I was asked by my good friend , Jill Berkowitz, to write a guest post for Education Week’s Leadership 360 Blog. Jill asked me to explain the value of games and to direct it to an audience of leaders who were more than likely non-gamers and non-believers. Quite simply, that meant that I would need to provide some rationale, some concrete experience- and then some possible steps to move into action. However, while writing this piece, the fact that “leaders” would be reading was always bouncing around in my head and I’m afraid that the inevitable diatribe eventually surfaced. The host of the series, Education Week, was much kinder to it’s readers than I am to you —-as they divided the piece into three weekly segments. No such luck here—it lives in its entirety. Here’s where we separate the devotee from the curious, casual, or lurker. Go grab a coffee–I’ll wait.
My students will be playing games in our class this year—and this is the work ethic I hope to encourage—the “questing disposition” that, as a gamer, I have come to know and understand. Jane McGonigal alludes to it in her most recent TED Talk. Numerous books, presentations, and research papers exploring the use of games for learning are now flooding mass media. A Google search of “games in education” will yield about 1,180,000,000 results. The concept, once confined to discussions between those “geeky techy-type teachers”, is now a topic that can be found at most every education conference. So, here you shall have one educator’s opinion–as I sort through some of the controversy surrounding the use of video games in school in order to help make some sense of it all. Full disclosure–I have been using virtual worlds and games in my teaching since 1997 when I used Caravans© to supplement my third grade social studies curriculum. I am much more than a believer—I am an evangelist.
Let’s start with why. Why the huge buzz around games in education? Since the vast collection of literature surrounding computer games and learning has been around for at least two decades, why now? As I see it, there are a number of reasons.
- Games are everywhere today – played by almost everyone. As of early January 2013, Zynga games had over 265 million monthly active users. The popularity of console and handheld games in recent years has tended to “redefine the nature of games, opening up the possibility for new kinds of games in the marketplace and putting powerful and inexpensive platforms in the hands of tens of millions of people” (Klopfer et al, 2009). Rather than take up your time and space with all of the statistics- here’s a link to the most current data from the Entertainment Software Association.
- Because there is now a huge repertoire of games available on varied platforms from computers and consoles to hand-held devices and cell phones, and people are actually revisiting the spirit of play- even if it’s for five minutes in the waiting room.
- The conversation has also been spurred on by the latest perceived crisis in education. Regardless of whether or not you buy into the headline reports that the U.S. lags behind their global peers in math and science or other studies that show only 17 percent of U.S. 12th-grade students are proficient in math or demonstrate any interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, (STEM), there is no doubt that right now our nation cannot fill job vacancies in STEM associated fields. According to a 2012 study from Change the Equation, an organization that supports STEM education, business leaders across the nation have sounded an alarm. They cannot find the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent they need to stay competitive. (Changetheequation.org)
The good news is video games are hotbeds of STEM! Eric Klopfer, associate professor of education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology states, “Video games can enable STEM education from elementary school all the way through college as they teach skills such as analytical thinking, multitasking, strategizing, problem-solving, and team building. Traditional learning has provided superficial learning through textbooks. Games are best at teaching a deeper level of learning” (Klopfer, in Chitra, 2012). Those of us who are proponents of games in education must consider this a really good thing, right? ? Well, yes…sort of.
Yes, I’m very excited about the prospects of wider acceptance of using video games to support learning. What’s the appeal? Why am I so passionate about using games in education? Well, the pros most often cited are the motivational aspect of games, and the potential of experiential learning through simulation. Plus, who can argue against the opportunity to support literacy via games that offer rich complex narratives set in lush fantasy worlds, which challenge curiosity, increase extended engagement, or promote teamwork and collaboration? Games-based learning affords my students agency and autonomy in an authentic situated learning platform. They get to choose their path to mastery.
