Is there more to game based learning than Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail?

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Student engagement is always a problem when it comes to any curriculum.  Whether you’re student is  8 years old and trying to master all of their times tables or 18 and trying to understand physics.  Kids are often uninterested in the subject and are chugging away just for the grade, or in some cases just because you told them to.

Let’s be honest though, when we were in school, (I’m 37, ancient I know) did we really want to learn algebra or chemistry.  Nope! Not I.  I studied because I didn’t want to fail, and failing scared the bejesus out of me.  I was convinced that If I did really  bad, I would fail out of school and become a homeless crazy person.

Unfortunately, not all kids have this healthy (actually I think it’s pretty unhealthy) fear to spur them on.  Sometimes it takes a herculean effort to get them to pay attention or do their homework.

I’m speaking of the grief I gave my mother when it came to doing my homework.

What’s the answer to this you ask.

Is it possible to teach the material in a way that is engaging to all students?

Is there a way to deliver the material that will make every student eager for the pearls of wisdom poised to flow from your oration?

Maybe, but probably not.  More than likely you’ll reach some students no matter what approach you pick, and that percentage will increase based on how much effort you put into making it engaging.

Some teachers have taken the time to gamify their entire curriculum (Don’t know what gamification is click here).  And sure that made a big difference, but not everyone has the desire to totally restructure their content.

Is there a way to increase engagement and learning without spending months and months doing lesson planning?

The answer to this question is a resounding perhaps.

Game based learning is an approach to teaching that could deliver on all promises, but in most cases it doesn’t.  Lets not get discouraged though, this post is not an anti-game based learning rant.

Given the progression of video games in the world and particularly in america, you would think that quality learning games would fill the shelves of every school, but they don’t.  They certainly do fill almost every household.

To show how pervasive gaming is in the household and the country in general.  Let’s geek out on some very interesting stats.

I found these stats on Polygon, their from the Entertainment Software Association, and are US statistics.

155 million people in the US play video games, and in fact 42% of Americans play for at least three hours a week (yup, that time on Candy Crush and Farmville can add up).  80% of American households have a device used to play video games.

While the stats I found were interesting, they were only mildly surprising.  What I did find surprising was the age demographic for the new age gamer.

The average game player is 35 years old.  26% are under 18 and 27% are over 50.   More than 1 in 4 gamers are people born before 1966.  Atari which is hailed as the first video game console wouldn’t come out until 1977.

I also found the gender split slightly surprising.  56% of gamers are male and 44% are female. The split is nearly down the center.

Men and Women of all ages are playing video games.
Men and Women of all ages are playing video games.

The most shocking stat I found, was the average age of the frequent game playing female.  Its 42 years old!  This absolutely destroys the stereotype I had in my head of teenagers playing video games all the time.  It’s more likely that my boss or my boss’s wife is at home getting their video game on.



So we’ve established that a large fraction of the public is playing video games, and the variety and quality has increased greatly over the years.

So what’s the problem then?  Of the research I’ve done, I would say that one big problem is that we haven’t figured out how to craft a video game for school education well.

It’s easy to make a game that blatantly asks a question and then when you give a right or wrong answer, some lame animation or action happens, like Humpty Dumpty falling off a wall.  Annie Paul called this chocolate-covered broccoli in her 2012 blog post.

Kids know when you take traditional learning tactics and you just throw some chocolate on the outside to try and make it go down smoother (I’m pretty sure chocolate broccoli is gross but I would try it).

The reason there has been such an increase in the interest of using  game based learning, is the level of engagement and motivation fostered by a good video game.

Games like SimCity and MineCraft require the user to both understand the problem or task they are faced with, and then formulate some kind of plan or strategy to address it.  All the while, as in SimCity, the game player must interact  with a highly complex multi variable system.

The reason games are successful in this, is that the narrative and game play is something that is fun and engaging.  Without a good narrative and equally good design, all this magic won’t happen, and you might as well eat your broccoli strait up and get it over with.

Where does that leave us?

There are some people who have had a lot of success with using game based learning in the classroom. Ananth Pai is a Minnesota teacher who has integrated game based learning at a very fundamental level of his teaching.

Mr. Pai makes an important point about game based learning.  He says that game based learning can enable individualized learning, because each student can progress at their own pace.  He says that one student might finish a concept in a day, whereas another might need a week for that same concept.  He can then help each student at the level at which they need.

So as a teacher or parent what options do we have?

I thought about giving a list of game based learning options here, and if that is of interest, leave me a comment and I’ll post a blog article on just that.

There is one glaring option for game based learning that, if you have interaction with children, I bet you already know.  It’s MineCraft.  If you don’t know what MineCraft is, it’s a very open creative environment in which people can build pretty much whatever they want.

MineCraft is so appealing to children of all ages because it can connect with the interests of the player on many different levels.  It can be competitive or not, it can be creative or not, and it can be social and collaborative or not.

Teachers have already  been using it in the classroom for years, and there are lesson plans already freely available on the internet.  You can find some lesson plans and tips about how to use them here.  Teachers have used it to teach everything from mathematics to the humanities.

And to sweeten the deal  MineCraft is coming out with an education edition this summer to further aid in its implementation into the classroom.

If you want to get started with MineCraft Education Edition check out this page.  It should giveyou what you need to get started.  Also take a look at YouTube, there is a ton of information there as well.

I hope this was helpful.  If you have any questions, comments or request write them below or subscribe to my email list. Send me an email, and I’ll be sure to get back to you.

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