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Getting Serious About Games

How to ensure the games your students play pay off academically. 
By Dan Norton

Who doesn’t like a good game? From chess to bowling to flapping (possibly even angry) birds, games have permeated our culture. With social and mobile technology infusing every aspect of our life, even Grandma has been known to cultivate a virtual farm or crush some candy from time to time.

For people who love games, this is great news. But now that games are accepted as a mainstream medium, it’s time to see if they can be moved past the point of mere entertainment.

The field of learning games itself has been around for decades, with venerable titles such as Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail blazing the path. But there is new research and products that seek to unleash the power of gaming in your district’s classrooms.

So while mixing games and education is no longer frowned upon, the rules for evaluating whether a game deserves to be part of your district’s classrooms are certainly different from those you use to judge a game you play for diversion. Here are five tips to help you determine whether what you use your classrooms will offer students quality learning as well as fun.

1. Games Are More Than Fun

Yes, games are fun, but that’s just a tiny piece of what they have to offer. When evaluating games for your classroom, look past the amusing story or the pretty graphics and think about what players are actually going to do in the game. The gold standard to ask is, “Does mastering this game mean students will have mastered the targeted learning objectives?”

Great learning games use the natural gameplay cycles of challenge and feedback to ensure players excel, and the progress connects to the learning objectives in an obvious and measurable way.

2. Games Create Context for Content

Games, of course, can hold educational content, but the unique power of quality games is that they create a context to surround the content. This context creates authentic ways of interacting with the content. The gameplay in each game is actually a set of “verbs.” That is, players interact with the content in a way that closely mirrors actual mastery of the objectives.
The context that games create is so powerful that you can use it in classroom activities and materials after the game is done. Drawing on the gameplay experience, classroom activities can also connect related learning objectives back into the game’s story. For example: ”Remember how we grew those plants in Reach for the Sun? How do you think the plants actually turn that sunlight into energy?”

3. Games Create Practice With Purpose

Games don’t just create verbs, they create identities that give purpose. Quality learning games make explicit why the objectives matter. Games make heroes out of writers, scientists, thinkers, and problem solvers. Students want to know why learning material matters—and games help paint that picture!

4. Games Explore Systems

Games are, at their heart, simply a set of rules that players inhabit. These rules create a system that players experiment with and try to understand in order to get better at the game. Think of these rules as a simulation, and players as “researchers” testing the boundaries of the simulation through play. This makes games well suited to express complicated, systems-driven concepts that are so often found in science and math.

5. Games Are an Opportunity

When evaluating games, think of them as an opportunity to connect, create context, and inspire your students, not just to entertain or distract. When you evaluate the games you want to put into your classrooms, think of them not as a temporary diversion, but as a powerful new tool you can use to enhance your entire curriculum.

Dan Norton is the chief creative officer and founder of Filament Games. He has designed games about a broad range of topics, ranging from marine turtle ecology to legal argumentation. His games have won numerous industry awards and have been played millions of times in classrooms across the country.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.