Let the Games Begin: How to Design Successful 'Edutainment'

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
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When is a game worth playing in the classroom?

As people design edutainment (simulation and games with an underpinning educational purpose) for schools and lifelong learning, this is a question worth asking. Students come to learn with varying interests, abilities, and backgrounds, and as a result, a spectrum of emotions are associated with games.

For example, the person who scores the winning point in a ball game has a different outlook on the value of competitive games than the last person chosen at recess kickball. But is a recess game the same as an educational gaming opportunity in the classroom? As kids gain access to ever-increasing gaming options online, I find myself wondering whether it’s useful to use them as a learning tool, or whether a steady diet of games lowers the bar for student achievement. While there are multiple lenses that we can use to look at games and edutainment, my focus as an educator revolves around the role of student choice and voice, the probability of success, and the content outcomes or standards.

We can trace student choices to participate in gaming experiences back to the advent of extracurricular games such as basketball and football, which were introduced to secondary schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ever since, schools have functioned as a pantheon for such efforts, adding more offerings in response to the increased diversity of the student body, Title IX, and the community support these games engender. Will this same choice in the class curriculum allow students to make their learning meaningful and relevant?

Generating Student Buy-In

My first attempt at this extended style of edutainment was a chemistry unit I developed as a live-action, role-playing game. The Lotion Project, which ran from 2001-2003, was tied to my school's career and science standards. Students were divided into teams, with each person taking on specific responsibilities to emulsify a lotion, create a perfume or lip balm, develop packaging, keep records, and sell stock. The project lasted three weeks and went beyond the curriculum. For example, one year, we had a school fire drill during chemistry class. When we got back, the vice president of each group had to write a press release to the media discussing whether there was any danger to the public as a result of the "fire."

Throughout the project, my students created an ongoing website, wrote their own job descriptions, developed mock paychecks, and even created advertising for their products. These activities allowed students to practice personal finance, explore potential careers like marketing and product management, and take ownership of the creative process.

When I led this project, grading was one of my top concerns. Group grades are a dicey strategy for gaming efforts. If students have no control over the actions of others, a Nash Equilibrium is created, where some kids slack and other kids cover for them. Collectively, my students who participated in The Lotion Project experienced open-inquiry teaching, reflecting P21 skills of critical thinking and career readiness. However, I also assigned each student a grade that reflected his or her individual contributions to the assignment.

The Lotion Project was one of the few assessments I’ve ever given where every single student bought in—and I believe that’s because of the voice and choice they had in developing their projects. This led me to think about why successive attempts did not work out as well in other content areas or different school districts. I was left scratching my head at the seeming randomness of success, but then I started thinking about game theory.

Game Theory in the Classroom

Game theory explains how rational people strategize to get the best possible outcome in an uncertain gaming situation. I think teachers can apply this mindset when they’re considering bringing games into the classroom. Often, teachers play games without thinking about the probability of success or buy-in from students. For example, a review game before a test is low-stakes. If it is led by the teacher, it’s probably a formative activity that feels novel to students, which leads to a combination of fun and learning. However, playing the same game day-after-day probably would become a slog for everyone.

"As kids gain access to ever-increasing gaming options online, I find myself wondering whether it’s useful to use them as a learning tool."

Playing games to score points often is unhelpful, especially zero-sum games (games in which one team wins and the other team loses). Regardless of whether the game is fun, if the probability of a win is 50-50, knowledge is not really needed for students to be successful. However, these types of games do work well when the intent is to see where your students are in the learning process.

A logical follow-up question, then, is if the game should be used for assessment, especially high-stakes, summative ones. This can work, but it takes careful planning; in other words, it’s not the game itself, but the expertise of the teacher, that leads students to a joyous learning adventure. This means teachers should carefully consider the essential questions for the unit and how to assess each student’s contributions in a game setting.

Games also do not work when there is a winner-take-all strategy. A bell curve, where only those at or above the 41st percentile win a passing grade, follows standardized testing logic but will often lead kids to suspect instructor bias. Gamification, then, is most compatible with formative work.

But, you might ask, what if my school has a total points model? I would argue that gaming does not necessarily need to be used for points. Instead of rewarding kids for completing low-level word searches, substitute exit tickets or two-bite quizzes at the end of the class that you can easily grade. Use game time to build skills in content and teamwork. If mixing content and teamwork is the goal, consider a game designed to teach teamwork through edutainment or BreakoutEdu, a classroom-based escape room where students use clues and logic to open a box within a set time limit.

Not all things can be gamified. Bullying and behavior issues are not fun and games, so if a game environment is used to teach social and emotional skills, assign points for the positive experiences rather than the negative. Not all things can—or should—be reduced to winning and losing. Students, especially perfectionists, often confuse learning with winning in a gaming situation. Meanwhile, other students who are out of contention after one failure, as in a spelling bee or single-elimination contest, are not motivated to continue to engage and learn.

I believe teachers should create classroom environments that encourage students to fail, succeed, relate to, find joy in, and actively question their learning. This mindset allows us to integrate well-designed experiences, with or without edutainment, into the process of learning. The ultimate reward, of course, is when kids are excited about the content. That’s a true winner.

Photo provided by the author.

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