But in my years of using games in the classroom, I’ve seen some other things at work – things much more powerful and alluring – the freedom that functioning as avatar allows. In most of the games we use, my students are able to construct the identity of their character, or avatar, and, therefore, right from the start there is a personal investment. The process of ownership has begun. This ability to function as avatar is foundational to the risk-taking, persistence and problem solving called for in a well-designed video game. Theories can be tested over and over because failure is no longer stigmatized. It is anticipated and respected as part of the process. There’s a sign in my classroom. It says, “FAIL HARDER!” Where is this attitude in the rest of education?
I have seen the power firsthand…time and time again. I’ve seen reluctant readers and writes become versed and adept at the craft once inspired by the agency and ownership of their learning. I’ve seen the strange and beautiful evolution of a group of students merge and evolve into a well-honed team of players, often with an unlikely candidate at the helm. I’ve watched kids fail, and try again, and fail again, and learn something new each time until they were successful. I’ve watched kids mentor each other, develop and articulate a set of values and play by them, and I’ve seen those values transfer to the physical world.
Then, they go to their next class, sit at a desk in a row of desks, fill in a bubble sheet, or take notes about a lecture, or work from a textbook, or a worksheet. Learning is serious. Learning is hard work. Education is slow to change.
It seems we just can’t seem to get past some obstacles. Why is it so hard to accept the fact that games and the associated notion of play are powerful ingredients in learning? The research supports it, pioneering teachers have documented their successes, and the U.S. government has even created a White House position to lead the investigation and direct the progress of games in learning. Yet, educational leaders and policy makers continue to cross their arms, dig in their heels, and frown over their glasses at the mere mention of video games in school.
Part of the reason for this is the negative media hype surrounding video games—so let’s dispense with that once and for all. USC Professor Henry Jenkins published a document entitled, Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked . In it, he systematically addressed the 8 most popular claims around video game violence. In addition, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) clearly delineates these three indisputable facts on their website:
FACT: Violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s. During the same period of time, video games have steadily increased in popularity and use, exactly the opposite of what one would expect if there were a causal link.
FACT: Many games with violent content sold in the U.S. – and some with far more violence – are also sold in foreign markets. However, the level of violent crime in these foreign markets is considerably lower than that in the U.S., suggesting that influences such as the background of the individual, the availability of guns and other factors are more relevant to understanding the cause of any particular crime. In fact, an analysis by The Washington Post of the 10 largest video game markets across the globe found no statistical correlation between video game consumption and gun-related deaths.
Finally, FACT: Numerous authorities, including the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Surgeon General, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission have examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between violent programming and violent behavior. The truth is there is no scientific research that validates a link between computer and video games and violence, despite lots of overheated rhetoric from the industry’s detractors. Instead, a host of respected researchers has concluded that there is no link between media violence and violent crime (ESA, 2013).
The facts, the studies, and plain old common sense all counter the hype that there is any causal connection between video games and youth violence. “For most kids and most parents, the bottom-line results of our research can be summed up in a single word: relax. While concerns about the effects of violent video games are understandable, they’re basically no different from the unfounded concerns previous generations had about the new media of their day” (Kutner & Olson, 2009).
OK, so let’s imagine that we can move past the question of violence. What are other impediments to widespread adoption of video games in school? To begin with, there is an obvious difference between serious or educational games (games designed with clear educational outcomes in mind) and the commercial off the shelf games (COTS) designed purely for entertainment. This divide is characterized by a number of differences in purpose, design, and funding. While the “educational” games may be well intentioned, most are nothing more than electronic worksheets or skill and drill with animation in between. In this teacher’s opinion, the best of educational games can’t compete with the commercial off the shelf (COTS) offerings produced by billion dollar behemoth corporations, and those are the games our students are playing off campus. When all that we offer is the “educational flavor” all that we are going to get is a disenfranchised kid- who reports, “I guess it’s better than a worksheet…barely.”
