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The role of video games in education: Tips for teachers

As a teacher, how would you describe your attitude toward video games in education? Adversarial, enthusiastic, or somewhere in between?

It’s true that when kids are playing a mobile game in class instead of focusing on the lesson at hand, this kind of temporary distraction can be a bit of a nuisance. However, high-quality educational video games give teachers a real opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of game-based learning. Even enthusiasm for mainstream video games can be harnessed for academic purposes.

Read on to find out how.

Why do kids like video games?

Many children love video games largely for a simple reason: They’re engineered to be fun. According to a report from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), having fun was the leading reason survey respondents played video games. Runner-up reasons included using video games as a way to unwind, escape, or use one’s brain.

Besides this, there’s a wide variety of different types of gameplay that individuals can be drawn to, from action video games to puzzles, simulations, fantasy role-playing games, and more. Players may identify with a specific character or setting in a role-playing game, for instance, or they could be interested in finding out what it takes to design cities or launch rockets.

Across the board, however, game design largely succeeds because it balances joy and gratification with challenge and uncertainty.

The problem and promise of video games in education

Regardless, video games are not without their potential pitfalls. A segment on video game addiction from CBS Philadelphia explored the story of one student who had a difficult first year at college. He attributed his struggles to skipping class so he could keep playing video games. Although this report focuses on higher education, it also claims that, after graduation, high school students with a history of some mental health issues or learning disorders could be more susceptible to overindulging in video games.

On the other hand, pedagogically sound educational video games can provide students with a fun way to master new concepts, and even video games that don’t contain intentionally educational content could help students develop important skills.

In addition, research on video gaming and cognition points to a connection between high performance on some cognitive skills tests and more time spent playing video games. Many of the survey respondents in the ESA report we mentioned earlier also said they believed video games could help build creative, leadership, and communication skills.

Educational games: An expansive category that spans across genres

Today’s educational video games defy simplistic classification. Titles that were first devised decades ago have been reinterpreted over the years to keep up with the times and incorporate new technological innovations. Likewise, popular commercial game developers are generating interest in important academic subjects, and some niche developers focus entirely on creating valuable—and entertaining—educational content.

From the 1980s to now: The evolution of video games in education

As we’ve explored previously, the history of educational gaming is a rich topic that spans far into the past. There was an explosion of mainstream learning games starting in the second half of the 20th century, with several popular series first coming to life in the 1970s and ’80s, many of which have been reinvented for new generations over the ensuing decades.

  • Reader Rabbit: This literacy-focused digital game spawned a long-running series of educational video games.
  • Carmen Sandiego: Generations of children have sought to discern where in the world this elusive woman was, learning important lessons in geography along the way. Contemporary iterations have even brought Carmen Sandiego and Google Earth together.
  • Number Munchers: With simple yet effective game mechanics, this math game helped countless young learners practice their math facts in a fun and educational environment.
  • Math Blaster: This franchise has truly evolved with the times, transforming from one of the classic mainstays of the 1980s educational video game explosion to a newly remixed format in the 2010s: a popular massively multiplayer online game.

Commercial video games of today that can deliver big educational value

Game-based learning always entails a delicate balance of educational content and effective game design. Many of the titles that emerged from the educational gaming boom of the 1980s could easily be considered edutainment: They were learning tools first, and game elements served as a spoonful of sugar to make the educational medicine more palatable.

Today, popular and engrossing video games are often later adapted for educational purposes when teachers see how they can be used to generate interest in important concepts and topics.

  • Minecraft: With a new education edition, teachers have introduced the open-world virtual environment of Minecraft to a wide variety of enthusiastic students.

[READ: “Game-based learning activities by grade level”]

Contemporary video games designed for educational purposes

Although many educators are highly enthusiastic about adapting popular commercial games to classroom contexts, purpose-built educational games are still very much in demand. Some studios even specialize in the creation of entertaining games that fulfill specific learning objectives. 

Take Filament Games, for example. With a client roster spanning the U.S. Department of Education, National Geographic, and beyond, Filament has produced more than 400 projects throughout its nearly 20-year history.

Here are some highlights to get inspired by:

Using games in the classroom

Think you might be interested in updating some of your lesson plans to leverage students’ love of video games? Even without extensive professional development, there are a few things you can try.

1. Find clear curriculum connections

Start with the kinds of educational computer games we’ve mentioned previously and any others that might be included with the various educational technology platforms your district uses. There might be a ready-made world of fun and interactive educational video games waiting for you. You can also explore how games with a more open-ended concept, like Minecraft, could fit into your curriculum.

2. Critically examine popular games

Drawing a parallel to the lessons earlier generations gleaned—sometimes unintentionally—from popular board games, history professor Steven Mintz discusses how video games provide meaningful learning experiences, sometimes in an indirect way. 

“Whether you like or loathe video games, the fact is that they have become one of the primary ways that many students engage with the past,” says Mintz. “Therefore, it makes sense for instructors to treat these games as complex texts that deserve rigorous analysis and critique.”

Find out which games your students are playing. Talk about them. Look at them as an opportunity to build critical thinking skills as you jointly explore what the game designers got right—and what they got wrong.

3. Support your school’s esports program

Think of competition in online games as another opportunity to help students connect with school, just as they might through something like athletics, chess club, band, or other extracurricular activities. Showing up to support your learners doing what they love—or even sponsoring a program—can help students cultivate a sense of belonging at school.

[READ: “6 tips to maximize motivation in K-12: Tapping into student engagement”]

Playing games: Serious business for today’s teachers

How do you think you’d describe the way you feel about video games in education now? Certainly, games can be a distraction. Practically speaking, however, video games are a part of many students’ lives, and embracing that fact can pay dividends. 

There are a variety of educational video games available to help students study core concepts and develop problem-solving skills, and teachers can use popular video games as a window into what students care about, building on their interests to create bridges to history, STEM, literature, and more.

Curious to find out what other trending topics today’s educators are interested in? Check out our free ebook, “K-12 leadership guide: 8 priorities for 2023.”

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