Teaching Chat

Evaluating Games as Instructional Tools

Richard N. Van Eck answered questions about when games should be explored as instructional tools, what advantages games bring to the classroom, and how to overcome obstacles that make game integration difficult.

Chat: Evaluating Games as Instructional Tools

Tuesday, April 28, noon, Eastern time.
Read the transcript.

Although incorporating digital simulations and games into curricula is far from the norm in K-12 schools, educators, researchers, and game developers agree that acceptance of those media as teaching tools is growing. But experts caution against using such media for learning simply because those new tools seem like an exciting way to teach or learn.

In this chat, our guest answered questions about when games should be explored as instructional tools, what advantages games bring to the classroom, and how to overcome obstacles that make game integration difficult.

Guest: Richard N. Van Eck, an associate professor in the instructional design and technology program at the University of North Dakota.
Moderator: Digital Directions Staff Writer Katie Ash.

Related Coverage:
High-Tech Simulations Linked to Learning

Live Chat: Evaluating Games as Instructional Tools(04/28/2009)


11:32 Moderator: Katie Ash: We’re going to be opening up the chat in about half an hour. We’ve got a lot of great questions already, so keep them coming!

12:00 Moderator: Katie Ash: Alright! It’s just about noon, so let’s get started. I’m joined here today with Richard Van Eck, and we’re going to try and answer as many of your questions as we can about games and learning.

12:00 Moderator: Katie Ash: Why don’t we start by having Richard introduce himself?


Richard Van Eck: I am an Associate Professor and the Graduate Director of the Instructional Design & Technology program at the University of North Dakota (UND). I received my Ph.D. in instructional design and development from the University of South Alabama. Prior to coming to UND, I was an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, where I was also a member of the Institute for Intelligent Systems and the committee chair and chair of the Center for Multimedia Arts in the FedEx Institute of Technology. I currently serve on the board of directors for the North American Simulation and Gaming Association.

I have published and presented extensively in the field of digital game-based learning, including a book chapter on how to integrate commercial games into the classroom (Van Eck, R. (2008). COTS in the Classroom: A teachers guide to integrating commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games. In Richard Ferdig (ed) Handbook of Research on Effective Electronic Gaming in Education, Hershey, PA: Idea Group) and current interdisciplinary book on serious games (Van Eck, R. (in press). Interdisciplinary Models and Tools for Serious Games: Emerging Concepts and Future Directions, Richard Van Eck, Editor. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.) I have also worked on several original games for learning, including a current game for middle school students to promote scientific problem-solving, and another project to connect intelligent tutoring system to virtual worlds like Second Life.

I see digital game-based learning (DGBL) as an exciting tool to promote problem-solving, 21st century skills, and a variety of content within situated, meaningful contexts, whether through the integration of commercial games in curriculum or the development of new games for learning purposes. It is not, however, a panacea, nor is it for all learners, all learning outcomes, or all learning situations. Its benefits are also accompanied by its own challenges, and we have to be careful about planning where, when, how, and for whom we use DGBL.

12:01 Richard Van Eck: I look forward to our discussion today!

12:03 Moderator: Katie Ash: Great - let’s start with a question that many of you are interested in - where to find resources for games

12:03 [Comment From Vera]
What are some of the best resources available for games at all levels from elementary through 12th grade?

12:03 Richard Van Eck: This is a big question, to which I can only give you a partial answer....

12:04 Richard Van Eck: I have several sites that are a good place to start for K-12 and education in genera:
K-12 Games Resources

12:05 Moderator: Katie Ash: Excellent!


Richard Van Eck: Here are also some organizations that can point you toward some good research and other resources:

Organizations & Research


Richard Van Eck: And finally here are some of my favorite sites for games and related technology for educational purposes:

Games & Tools
(see Simbionic and Task Tutor Toolkit)


Moderator: Katie Ash:

Wow - lots of resources.

12:06 Moderator: Katie Ash: These links will be posted in our transcript after the chat, too, for anyone who would like to check them out afterwards.

12:06 Moderator: Katie Ash: Here’s a question from Ana.

12:06 [Comment From Ana Islas]
Are there any particular features that educators should look for in games?

12:07 Richard Van Eck: That is a great question, Ana....

12:07 Richard Van Eck: There are in fact several features to look for, and many of them are determined by your outcomes, goals, and audience....

12:08 Richard Van Eck: Because games can be resource-intensive to integrate into your classroom, it is important that we make wise decisions about where and when to use them.

