Games are one of the oldest entertainment structures we have; we engage with games from an early age, and they are a common way of imparting learning. It seems logical to connect games to learning in educational environments. And yet, games are often seen as the antithesis to education- after all, students often want to play games instead of engage in academic content. We should recognize the incredible power that games hold and harness that power to increase student engagement.
Think back to your own education: what lesson, activity, or other learning moment do you remember vividly? Chances are it had similarity to a game: immersion, motivation, captivation, fun, excitement, etc. None of those previous adjectives are typically used to describe worksheets. Are worksheets necessary? Yes; there are times when that is the best academic tool. But other times, we can take a tip from games by embedding their structures into our classrooms, or we can use games themselves to help augment the power and impact of an academic lesson. Games also allow us to reach students on a deeply empathetic level sometimes not possible with traditional pedagogy.
Games allow students to become another person or take on a role they might have only daydreamed about and otherwise feel is unavailable to them. There is incredible power in that, and it allows our classrooms to become inclusive in a way that can be hard to do otherwise. Games give students a “free pass” to try things on, both academically and personally, that might not be as easy to do outside of a game. Giving our students a chance to expand their idea of who they are gives us more ways of reaching them and increases the feelings of safety and community in a classroom.
Entertainment vs. Edutainment: which games to use?
Often when we envision using games, we picture the “edutainment” or “serious games” titles that we experienced in our own education, or those that are sold to us by education companies. The reality is, the vast majority of edutainment titles simply do not accomplish higher level learning tasks. Instead, they often become substitutes for worksheets, flashcards, or other basic learning tasks (please see “Assessor’s Creed” for more on this). After all, their point is to “teach,” so they have to lead with their academic content instead of embedding it further into game structures in an intrinsically integrated way (Hapgood and Ainsworth, 2011). Are there useful edutainment titles? Yes, but we must be careful to assess what the game is actually getting students to do in terms of academic tasks.
Entertainment game titles, however, must be engaging, or they simply won’t sell. Entertainment games can demand highly advanced skills of us as players because they intrinsically integrate the learning and the fun into experiences that are engrossing (Ibid.). Thus we want to play them and we learn in the process too. So, what entertainment games should we be turning to? I cover this extensively in “Assessor’s Creed” so please head to the “Talks” page to view it or reach out to me to get more details. Below I will list some examples, both of bringing gaming principles into the classroom through game structures and incorporating actual games into the classroom.
Examples of Incorporating Games
gaming structures- Simulations
Many video games are forms of simulations; you make a decision, or you act as a passive observer, as a scenario plays out. But this is very different than passively observing it by reading about something in a history book- simulations allow students to feel like they are participating in history and it gives them agency and buy-in. It can also give students an opportunity to experience an event that they otherwise would have no way of easily connecting with.
A word here on inclusivity: please be careful with simulations. Simulations are powerful learning tools, but they should never be used to simulate trauma. Simulations should never be used to generate empathy by leveraging the trauma of students who may be in the room. If I wanted my students to understand the difficulty of being misgendered, for example, it would be traumatic to misgender them (and for trans and nonbinary students in the room), even in a simulation environment. If you want to bring out empathy in your students, a simulation can be powerful but will often be leveraging someone else’s lived experience. Please tread carefully.
Some simulations I use when teaching Social Studies are:
Population vs. population density: At the beginning of the year, simulations are a great way to teach demographic terms. Group students in one small region of the classroom and calculate the population; draw a border and calculate the density. Then do it again but using the entire classroom and note the demographics that change vs. those that do not.
The division of the Korean peninsula: After studying types of border disputes, students simulated living in one classroom and then having it arbitrarily divided along a latitudinal line. Students then had to rely solely on the “resources” available to them to complete a map of the peninsula, and described what classroom resources would represent in real life (the door to the classroom might represent open borders, for example).
History of Sunni and Shiite Islam: While studying religion, I found a huge gap in the coverage given to Islam in most curriculum guides. My students knew there were a wide variety of denominations of Christianity but my students had no idea these differences existed in other religions. This simulation allows students to participate in the changing interpretations of Islam after the death of the prophet Muhammad.
Economies simulated through paper airplanes: To understand the differences between free, emerging, command, and mixed economies, students participated in a paper airplane competition. Their resources, construction freedom, and time limits were determined by the economy their group was in. Then students compared how economic structures impacted production.
Impact of import and export decisions on market freedom: Students have an in-class marketplace and sell “items” (images of different items). Differences are determined by students choosing options like local vs international manufacturing, shipping times, number of employees, etc.
Communism as a classroom structure: Students spend 1-2 weeks in a simulation called “The Community” in which the resources are controlled by the government, rules are determined by Community leaders, which are determined by each class as a citizen group. This is an involved simulation that directly impacts the overall classroom structure even while more “traditional” instruction is going on.
Feudalism’s impact on the Bolshevik revolution: Students participate in a simulation of feudalism to understand why feudalism had direct impact on a transition to socialism and communism. Students take on the roles of social classes under feudalism and use that experience throughout our government unit to understand the impact of feudalism on political unrest in the Russian Empire.
Do you want details on the above simulations? Lesson plans? Written simulation guides? I can help! Please contact me directly if you would like more details or a written detailed guide to the above simulations.
