Classroom Technology Opinion

Want Your Students Engaged? Gaming Holds Some Answers

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 02, 2014 4 min read
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We hear about children playing video games for too many hours; the length of their attention to them is staggering. We wonder how it would feel to educators if we heard that about children and their learning in and outside of school. Can we imagine receiving phone calls and emails from parents fearful that their children, long after leaving school for the day, refused to stop learning? Is understanding more about how learning takes place in games a way for us to better engage students in school? Why not look at how games capture children’s attention and learn how to appropriately replicate that in our classrooms? How is what we do in school different from what they do in games? Why not look past our beliefs that games are about shooting, killing, and other bad things, and allow ourselves to become jealous of the success games are enjoying while teaching children and adults alike how to research, learn, fail, succeed, teach, communicate, and graduate (level up) to new frontiers?

Games as Learning: Computers Not Needed
James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, does a great job of explaining games and learning in this brief video:


Lee Sheldon, Associate Professor in the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, begins the introduction to his book, The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game, “The multiplayer classroom ...can be created without buying software. It can be played without computers” (p. xiv). This book serves as a guide for designing any structured learning experience as a game. In his book Character Development and Storytelling for Games, he explains that games are stories into which we are invited as participants.

Ever since talks of great hunts and hunters were told to awestruck listeners huddled around the protecting fire, consumers, from cave folk to moviegoers, have been drawn to the power of storytelling. The story is the single thread that is woven through the entire fabric of what entertains us. The appreciation of a good story is a gift not granted to any other species on this planet. It is reserved for Homo sapiens alone (p.3).

Teachers can be storytellers. Now we know learning best takes place when the learner is engaged in the story and becomes part of it. Investigating, thinking, impacting the plot and outcome of the story is what happens in games. Why not in classrooms? This expands the role of the teacher from fact source, to storyteller to story originator.

The essential attributes learning games have exploited are explained by Chris Haskell, Clinical Assistant Professor at Boise State University. He lists the attributes of games in his Prezi on the game based classroom. He says games:

  • allow choice
  • offer multiple pathways
  • credit all successes
  • scaffold difficulty
  • reward efforts
  • show progress
  • allow us to collect meaningful artifacts
  • let us learn from failure
  • allow leveling up
  • influence the story
  • are fun.

Story Development and Quests as Lesson Plans
Our intent in classrooms is no different but our outcomes are not the same. Our students are not clamoring to find the answers by researching different methods for success, asking their peers around the globe for advice until they master whatever it is they need to learn. Our students are not feeling like empowered learners thirsting for the next challenge. Yet, students, (and yes, millions of adults, including educators) spend hours learning through games that are developed using the same values for learning that we profess.

It is quite a challenge for those of us who are not gamers to wrap our heads around the idea that learning, designed as games, can help achieve the engagement, motivation, and perseverance to make a difference in student learning. It is worth consideration. In an article in the Huffington Post, Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, shares an experience when giving her Ted Talk that revealed some skills she learned as a gamer. She said, “We aren’t afraid of failure. We can handle unexpected obstacles. In fact, we find joy in the opportunity to win under the toughest conditions.” All are good things.

We lament about how students are not engaged in learning. Research continues to point us toward authentic, project based learning, integrated and trans subject learning. But before trying to add it to our existing model of curriculum delivery, maybe we should take a lesson from the experts in the field of gaming. They appear to have mastered the art of engagement, curiosity, communication, collaboration, team building, information gathering, learning, mastering, and perseverance. Rather than thinking about lessons and lesson planning, perhaps we should be thinking about story development and quests. It may be a heavy lift for some of us. Just the vocabulary can be a bear. But rather than shun the field of gaming maybe we should learn as much as we can from it. It may be a contemporary key to finally move away from the bell curve and move more children toward the finish line. Maybe then, we will have parents calling and writing frantically worried that they can’t stop their children from learning. Wouldn’t that be something!

Gee, James Paul. (2007). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning
Revised and Updated Edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
McGonigal, Jane (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Group
Sheldon, Lee (2012). The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game. Boston: Cengage Learning
Sheldon, Lee (2014). Character Development and Storytelling for Games. Boston: Cengage Learning

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