12:08 Moderator: Katie Ash: Is there a time when you think it’s most appropriate to use games?

12:10 Richard Van Eck: For me, that means that we want to use games for what they are best at, and to address problems that we find difficult to address in other ways. After all, while a game CAN be used to teach verbal information or mathematics fluency (and there are times that games like Jeopardy-style games are very effective for this), games are BEST at addressing higher-order learning, problem-solving, and situated/contextual kinds of content.

12:11 Richard Van Eck: So I think one feature to look for is the alignment between your learning outcomes in the classroom that you find difficult to address, and games that support that kind of learning. This can be tricky, because while a game does not always appear to be about your content area, many games CAN address different content through the strategies that they employ. I can talk more about this, but don’t want to take up too much space and time if this is not along the lines of your question.

12:12 Moderator: Katie Ash: Susan has a question along these lines about who games might be most appropriate for -

12:12 [Comment From Susan R. Stengel]
Is there a difference in the usefulness of games for different populations, ELL’s, urban populations, or middle class populations?

12:13 Moderator: Katie Ash: And while you’re working on that question - we’ve got a couple of folks who have more suggestions of resources to check out.

12:13 [Comment From Dan Roy]
Hi from MIT’s Education Arcade. I appreciate you posting that link to our game Supercharged, but there are much newer, better games on the educationarcade.org, including Lure of the Labyrinth (labyrinth.thinkport.org).

12:14 [Comment From Brenda Brathwaite / SCAD]
To Richard’s suggestions, I would like to add that the International Game Developers Association also has an entire Education special interest group which contains curriculum guidelines and everything. www.igda.org


Richard Van Eck: Another good question. We do have to be conscious of our audience. There is a big assumption made that all kids under 18 are a frequent game players. This is not true. Many kids do not play games, and even when they do, that does not mean they all like them equally, nor that they like the same kinds of games. Of course, the same is true of books and movies, and we don’t worry about that when designing curriculum.

But there are other more serious issues. The digital divide is still a big concern--kids may not have equal access to games at home, which can make out-of-class assignments impractical. We also have to be aware that those with disabilities cannot access games equally. Two of the resources I included were for disabiltiies and accessible games.

I have also done some work on girls and games, since many believe that games are a gateway to technology, and that technology is a gateway to science and math careers. We found that boys and girls BOTH liked adventure games equally, although they played very differently in some cases. We also found that game play and game design could improve girls attitude toward science and technology, so we should also be aware that even when our audience does NOT play games, DGBL may still be an important strategy to use for other reasons.

12:18 Moderator: Katie Ash: Interesting. Here is a question from Kathy about how games should be used in the classroom.

12:18 [Comment From Kathy]
Should games be used to address a concept or better used to enforce a concept?

12:18 Richard Van Eck: The answer is both ...


Moderator: Katie Ash:

It seems like games could be applicable to both options.

12:21 Moderator: Katie Ash: I know that part of what you work with, Richard, is integrating games into the classroom. So I’d like to hear what you have to say to Ryan’s question.

12:21 [Comment From Ryan Robidoux]
do you feel that games should be used as “field trips” or should they be strategically integrated into the curriculum?


Richard Van Eck: Games can be used to learn new information, as an opportunity to practice previously learned information, or as a hybrid of the two.

We can acquire new knowledge by interacting with concepts and information in situated, meaningfu contexts, which we know is an effective way to learn that predates digital games. It serves to establish relevance and promote transfer.

We can also use games as a chance to practice what we have already learned, and as assessment.

Finally, and most importantly, we can use games to expose students to new information, SOME of which we must then go back out to the classroom to learn more about, and then come back into practice it, etc. This is important for using commercial games, because it is not likely that any one game can address all of our content by itself--we will have to build out-of-game experiences into the lessons as well.


Richard Van Eck: I think that games are appropriate for field trips, but are more powerful in integrated into the curriculum over time.

We know that problem-solving takes multiple practice opportunities in many contexts, and rather than reserving it for special occasions, I think it should be used as a regular tool for learning.


Moderator: Katie Ash:


12:23 Moderator: Katie Ash: Here’s one from Sandy

12:23 [Comment From sandy]
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to using games in the classroom, and how can that be overcome?


Richard Van Eck: I don’t know how to pick one as the biggest obstacle, because so much of it is dependent on the individual school climate, learners, available technology, and so forth.

