Beyond Playing: How Games Work for Learning

Games-based learning is about much more than playing. Experts say when used well, games can give students powerful learning experiences in and out of school.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen the Institute of Play brought together a group of Pittsburgh educators for a two-week introductory workshop on game design this summer, no one knew quite what to expect.

It turns out that these days, game-based learning includes much more than just teaching with video games or iPads.

“I think one of the best things I will take away is making things more exciting for students when they’re getting information,” said Chris Foster, a business, computer, and information technology teacher at Elizabeth Forward Middle School who attended the training, called MobileQuest CoLab. “I’ve done review games, but I’ve never done games where the kids go out searching for information or dissect definitions and are able to come up with what they need.”

Experts say games have a unique ability to engage kids in learning by harnessing what they’re unquestionable experts at: playing. Through playing, games tap into the deep exploration and complex problem solving skills that are so tricky to spark using traditional teaching methods.

Pittsburgh is becoming a national leader in educational game design innovation.  Companies like Schell games, based in Pittsburgh, are designing games that are “transformative,” or meant to change players in some way by the time they’re done playing.

Local educators say it’s crucial to be able to teach systems thinking, collaboration, and iterative design— all skills today’s students will need in the world and job market of the future.

Schell Games is taking it a step further with the GameSprout project, a site where teachers can moonlight as game designers and collaborate in an online community that can help them actually build the games they imagine.

University of California-Berkeley neuroscientist Silvia Bunge and ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie are teaming up to fund a competition for the best ideas for low-cost games that build reasoning, logic, and planning skills. Bunge’s research has found playing fun, off-the-shelf games with a group boosts logic and reasoning skills and even increases IQ scores.

However, not just any game can kickstart complex thinking. Exploratory gaming activities that go beyond just absorbing content can be challenging to incorporate into a classroom. Experts like Constance Steinkuehler, associate professor in Digital Media at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, say the core of what good games can teach gets buried if too much emphasis is put on the cool new games instead of the learning processes behind the scenes.

“The thing that is frustrating is that funders misunderstand how to use games. They’re still really overly focused on coming up with games that will address their particular goal, or topic, or agency agenda. That’s a very flat-footed treatment of what games can do,” said Steinkuehler in a Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning Interview. Steinkuehler said the field needs more partnerships with universities, not just with big gaming companies.

One of those connections happened between the City of Chicago and the University of Chicago this summer. As part of Chicago’s Summer of Learning, the university students created The Source, a five-week alternate reality game that involved “investigatory tasks, code-breaking challenges, STEAM-based puzzles, and media production opportunities.” (Here’s a great video of students solving a puzzle that simulates an STI outbreak in a city.)

The Source’s creators chronicled the game’s development on their blog, and at the conclusion of the game, wrote that students solved problems and puzzles the developers thought were unsolvable.

It’s that kind of exploring—side by side with teachers and mentors—that James Paul Gee, author of “What Video Games Have to Teach About Learning and Literacy” and pioneer of using game design in the classroom, says is the real benefit of games.

“What I’m interested in is situated learning—that is, learning based on problem solving that is immersed in experiences, good guidance, and good mentoring,” Gee said recently. “And to do that, we should use all the tools available to us. Games are one of those tools.”

Published September 03, 2013