Why games in the classroom are a big win for learning
This piece was originally published in The World Economic Forum on May 11, 2017
By definition, a game is simply a structured form of play that excites the senses and captivates players; all the ingredients we want students to have in our classrooms.
Unlike regular teaching, a well-developed game can instinctively convey meaningful content. What’s more, a plethora of research has demonstrated how learning games in the classroom translate into meaningful knowledge acquisition, motivation to learn, and even the development of altruism. Research on the benefit of games for learning has led to an explosion in the educational gaming industry of fun and informative games. How can we harness game play to complement learning in classrooms?
Analog or digital?
Schools have a myriad of games to choose from that fit into the curriculum while also getting children excited about learning. An ongoing debate centres on whether analog or digital games are best for use in classrooms. As with most things, either/or doesn’t work.
Analog games are great tactile tools to get kids excited about learning, and digital games add a level of interaction by creating unique experiences, more complicated story lines, and offering different types of player collaborations, such as global villages of student teams. By pairing analog and digital games in classrooms we ensure that students are engaged in multi-sensory learning.
Additionally, new research suggests that immersive experiences such as those offered by virtual reality create a sense of empathy and may build pathways to being more engaged citizens.
A shining example of this is the VR experience Clouds Over Sidra, narrated by Sidra, a 12-year-old girl living in a Jordanian Refugee camp. Clouds Over Sidra was debuted at the World Economic Forum and is currently used by the United Nations as a tool to showcase the refugee crisis from the point-of-view of its most vulnerable victims.
Other immersive experiences like Google Expeditions have been used to take students on virtual field trips to Burj Khalifa in Dubai, where they learn about architecture and city planning, gain valuable maths and science skills, while also challenging them to think deeper about how buildings have changed over time. Another recent Google Expedition mimics a game that we developed, taking students on the journey from molluscs to medicine as they learn how Killer Snails can be used to develop new drugs.
Learning games take students deeper into the engaging content already available in classrooms, museums, parks, and homes. Providing an analog or digital game where students make decisions in these environments and see the outcome of their actions adds both depth and power to the class curriculum and their learning.
Champions of content
There is an urgent need for learning initiatives that make science both approachable and relevant to primary and secondary school learners in a manner that supports and inspires them.
Recent studies have indicated it is not what we teach, but how we teach that enhances student learning, particularly as it pertains to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). A key component of using games in the classroom is that games can be used across content areas and over a variety of age ranges to support content and deepen learning.
In primary school, social studies teachers can use digital games like Stack the States to help pupils master important geography skills such as capitals, flags, and the locations of different states.
In middle school, science learners can play the analog version of our deck-building card game where they take on the role of a scientist racing to solve a peptide solution, recreating the palliative treatment from venomous marine snails.
In high school, social studies may be taught using the hands-on World Peace Game about global diplomacy and the interconnectedness of economic, social, and environmental impact on the world community. Similarly, in the US a teacher may choose to use the digital game iCivics to teach about the structure of the executive, judicial, and legislative branch of government, as well as what it takes to run an election at the local, state, and federal level.
The science of making games
To truly feel like play, a game needs to be both immersive and spontaneous, it must give the player autonomy while being intrinsically motivating, and most of all it has to be fun. There is a science to making games, especially learning games.
When done effectively, games can be the starting point for so-called enquiry-driven education, which works by posing questions, rather than simply presenting established facts. These games provide exciting experiences that are complementary and not supplementary to existing methods of learning.
Games that provide teachers with valuable feedback about student engagement and learning during game play are the next generation of learning games. An important policy issue about using games in classrooms is how to assess the impact of game play.
Assessment tools currently used in both digital and analog learning are largely static and universal to all students. The future of teaching and learning with games will use real-time digital assessment, which is specific to each student and will highlight student misconceptions to help teachers adapt their approach, as necessary.
The market for this is huge. Game-based and simulation-based learning will generate $13.2 billion for suppliers by 2019, according to research group Ambient Insight. The time is ripe for making learning games dynamic, engaging, and a powerful classroom tool to improve and deepen knowledge acquisition.
 Bao et al., 2009; Eshach, 2007; Gerber, Cavallo, & Marek, 2001
Lindsay Portnoy is an educational psychologist and co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer at Killer Snails, a gaming company that uses extreme creatures of nature to build immersive and engaging learning experiences aligned to meaningful assessments that support educators.
Mandë Holford is an Associate Professor of Chemical Biology at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY) and the Chief Science Officer at Killer Snails, LLC.