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Is There Room for Games in Education?

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Allen Turner recently recalled the day his grade school teacher said it was time to learn about the U.S. Constitution, beginning with its famous preamble. But Turner, now a video game designer and professor at Chicago’s DePaul University, already knew it. So did all his classmates.

Turner learned the preamble watching Schoolhouse Rock!, a popular animated educational television program that originally aired from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s on ABC. Kids learned about history, science and grammar by watching the characters sing catchy songs. The show, he said, was interactive like a game: Kids participated in catchy call-and-response songs set to upbeat music that helped them retain the new information in ways unlikely to happen sitting at a desk with pen and paper.

Today, teachers, parents and education officials across the country are grappling with a persistent achievement gap, funding woes and ever contentious debates about standards and testing, teacher evaluations and accountability, among other issues. The stakes are high, and there is no time to play games. Or is there?

At the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar in Chicago this spring, a panel of game designers and educators, moderated by USA Today national education correspondent Greg Toppo, made a strong case that there is — and pointed out how comfortably they fit within the demands of the Common Core State Standards. (Toppo is also the author of a new book on digital gaming as an educational tool.)

Fun, Games, and Problem-Solving

Video games today sometimes elicit images of fantastic car thefts and narratives full of such startlingly real violence it’s hard to imagine them being appropriate, much less useful, in the classroom. Connie Yowell, the MacArthur Foundation’s education director, said she was initially skeptical of the potential for any meaningful connection between video games and learning. But her mind was changed after meeting with Will Wright, the creator of the popular computer game The Sims. The trial-and-error style of problem-solving that video games require, she realized, is surprisingly suited to the classroom and to the Common Core standards, which were tested this year in classrooms across much of the country.

Digital games like The Sims – and a generation before it, The Oregon Trail — drop players into challenging situations and ask them to work toward a clear goal. The games give players “information about how they’re doing with triggers about where to go to get better,” said Yowell. And they provide “incredible amounts of feedback,” a familiar catchphrase in education circles. This is all in line with the new ways teachers are approaching classroom practices in the era of Common Core, said Yowell. And the potential for student interaction and ownership of learning is high, making them a potentially powerful way to engage even the most disinterested, struggling students.

Louise Dube’s fourth grade son, David, came home from school one day in 2012 with an assignment to play an online, role-playing game that teaches social studies. In the game, “Win the White House,” players run their own presidential campaigns, complete with party-specific interests, primary elections and debates.

The game, which is free, was developed by iCivics, a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In 2014, Dube became the executive director of the organization. The iCivics site has 72,000 registered teachers, and reaches 7 million students, according to Dube. And its popularity, Dube said, is due at least in part to the Common Core, which covers English/language arts and mathematics.

“Social studies is being pushed out of the classroom at rates that are abysmal and dangerous,” she said. “Teachers are trying to fit it in any way they can.” Indeed, the fastest-growing part of the site is a section devoted to shared lesson plans.

Setting Standards for Games

Experts who build games for students agree that a key difference between conventional and educational video games is the inclusion of specific standards or learning objectives in their design. And like teachers, the games ought to be evaluated for whether they create the kind of thinking we want kids to master, said Dube.

“Teachers get caught up in creating games that aren’t connected to any kind of thinking,” said Nancy Nassr, the associate director of ChicagoQuest, a games-based public school. Nassr, a founding teacher at ChicagoQuest, said that learning through games is not really about the game at all. It’s about the experience.

She designed an intentionally unfair card game for seventh graders called “Revolution.” The game, designed to teach students about American and British interests during the Revolutionary War, sparked confusion, even anger in her classroom. And that led to class discussions about privilege. The point was never the game — it was the experience the students had while playing it that led to learning, she said.

“You have to think about these experiences as parts and interactions,” said Turner, the DePaul instructor and game designer.

At ChicagoQuest, many of the games used are intentionally analog (e.g. non-digital, such as board games); a health game uses Jenga blocks, for example. Turner, who consults with ChicagoQuest teachers, says this is intentional.

“We look at the coolest, snazziest version of things and we don’t realize that a lot of our kids don’t have access to these things,” he said. Computerized games like those developed by iCivics require computers and Internet access, and stand to pose the same concerns about access and equity that blended learning and classroom technological efforts do.

Finding the Resources

In the long run, well-designed games, whether analog or digital, are ripe with opportunity for students and teachers — and reporters looking for stories of success, struggle and the grey areas in between. But the panel agreed that building these games will require more of something teachers are already starved for: time.

And as everyday games morph into classroom tools (Yowell said the popular mobile game “Words With Friends” will soon have language arts assessments built into it) and designers and teachers join forces, they’ll also need something else schools have long wanted for: more money.

“There’s an enormous need for public dollars to support the development of these games,” said Yowell.