Schools Must Harness the ‘Maximum Engagement’ of Games, Says Author

By Katie Ash — June 23, 2013 3 min read
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San Antonio

The 2013 ISTE conference—one of the largest gatherings of K-12 ed-tech enthusiasts in the country—kicked off here in sunny (and sweltering) Texas before an estimated 13,000 attendees.

The conference began with an unveiling of ISTE’s new branding strategy, which involves a new logo, a new mission statement, and a new vision. (Watch the video about it here.) After the new brand was revealed, board members in cowboy hats ran up and down the aisles of attendees, launching t-shirts emblazoned with the new logo into the crowd with air cannons.

Next, Jane McGonigal, educational gaming guru and author of the book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, took the stage to deliver the conference’s opening keynote speech.

McGonigal began her talk by saying she had “good news” to share—there are now an estimated 1 billion gamers worldwide. (A gamer is defined as someone who spends at least an hour a day playing a game on a connected device.) Recognizing that not everyone may see this as good news, she then went on to explain why it is indeed “the best news you will hear all week.”

According to a Gallup poll released last week, 70 percent of full-time workers say they are not engaged at the workplace. Similarly, at school, the level of engagement students report with their education drops as they continue through the system, said McGonigal. While 76 percent of elementary school students report feeling engaged in the classroom, that number drops to 61 percent for middle schoolers, and only 44 percent of high schoolers report feeling engaged at school.

Games, McGonigal argued, are a “space of maximum engagement.” Nearly all children (99 percent of boys under 18 and 94 percent of girls) are playing games regularly (for at least an hour per day), she said. And as those children grow up, schools and teachers will have to compete with and harness that sense of maximum engagement that students feel while playing those games.

She outlined a couple of examples of games that she has designed with the goal of seizing on students’ engagement with games and connecting them to education and real-world problems.

One of those games was Evoke, which she helped design in order to provide job- skills training to youths in South Africa. She also described a game she helped create for the New York Public Library that engages youngsters in a historical scavenger hunt, requiring them to examine historical artifacts in the library and complete writing activities associated with their interactions with the objects. At the end of the game, the stories that youths create are bound together in a book that is now housed at the library.

But while McGonigal made a strong case for the level of engagement that students feel while playing games, she did little during her talk to address some of the major challenges that teachers face when attempting to integrate those activities into a traditional classroom structure. One question: How can teachers with limited time or resources integrate games their classrooms? Where can teachers find training to familiarize themselves with games, to help them incorporate games effectively into lessons?

Toward the end of her speech, she did make a nod to how her ideas are connected to teaching and learning in the classroom, telling the audience, “when you’re thinking about designing for the classroom, think about the ten positive emotions and look for ways to evoke them,” referring to a set of 10 positive emotions—joy; relief; love; surprise; pride; curiosity; excitement; awe and wonder; contentment; and creativity—that gamers report feeling while playing video games. But she neglected to provide any concrete or practical advice on how that could be accomplished.

As the ISTE conference continues over the next three days, educators will be bombarded with ideas, products, and strategies that aim to leverage technology to make teaching and learning more powerful, more effective, and more efficient. Let’s hope that this year’s ISTE attendees will walk away from the conference with more than just an understanding of why technology is important but also gain insight into how to put those ideas into action.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.