Incorporating Video Games
Bury Me, My Love
“Bury Me, My Love” is a messaging-based branched narrative game (available on iOS and Google Play store) in which you, Majd, help guide your wife, Nour, as she attempts to emigrate from Syria during the early years of the civil war. In my classroom, this game serves as a culminating experience after studying varying examples of human impact. We begin by studying human impact on our earth, concentrating on plastic pollution in the ocean (I collaborate with earth science and this is their focus at the time). We then circle back and examine how our human impact on the earth is coming back and impacting humanity in unexpected ways. We examine how humanity’s impact on ocean pollution leads to increased effects of climate change. Finally, we use this comic to study how climate change led to the Syrian Civil War. This is the segue into then examining the impact of borders on global conflict, and how those impact people’s lived experiences. Bury Me, My Love is a way for students to take that learning and apply it to a realistic game environment, made all the more impactful through their learning previously in the unit. If you would like detailed lesson information, write ups, article links, and the other tools I use in delivering this lesson, please contact me directly.
“Gone Home” is a short (2-hour) game available on most platforms and PC/Mac in which you navigate your house in pursuit of your sibling. As you play, the story unfolds to reveal where your sibling is. Although it feels a bit like a horror game, it is instead an exploration of the way a story is told, and the impact of story on our identity. Gone Home is a way of exploring narrative, and perceived story versus reality. I use this with my students in a unit called “What Changes Your Mind?” in which students are solving a “crime” in their science classes, and in my class we are learning how to make a claim and support it with evidence. For me, this begins with studying an Ancient Civilization, and then we apply our claim and evidence skills to examine the efficacy of forensic evidence. As we gain evidence, we change our claim. We apply this lense to the story in “Gone Home.” Once done, we examine what stories we (my students) tell that are different from how they might be perceived. If you would like detailed lesson information, write ups, article links, and the other tools I use in delivering this lesson, please contact me directly.
“The Witness” is an open-world puzzle solving game available through Steam. Without any narration, any description, or ostensibly any “help,” users are forced to examine and explore the game world in a completely organic and user-driven way. This creates a very high level of engagement from the very beginning, since the narrative is essentially created by the decisions of the player (even the decisions of where to walk or what puzzle to attempt). This is a great way to provide students with a “work break” (not a brain break- this is a lot harder than students think!) or an extension for students who need it. Students can be given a specific task (find one puzzle you can solve), or a longer goal (write a walkthrough for how to find and solve this set of puzzles). This is also a great way of building up some tenacity in students for how to attempt a puzzle and fail in order to find a solution. If you would like detailed lesson information on how to incorporate this into lessons, or how to incorporate it into achievement structures in a classroom, please contact me directly.
Professor Layton Series
“Professor Layton” is a long standing series of puzzle-embedded visual novels/story-based narratives available on 3DS. Although the puzzles in this game are not “intrinsically integrated” (Hapgood and Ainsworth, 2011), the puzzles are short, and extremely easy to access without having to play through large amounts of story, if desired. In a math classroom (I have taught 8th grade math and am highly qualified to teach 6-12th grade math in Colorado), Professor Layton can be a great game to incorporate into a “stations” model. This could be seen as a “brain break” and give students a chance to solve a puzzle in a game environment alone, or with table mates for added help (or added challenge!). The game has an available puzzle bank, so you can queue up specific puzzles that align with current learning, or students can play through for a certain amount of time and solve puzzles in an organic way. If you would like detailed lesson information on how to incorporate this into lessons, or how to incorporate it into a math stations model, please contact me directly.
“Papers, Please” is a branched-narrative decision based simulation game in which you are a border agent for the fictional country of Arstotzka (Glory to Arstotzka!). This game is available on PC/Mac and iPads. Students take the role of immigration agents and must balance accurate analysis of passports with efficiency in order to make money and meet the needs of their families. With 20 ending variants students will have wildly different experiences. I use this game as a way of exploring both the impact of authoritarianism in our government unit, but it can also be used as a way of exploring border security, the impacts of borders on governments, and the impacts of borders on people. This is a great game to deliver in small groups, because students can quickly rotate who is in control (1 player per immigration interaction), or groups could allow a student to play until they reach an ending (which can be very fast depending on their success). If you would like detailed lesson information, write ups, article links, and the other tools I use in delivering this lesson, please contact me directly.
“Bad News” is a game designed by European organization DROG. It was developed with education in mind, and puts players in the position of trying to become a viral, fake news tycoon on Twitter. This game is web-based and free!! As play progresses, players amass followers and accumulate one of six badges that represent real tactics of misinformation. The website includes resources for teachers, as well as a version of the game for younger students. In my classroom, I used this game to build up student knowledge of misinformation tactics and then asked them to find examples of these badge tactics in the real online world. If you would like more information, copies of lesson materials, or implementation advice, please contact me.
Want a game to help students review and synthesize basic concepts like addition and subtraction, and practice their math symbology? “Negative World” is your game. Negative World is a platformer whose central character has a set number of jumps before they run out of oxygen. The player must figure out how to make it to the goal before their number reaches 0. Along the way they meet obstacles with certain rules (like a bridge where your value must be divisible by 2, or greater than 3). This would function as a great “brain break” (even though it’s actually really hard!), station rotation, or maybe even a good break for a whole class, with one person playing and others observing before their turn. Negative World is available for $5 on Steam. Want detailed ideas or lesson ideas of how to use this game? Please contact me directly.