But the way to overcome this is to not think of games as something that requires a complete overhaul to the way you teach, but to rather think of games as another medium that you integrate into your classroom, just as you would movies, newspapers, etc.

I teach educators how to use the NTEQ model for technology integration that puts the technology in the hands of the students as they solve problems in authentic ways. This model has been used by many teachers to develop technology integration lesson plans in all subjects and grade levels, and it works just as well for games as for any computer-technology.

I think that among the biggest challenges is time (to develop and implement) and resources (in the classroom and out), ASSUMING that you have buy-in from administrators and teachers. The way to overcome this is to make sure you devote enough time for the lesson planning process, and to use DGBL to address the biggest problems you face in teaching; the ones that are not easily addressed by other means. You can read about this process in detail in a book chapter I wrote on the process (reference to follow)...

12:28 Richard Van Eck: an Eck, R. (2008). COTS in the Classroom: A teachers guide to integrating commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games. In Richard Ferdig (ed) Handbook of Research on Effective Electronic Gaming in Education, Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

12:29 Moderator: Katie Ash: Here’s a comment from Debra about the tools used to integrate games.

12:29 [Comment From Debra E]
Why not use the tools that high schoolers live by and frankly cannot live without into the curriculum. I teach English and welcome opportunities to build lesson plans that incorporate learning activities on ipods or with texting on cell phones.

12:31 Richard Van Eck: I could not agree more. I think that the cell phone is one of the biggest tools we overlook in education. We have good reasons, but we throw the baby out with the bathwater by banning them entirely. We also abdicate our responsibility as educators to help students learn how to use technology appropriately--we see what happens if we leave it to them to figure out what is the best information to put on facebook, for example...

12:32 Moderator: Katie Ash: Here’s a question I think many educators are asking -

12:32 [Comment From Guest]
What strategies for introducing gaming have you used/seen in the schools, given the NCLB climate of high stakes-testing and AYP?

12:32 Richard Van Eck: Cell phones are a ubiquitous technology for collaboration, image capture, texting, etc., and we could develop great lessons around them.


Richard Van Eck: “What strategies for introducing gaming have you used/seen in the schools, given the NCLB climate of high stakes-testing and AYP?”

NCLB is being revised to include 21st century learning outcomes. There is nothing wrong with measuring what students learn, but we have to be honest about what our tests measure, and whether they align with our current goals as a society. I, and many others, would argue that we are not measuring the right things.

We need to have a national conversation about school outcomes, and soon. The debate in the last century was really about IF we should even have mandatory schooling. Those who had farms needed kids at home to help work, and many did not want it then. As we moved our economy to an industrial rather than agricultural base, businesses complained that rural kids did not have the skills needed--things like punctuality. These needs are what drove the design of the modern system.

As we now move to an information economy, we need people who can solve HUGE problems like global warming, global economics, etc. in collaborative ways by using technology to search out complex patterns; nothing that we promote or teach in school today. It is time for another school reform discussion. I recommend you read Jim Gee’s works on this, and refer you also to Alvin Toffler’s latest piece in edutopia for more on these ideas.

12:39 Moderator: Katie Ash: Perfect. This question is sort of related, but more to do with assessments than NCLB specifically.

12:39 [Comment From Andy F]
Do you have a strategy for measuring the effect of games for learning? Can this be derived from “normal” assessments? How do we convince administration and parents as to effectiveness?

12:39 Richard Van Eck: Assessment is one of the biggest concerns people have about DGBL....

12:40 Richard Van Eck: First, we have to understand that assessment already happens in games as part of what they do. The key is that it happens in a way that looks different than “typical” assessment....

12:41 Richard Van Eck: Some of this is because of WHAT is being assessed. As I said before, games might be best used for problem-solving, collaborative pattern matching, etc. Assessment of these things are NOT easily done by paper and pencil test; you have to actually WATCH people performing these activities, and use rubrics and other tools for assessment....


Richard Van Eck: But another reason it looks different is that we tend to have learner interaction in a typical class as mostly attention checks, spending most of our time on content acquisition (also called “info-dumping”). Assessment tends to happen at the END of long periods of this info-dumping.

I am making generalizations here, so bear with me--I know not all education is like this all the time....


Moderator: Katie Ash:

James would like some clarification on what exactly we’re talking about when we say “games”

12:44 [Comment From James Mundy]
When you reference games are you talking about commercially available games that children might be familiar with or teacher-developed games?