Not only do COTS have state of the art graphics, soundtracks, and mechanics to attract and maintain their player base, but also these well-designed commercial offerings have science on their side. Game designers rely on the psychology of happiness to leverage the gameplay, crafting their products in such a way that a task or a quest is presented at the perfect degree of difficulty to keep the player engaged and willing to keep trying, yet not so complex that the player becomes frustrated and quits—similar to what the educational theorists refer to as the “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978) or what Seymour Papert called, “hard fun”. “…every one likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times” (Papert, 2002). The analytics behind the interface constantly determine a player’s skill level, and produce challenges that sit at that “sweet spot” that keeps a player engaged and in a flow state.
But there are also impediments from a very practical vantage point. Most games are not cost effective, and those that offer freeversions have placed such extreme limitations on them that the gameplay is severely compromised and diminished. Very few COTS have made any effort to accommodate the unique demands of school networks or budgets.
Some notable exceptions to this are VALVE, who produce STEAM, the dominant game distribution platform that released Portal2 to educators at no cost, and, on the horizon is SimCityEDU— a collaboration between Institute of Play, the Entertainment Software Association, Electronic Arts, Educational Testing Service, Pearson’s Center for Digital Data, Analytics & Adaptive Learning and others.
However, all too often teachers are unable to find games that will support or enhance their mandated curriculum, and there doesn’t appear to be a “sweet spot” for those who are subjugated to “high stakes” testing. Entrenched in a vicious cycle of preparing students for the tests, administering the tests, gathering the data and analyzing it, and then, armed with the latest test results that indicate where their students are falling short, teachers can initiate another round of the cycle, aiming their instruction directly at those identified weak spots. The thinking behind this madness is that this skill and drill, data driven instruction will yield higher test scores, which in turn will generate positive teacher evaluations. This will then assure the teachers are employed for another year and all will be well… except, we will have produced a generation of young people who cannot think. Even if test scores improve, it is at the cost of a quality education. We have poured the Kool-Aid, and these children (and their parents) are gulping it down without a moment’s consideration that perhaps something is amiss. After all, this is the way it has always been…at desks, in rows, with a bubble sheet, a textbook and a No. 2 pencil.
The young people who have learned to “play school,” that is those who have managed to acquiesce and excel in the “No.2 pencil rigor” of standardized test driven education, will continue along this path towards the holy grail of a college degree. The big lie that education tells is that a college degree is the certain key to future success, happiness, and the mythic American dream. Regardless of intent, by designing our “one size fits all” test driven pedagogy, we have proliferated that lie and have patently failed our young people by neglecting to provide any setting, circumstance or opportunity to unearth, investigate or pursue their passion
This pedagogical approach does not teach the skills that STEM careers require: strategic thinking, planning, communication, negotiating skills, group decision-making, or data handling. Personal skills such as initiative and persistence, spatial and motor skills such as coordination and speed of reflexes, social skills such as teamwork and communication, intellectual skills such as problem-solving are also missing. I know of some video games that offer this all.
In addition to teachers learning how to identify when and how a game might support the curriculum (or not) on the “con” side of things, we should add the struggle with fitting gameplay into a typical school schedule. Also, as in a traditional classroom, teachers are the key components in effective game-based learning. It is the teacher who steers the learning, and serves to guide and mentor the social/emotional culture that is formed around the game. Educators will need time and support to navigate these new waters and they need leaders who understand the value of gaming and support those who want to take the initiative of creating a new path.
Finally, what about assessment? Do we have time to introduce gaming as a new approach to learning when the assessments are themselves rooted in older soil? Traditional assessments contradict game-based learning. New models and methods of ascertaining mastery must be explored. As James Gee explains, “…One thing games don’t really do is separate learning and assessment. They don’t say learn some stuff and then later we’ll take a test. They’re giving you feedback all the time about the learning curve that you’re on” (Gee, 2003). Most teacher preparation programs would embrace that as good teaching.
