involves a 3d virtual environment that relies on extensive user interaction including reading, manipulating virtual objects, interacting with others.   VIEs are highly engaging and encourage extensive exploration.  These environments tend to be found in commercially developed software like Massively Multiplayer Online games and virtual worlds.  They tend to engage users in the expertise principle where users must demonstrate mastery before advancing in the game. 

My experiences with game based learning

Game based learning has been an integral part of my teaching from the beginning of my career.  When I started my career teaching students with special needs I utilized a lot of the edutainment software described to encourage skill development through repetition.  My students were all on very different levels in reading and math so it proved very helpful to utilize software to individualize their instruction.  Software that tracked their progress was very helpful as it guided the learning in the classroom as well as the computer mediated instruction. 

When we opened our interactive training and gaming center, many of the programs we offered incorporated gaming.  We utilized many historically based strategy games to engage students in the learning of ancient to modern civilizations as they accompanied their play with research on the civilizations they were exploring.  In addition, we taught game design as one of our key summer camp and after school programs.  Learning with games in this environment was ideal as the students were engaged in the learning process and we were not tied to curriculum shackles as this was an extracurricular activity. 

More recently, I have been teaching a full semester course on video game design and development where I have been able to focus on constructionist learning (Papert, 1993), computational thinking, iterative design, problem solving, and storytelling. 

Current happenings in the game based learning space There are great projects evolving in the game based learning space that incorporate off the shelf software as well as innovative design principles to bring learning experiences to students through gaming.  I have been actively incorporating the hugely successful game, Portal 2, by Valve software into my classes.  Portal 2 is a commercial game involving complex puzzles that encourage critical thinking.  Valve software started a program called Steam for Schools intended to bring game based learning opportunities to the classroom.  Portal 2 and the accompanying puzzle maker are offered for free to educators.  My students are so highly engaged throughout our Portal 2 unit as they play through parts of the game and then create their own 3d interactive puzzle levels.   The teach with portals website ( is the teacher ‘portal’ (no pun intended) and includes lesson plans and an online community for teachers to discuss how they are incorporating portal in their classes. 

WoWinSchools ( is another program that focuses on integrating a popular off the shelf title into the curriculum.  The curriculum was developed by Gillispe and Lawson (2011) and provides a rich integration Language Arts curriculum that is aligned with the Common Core standards. 

Recently, Electronic Arts has teamed up with the Institute of Play to enter the game based learning arena by offering curriculum to accompany the SimCity game for classroom use.  SimCityEdu ( is very new and I am excited to see how it unfolds. Minecraft, the quintessential sandbox game based on building with lego-like blocks and crafting special items and blocks for use in the game based on ‘recipes’ has been taking the educational world by storm.  MinecraftEDU ( provides special educational pricing for minecraft in addition to a vibrant community of educators who are excited about sharing their experiences and collaborating on integration of minecraft into almost every curriculum area.  I am excited to start utilizing minecraft in my classes as our PTO recently approved funding for a license for my computer lab.In addition to using or modifying off the shelf software, there are many games being produced specifically for education.  This dates back to the classic, Oregon trail, and more recently virtual worlds.   

Quest Atlantis, now branded as Atlantis remixed ( immerses students in educational simulated habitats (Barab, Scott, Siyahhan, Goldstone, Ingram-Goble, Zuiker & Warren (2008) intended to bring strategy gaming and commercial quality software into education.  

As you can see, many exciting developments are occurring in the area of game based learning.  Figuring out how to incorporate games in the classroom takes careful thought and planning, but the potential benefits are great. 

References:Barab, S. A., Scott, B., Siyahhan, S. Goldstone, R., Ingram-Goble, A., Zuiker, S., & Warren, S. (2009). Transformational play as a curricular scaffold: Using videogames to support science educationJournal of Science Education and Technology.

Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. Basic Books.

Rice, J.W. (2007). Assessing higher order thinking in video games. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 15(1), 87-100