How Digital Games Become Educational

By Robert Sun

In speaking before many groups of educators, in cities across the nation, I often hear that one of the biggest challenges facing schools today is how to consistently engage and motivate children to learn.

Children, as we all know, are natural learners. But much of that instinctive curiosity is dampened by the formality and regimentation of the classroom. Albert Einstein once wrote: “It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”

For children to be motivated to learn, there must be enjoyment, curiosity and, most of all, the freedom to explore. Yet over the last 30 years, the most effective platform for childhood learning has had little to do with classrooms. The tool that has intrigued, stimulated and inspired young people of all ages the most, is video games.

Even today, many educators find games on smartphones, PCs, gaming systems and handheld devices to be “the enemy,” or “competition” that diverts kids from the important work of learning. Instead of seeing digital games as an ally to help them accelerate classroom work, they continue to encourage their marginalization. Only recently has this perception started to change.

Researchers continue to find that digital games are ideally suited for academic pursuits. The open-ended exploration and short cycle of play of digital games allow students to engage on their own terms, for any available amount of time. Moreover, nearly all digital games offer the freedom to make mistakes. This key aspect—a non-judgmental learning environment where trial-and-error, rather than grades, are the markers of progress—makes digital games uniquely attractive.

Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, writes, “When kids are asked, in focus groups and surveys, what they like about video games, they generally talk about freedom, self-direction, and competence. In the game, they make their own decisions and strive to meet challenges that they themselves have chosen.”

Contrary to popular wisdom, the ability of a participant to set his or her own goals is not counterproductive to outcome-based learning. In research conducted by the University of Central Florida, students playing educational video games over an 18-week period demonstrated higher gains on district benchmark exams than students not playing the games.

A 2013 study for GlassLab by independent researcher SRI found that “when digital games were compared to other instruction conditions without digital games, there was a moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games in terms of broad cognitive competencies.” The same SRI/GlassLab study determined that simulation-based games improve student skills by 25 percent.

When designed and applied correctly, academically-grounded digital games can be uniquely effective at motivating and engaging students. But here’s the rub; top-quality educational games are much more than Minecraft or World of Warcraft with a few math or history lessons worked in. Exploration and skill development must be shrewdly incorporated into the DNA of the game itself. And this requires structure.

Imagine going into a gym and being confronted with a room full of sophisticated weight training equipment. The tools are all there; anyone who wishes to is free to explore and engage these marvels of fitness. But at the end of ten weeks, in order to have toned arms and six-pack abs, there has to be a game plan.

Structure within freedom can be a wonderfully effective balance. Ice cream stores with a limited number of choices sell as much, if not more, product than those with dozens of alternatives. Focusing attention within structure, while still allowing for personal choice, ensures that interest is maintained.

For digital gaming to work within the modern school environment, challenges must fit the larger curriculum framework. Games must be developed with regard to grade-specific curricula and even national testing standards. It’s possible to meet these imperatives head on, while still giving children the freedom they so desperately desire. This is the beauty—and the potential—of digital games when they’re properly designed for classroom use.

Schools are under considerable pressure to “move the needle” and it would be naïve to think that game developers can ignore the need to demonstrate specific skill development. Within the First In Math online environment, a Goals Index measures four critical areas of math achievement: Activity, a gauge for persistence in practice; Fact Fluency; Word Problem Fluency; and a Procedural Fluency Index, which can be used to support a school’s game plan for standardized testing. Actionable reports, available in real time to all stakeholders – students and administrators alike – align everyone to a common goal of increased achievement.

Given the fact that over three billion hours are spent each week globally on video games, it would be foolish to ignore gaming as a way to engage students. In America alone, young people devote, on average, roughly 10,000 hours to video games before the age of 21.

Our responsibility and duty as educators is to continually embrace the best possible means to prepare children for productive, fulfilling adult lives. In this generation a major tool is right in front of us; it’s up to us to not only embrace it, but also adapt it to our benefit.

What we are witnessing is nothing less than a sea-change in how children learn. If we take full advantage of digital gaming through methods that combine play with substance, freedom with instructional oversight, we will have taken an essential step in meeting the educational challenges now before us.

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.

3 Responses

  1. Chris

    All true. The problems, however, are many, and enormous.

    First you need to realize that making a quality game is very expensive and complex. Adding a curriculum increases this complexity and cost by a conservative factor of 2. Adding an assessment component adds a factor of 2. Teacher training is an additional cost.

    Then there is the risk component. You really don’t know how well your product will connect with teachers and students until you launch it broadly, and if the bargain bin of old educational CDROMs are any indication, chances are it will fail.

    Last, but not least, is the lifetime of the games effectiveness in engagement. Games area fickle taste, and what’s fun today is worthless next year.

    When we look at games like Minecraft, we’re looking at Unicorns, so take advantage of them.

    I’d suggest the only way forward in terms of designing games for education is to focus on only one game for each curriculum – for example, algebra, and commit a full team of designers to continually improve that game for the next ten years.

    Because the final challenge of any digital learning experience is to understand they are just like consumer applications – you can’t just create them and say’were done’ – you need to continue to improve and evolve the experi nice iteratively over its lifetime. It’s a living thing.

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