As teachers begin to investigate game-based pedagogy, they have demonstrated their predilection for peer support, and some are organizing themselves into communities of practice, establishing networks to compare notes, ask questions, offer advice and support and share resources. One popular group is G.A.M.E. (Gamers Advancing Meaningful Education) and another is The Cognitive Dissonance Educator Guild in World of Warcraft (Sister of Elune server, Alliance)
So, change is happening—albeit very, very, slowly. It is happening one teacher at a time. It is truly bottom up change. The anthropologist Margaret Mead observed “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” There is a slowly growing change movement infiltrating our schools. But, children are typically not patient and we do not want another generation to leave schools without this experience.
It is possible that to legislate that schools not only be required to teach academics, but to teach academics harnessing these games. We don’t advocate for more legislation but we surely know the power of policy to change the locus of attention. These are the tools that this generation of learners already uses outside school. Informal groups of adolescent gaming friends are forming in nearly every community across the country. Along with that STEM skillset, such an initiative would be nurturing behaviors that help children be confident, successful, contributing members of the school community.
But, we also know that creating school cultures like that will take time. While gaming seems a most compelling route to this solution, the reluctance of the powers that be to embrace these new tools is creating a vacuum that the business world will be all too happy to fill and if history is any marker, the end result will be “games” that marginalize all of the deep, complex, and reflective practice well designed games have to offer.
We really need to move on this! Games have proven to be a vehicle that exists right now, that can help our children appreciate the breadth of science, technology, engineering and math beyond the lab coat and may just unleash a passion for such characteristics in the world around them. An added bonus is that gaming has proven to be a successful vehicle for confronting some of the most difficult social ailments. But are we asking too much when we ask for this change to happen sooner rather than later?
Let’s come full circle. I know that this September, I’ll watch and listen as my colleagues peruse their new class rosters and lament as they tally the number of IEP, AIS, ELL, and special education students on their lists, forced to contend with the reality of how these “low achievers” might impact their evaluation.
This leaves me pondering the fate of those students who either will not or cannot abide this current educational structure. By remaining stuck in this high stakes testing and Common Core atesting hamster wheel, we negate the love of learning, we amplify the have vs. have not status, and we validate the stereotypes that continue to plague true educational reform. By continuing to champion the idea of common expectations for all, we are disavowing the unique spark of promise and potential within every child. Yes, this change needs to happen and it needs to happen now because it is the children who are waiting. They are waiting …in rows.
RESOURCES, REFERENCES and INFLUENCES – Please let me know if I omitted any sources–much of this was wee hour rambling!
Chitra, Sethi. “Can Video Games Reshape STEM Education?” ASME. ASME, 15 09 2012. Web. 28 Jul. 2013. .
Changetheequation.org, (2012). Stem vital signs.
Entertainment Software Association (ESA). (2013). Games & violence.
Federation of American Scientists. (2006). R&D challenges in games for learning. Report of The Learning Federation.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave/ St. Martin’s.
Groff, J., Howells, C. & Cranmer, S. (2010). The impact of games in the classroom: Evidence from schools in Scotland. Bristol, Futurelab.
Ito, M. (2008). Education V. Entertainment: A Cultural History of Children’s Software, In Katie Salen (Ed.), Ecology of Games. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning.
Ito, M. (2006). Engineering Play: Children’s software and the cultural politics of edutainment. Discourse, 27(2), 139-160(22).
Jenkins, H. (2004, September 27). Reality bytes: Eight myths about video games debunked .
Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S., & Salen, K. (2009). Moving learning games forward:obstacles opportunities and openess.
Kutner, Lawrence, PH.D. and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Video Games And What Parents Can Do. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Sandford, S., Ulicsak, M., Facer, K., & Rudd, T. Teaching With Games (2006).
Schaffer, D. (2006). How computer games help children learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Squire, K.D. (2006). From content to context: Video games as designed experiences. Educational Researcher, 35(8),
Squire, K., & Steinkuehler, C. (2005). Meet the gamers. Library Journal, April 15.19-29.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between Learning and Development (pp. 79-91). In Mind in Society. (Trans. M. Cole). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.