Richard Van Eck: In games, however, EVERYTHING you learn (by interacting with the game) is IMMEDIATELY assessed. You cannot progress in the game UNLESS you demonstrate mastery of what you just learned; that is how you advance (level-up) in a game.

So assessment in games is continuous, and authentic. It is not a good idea to try to teach with a game and expect standardized test scores to go up (although it IS possible to design DGBL that does address standardized test content).


Richard Van Eck: There is a difference, of course, but assessment is the same in both kinds of DGBL, EXCEPT when we are talking about games like Jeopardy to teach concepts and verbal information (i.e., not problem-solving). So if a teacher develops a game to teach that does address problem-solving etc., it should handle assessment in much the same way that commercial games do.

12:47 Richard Van Eck: In addition....

12:48 Richard Van Eck: You CAN assess your content outside of the game (commercial or teacher-developed); you just have to be aware of the ways that higher order learning (assuming that is what you are trying to address) is actually measured in the real world. Multiple choice is not likely to be successful, but project-based and problem-based learning assessment is.

12:49 Moderator: Katie Ash: Lots of factors at work here.

12:50 Moderator: Katie Ash: Here’s a question about research

12:50 [Comment From kevin]
Is there research that shows a link between the use of gaming in education and higher student achievement?

12:51 Richard Van Eck: After assessment, that is probably the most frequent question about DGBL....


Richard Van Eck: Many of the sources I sent out contain links to articles and studies, and there are lots of others out there as well.

I stopped worrying (too much) about this in 1999, when I finished my literature review for my dissertation...

12:54 Richard Van Eck: Not because there was a lot of research out there on this, but because I realized that games employ a lot of the theories (e.g., situated cognition, anchored instruction, contextual learning, engagement) that ARE well researched. It stands to reason that any medium that uses these theories should be able to produce similar results. This is also related to the No Significant Different (NSD) phenomenon....


How often do you use games in your classroom?
All the time!
( 17% )

A moderate amount
( 37% )

Once or twice
( 32% )

( 14% )


Richard Van Eck: Any time a new technology comes along, we want to know if it can be effective, and we do need to do those studies. But we don’t seem to ask the same thing about lecture-based learning, the role of books in learning, etc., yet we use those regularly in education.

We did this with AV studies in the 70s, and with online learning in the 90s, and we found that there was no sigifnicant difference between those that used the tech and those that did not.,,


Richard Van Eck: It turns out that the reason for this was NOT the technology, but the way in which it was used.

Where good instructional design was employed, the medium was used to its best effect; where it wasn’t, it resulted in poor learning.

We just need to understand what the medium is good for, not try to use it for things it does not do well, and align our outcomes and strategies and assessment.

12:57 Moderator: Katie Ash: Excellent. I think we have time for about one more question.

12:57 [Comment From Mark Suter]
I’m sitting here watching with my computer tech 8th grade students and they want to ask, “What do we tell our parents so they let us play these (commercial) games for education?”


Moderator: Katie Ash:

Although this may be a little tongue-in-cheek, I think it is important to talk about how to convey what games can teach to parents.


How helpful was this chat for you?
Very helpful!
( 42% )

Somewhat helpful
( 56% )

Not that helpful
( 2% )


Richard Van Eck: Well, there is two parts to my answer for this. First, you should tell them that a lot of academic researchers and theorists believe that the skillsets employed and promoted in many games are the same as what will be needed in the next century. You can point to a lot of the resources I have shared here.

But the second part, which I don’t think you will like as much, is that not ALL games are equally good, and you should not play games ALL the time.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume that “Playing games=learning”

While you will get many good skills by playing many games, the best use of games for learning will occur when we as educators take a careful look at different games and make our best efforts to develop meaningful lessons that employ games. That takes work and time, and in any case will only ever be a part of what we do in the classroom.


Moderator: Katie Ash:

Excellent answer.

1:02 Moderator: Katie Ash: Thank you so much, Richard, for taking all of these questions and for providing such thoughtful answers.

1:02 Moderator: Katie Ash: A transcript of the chat will be posted on this page after it closes.

1:02 Moderator: Katie Ash: Thanks for all your questions!

1:02 Richard Van Eck: Thank you all for inviting me to be a part of this, and for being such enthusiastic participants...

1:03 Richard Van Eck: I hope you will all strive to be supporters and skeptics at the same time, and that you can all serve as change agents for the reform we need for the next century. Thanks!


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