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Game­-Based or Playful Learning, not Gamification for All Things

By Kip Glazer
 | Apr 27, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-78432795_x300“Honestly, I don’t see the point of games in the classroom. I mean, it seems to overly focus on the idea of fun, and I don’t think fun is what we should focus on. Fun is seriously overrated,” I said on the first day of my games for education class. Little did I know that I would go on to write my dissertation on role-playing games, write not one but two book chapters on how to assist teachers in bringing games into their classroom, and even consult on a project for the Kennedy Center ArtsEdge on its game-­based learning project.*

Games have become one of the hottest topics in education of late. Just look at Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Minecraft and the launch of MinecraftEdu! Popular education blog site Edutopia has game­-based learning as one of its major categories with numerous views and shares. The prominence of games for education became apparent when games scholar Constance Steinkuehler began serving as the Senior Policy Analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 2011. There are more than 4 million views on Jane McGonigal’s TED talk advocating how games can save the world. However, many educators are still not quite sure how playing games can help their students. I suggest you keep the following in mind before you pick up that game for your classroom.

A game is a tool, not the tool

As much as I think games can be extremely useful, I caution against advocating for games as the panacea for all educational ills. According to the OSTP, roughly 170 million Americans play video games. However, if you look more deeply into the numbers, you will see 49% of those who play games are between ages 18–49, well beyond school age. Average age of gamers is 34 years old.

True, game­-based learning allows students to learn many valuable skills such as negotiating complex systems while developing various literacy skills. Great games are now being compared to great literature. However, just as an amazing Shakespearean play alone can’t make students become better readers, great games alone cannot teach our students. I suggest incorporating great games into your classroom ecosystem to maximize the learning potential.


The right game for the right learning task—expansively

Because a game is a tool, it must be chosen for specific learning tasks. As an English teacher, I was lucky to be able to improve media literacy or literacy in general with any game I chose. What game doesn’t have reading and writing? Let’s take Disaster Detector, a science game developed for sixth through eighth graders by Smithsonian Science Education Center in collaboration with Filament Games.

I would use that game to have my students research disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and the type of governmental organizations responsible for different disasters. Then I would have students go through the tutorial section to take notes on the types of instruments such organizations and their scientists use. I would also have students critique the presentation. Did they think that the voice actor had the right look and tone of the target audience? Did they like the sound effects? If so, what about them was appealing? Then I would have students contact the creator of Disaster Detector—who happens to be one of my friends—to ask the process of developing such a game. Students then create a plan for a potential natural disaster that their hometown faces. They will write to the mayor or the governor, urging him or her to take their ideas into consideration. Finally, students research the type of education necessary to become a meteorologist or environmental scientist who we rely on to help us weather the disasters.

Opportunity cost and specific learning objectives built around the play

As much as I love game­-based learning, gameplay without a skilled instructor who can guide student learning is giving up something in the curriculum for the sake of time. One of the most amazing aspects of games is that it encourages voluntary participation of the players because they are “fun” to play.

As a classroom teacher, I often talk to my students about the idea of fun at school. I emphasized that learning new information can be more fun than simply killing a whole bunch of zombies while playing a popular strategy game like Plants vs. Zombies. If you were to play this game with your students, I suggest you discuss the specific strategies involved in winning the game with them. Encourage students to think of ways a great strategist would think about defeating an enemy. Have them research great battles in history and the strategies the winning side employed to achieve its objectives.

Consider allowing students to play in group and have them discuss how they could collaborate to win the game. At times, my students would complain that I ruined their mindless fun. I would explain to students that the State of California and their parents hired me to provide the structure for learning and expected me to teach them something. I feel that it’s our responsibility to expose the accidental learning to the students as “the more knowledgeable other,” a term coined by famous learning theorist Lev Vygotsky. 

Game creation beyond game playing

Although I think that games offer amazing educational benefits, I am convinced that creating games yields much better outcomes. While designing games, students learn to create, organize, and execute their plans. They have to think about aesthetics, rules, and appeal to audience. If students are designing digital games, they can learn digital and media literacy skills. Because of the increased popularity of game-­based learning, teachers now have many tools to choose from. One of my favorite tools is Twine, a text-­based choose-­your-­own-­adventure game creator. This simple platform allowed many of my students to create complex and multi-layered games.

Some students created an adventure game based on a creature’s birth. Others created a game of high school choices to guide their friends through high school years. Because they can publish and test each other’s games, students are invested in creating interesting and playable games. I typically had students create a planning document with a storyboard and rationale for the game first. Once students created their games, I had them create a video presentation using a tool like SnagIt. Such an activity forced the students to defend their choices while practicing their virtual presentation skills. I knew this was a great instructional practice when I recently ran into a former student. While in my class, he complained often that he had to record his presentation. However, he informed me that he no longer feared presenting to anyone because it became natural to him. He also appreciated the fact that he routinely evaluated his classmates’ work while receiving feedback from them during class.

I cannot stress enough of the benefits of game creation as an instructional strategy. For more tools on game making, check out the list I put together along with a few student video examples I presented at the 2016 Good Teaching Conference sponsored by California Teachers Association.

Game­based learning is here to stay

As much as I didn’t realize it, game­based learning is here to stay. I suspect it will become as common and ubiquitous as YouTube videos in the classroom in the near future. I sincerely hope that the teachers realize its learning potential when used appropriately.

* This project is ongoing, set for a workshop at Kern High School District in Bakersfield in April and May of 2016 with a group of theatre, science, and English teachers to test out the pedagogical framework I developed for my dissertation study.

Kip Glazer is a native of Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States in 1993 as a college student. She holds California Single Subject Teaching Credentials in Social Studies, English, Health, Foundational Mathematics, and School Administration. In 2014, she was named the Kern County Teacher of the Year. She earned her doctorate of education in learning technologies at Pepperdine University in October 2015. She has presented and keynoted at many state and national conferences on game-based learning and educational technologies. She has also consulted for Center for Innovative Research in Cyberlearning and the Kennedy Center ArtsEdge Program.



Leave a comment
  1. <a href=""> </a> | Jul 21, 2016
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  2. Donte Grundy | Jun 16, 2016

    A few understudies made an enterprise amusement taking into account an animal's introduction to the world. Others made a round of secondary school decisions to manage their explainer video maker companions through secondary school years. 

  3. <a href="" title="SEWA MOBIL SURABAYA INDONESIA CAR RENTAL HIRE">Sewa Mobil Surabaya</a> | Apr 30, 2016
    Nice game with technology. i like it. thank you

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