My Zimbio

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Playing Games in the Classroom – the Role of Simulations and Game Play in K12

I have long been a proponent of the use of video-games in education. As a mother of students with learning challenges, I was often surprised at the intensity my sons applied to their video-game pursuits; failing and retrying a multitude of times without hint of frustration. This same intensity was absent from their school applications. My sons frequently failed to apply themselves to a school based assignment out of fear of failure no more threatening than that which they faced undauntingly during gaming. Seeing this contradictory behavior made me realize that something about the virtual environment of their games engaged them more deeply in the process while disengaging them from the stigma associated with failure. They approached the game with a determination to conquer it. I am convinced that this engagement and determination is what is missing from traditional educational approaches. If we can find a way to simulate that through educational use of game play in the classroom, I believe we can revolutionize education.
Few studies have been conducted on the effective use of video-based game play in the classroom. Part of the reason for this is the negative attitude toward game play by educators in general. “Many school leaders and teachers react negatively to video games and gaming culture, bashing video games as diversionary threats to the integrity of schooling or as destructive activities that corrupt moral capacity and create a sedentary, motivation-destroying lifestyle” (Halverson, 2005). Halverson goes on to say that the problem is exacerbated by the standards-driven environment we have embraced in the light of No Child Left Behind and other such legislation. “Standards specify what to teach; school leaders and teachers construct efficient pedagogies and learning environments to teach it.”
An and Bonk (2009) discuss the components necessary for developing educational games that will engage student in learning. They are proponents of a context-based rather than content-based approach. By this the authors mean that learning needs to be authentic and meaningful, surrounding a realistic situation or problem, rather than disconnected facts to be committed to rote memory. “Context is more important than content since learning is a process of ‘developing abilities to see, think, do and be in the world,’ rather than accumulating discrete facts (Squire, 2005b, p. 19).” This seems to be in direct opposition to the standards-based curriculum of the classroom, which demands a content-first approach. However, if approached correctly, I believe video-games and simulations can be used to teach directly to standards and can improve student retention and learning.
Steen (2008) cites research that demonstrates that learning increases proportionately with our interaction with the material. According to his example, a teacher utilizing visuals with lecture and textbook reading assignments might expect students to retain 50% of the materials being taught. This teacher can dramatically increase student retention to 70% by incorporating a class or small group discussion. Learning increases to 80% if students are allowed to experience the material. This is the realm of the video-game.
Part of the resistance to video-game use in the classroom is that there is not an efficient way to assess or measure learning, and in fact, students might learn at different rates or fail to apply what they have learned to school-related concepts. Halverson (2005) states that video games “provide inefficient and unpredictable environments for learning school-based material and have learning outcomes that are difficult to map onto curriculum standards. Learning in endogenous video games can be a protracted and indirect affair with a steep learning curve when compared with standard curriculum units on mathematical fractions, Egyptian history, or European expansion.”
Halverson (2005) goes on to explain that the cure for this lies in the way teachers facilitate the lesson. He feels that teachers can extract valuable lesson plans from existing commercial video games through several steps. His first suggestion involves mapping the learning potentials of commercial games to existing standards-based content. “Commercial endogenous games require an integrated lesson design that incorporates the depth of gaming insights into standards-based school environments.”
The second step outlined is to change the structure of the traditional classroom to allow for facilitation of learning from the game to derive the desired content. “The role of the learning environment in a traditional school setting is to provide a context to make structured content accessible to students; the role of the learning environment in an endogenous game-based setting is to scaffold prompts for helping students construct legitimate analogies between what can be learned in the game and what schools need to teach” (Halverson, 2005).
Next, Halverson (2005) suggests using the built-in risk-taking and controlled failure of the games as an authentic measurement for assessment of learning. “Designing environments to integrate games into schooling can thus draw on the assessment devices already built into games. The technology of multi-player gaming, for example, generates tangible records of prior game moves in the form of discussion threads that can be used to spark reflection on the assumptions behind earlier game moves (see, for example, the Rise of Nations Universe site). Learning environment designers can use these public representations of game-based information to discuss school-based learning outcomes. The arguments players develop online to defend in-game moves open valuable windows into the players' thinking processes. The outcomes of game-play also provide authentic artifacts of student learning that can be used as summative evaluations of learning.”
Halverson’s (2005) final suggestion may seem a bit over the top, but it makes sense if educators are to attend to the other suggestions. He proposes that in order to best learn how to use commercial games in education, educators need to play them. “…nowhere is the current generational gap in technology greater than in game literacy, and while asking school leaders and teachers to play commercial video games may be a stretch, integrating game-based learning experiences in their professional development may help them see the merits of gaming from the inside.”
I am convinced that educators need to devote some time to research the potential for use of commercially available video-games for education, and instructional designers need to become aware of the need for authentic game-based learning experiences and build games designed to meet standards-based instructional needs which are engaging for students to play.


An, Yun-Jo and Bonk, Curtis J. (2009). Finding that SPECIAL PLACE: Designing Digital Game-Based Learning Environments. TechTrends, Vol. 53, No. 3.
Halverson, Richard (2005). What Can K-12 School Leaders Learn from Video Games and Gaming? Innovate. Retrieved April 22, 2012 from
Steen, Henry L. (2008). Effective eLearning Design. Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 4, No. 4.

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