Learning by Gaming

Challenges and possibilities of using video games effectively in the classroom

By Katherine Halas Moulton

Individual Project

November 28, 2012

Memorial University of Newfoundland


Play is the highest form of research

– Albert Einstein (in CMEC, 2010)


An immerging trend in education is to use video games in the classroom to enhance learning and increase motivation in students, on their own terms. There is a large and growing body of research that show that gaming is an effective tool in the classroom; yet there is little consistency in how it is being used, which games are being used, and best practices (Abrams, 2009; Baston & Feinburg, 2005; Chen et al. 2012; Delwiche, 2006; Hakan, 2007; Ke, 2008; Lee et al. 2005; Lim & Nonis, 2006; Panoutsopoulos & Sampson, 2012; Mader, 2012; Shreve, 2012).

Not only is gaming effective for engaging students in the classroom there are skills that can be learned in gaming that cannot be taught using teacher-centred methods. This generation of graduates will not only need traditional literacy and numeracy, they will also need to be creative, fluent in information and communication technologies, and have, “the ability to solve complex problems and adapt to shifting technologies” (Scacchi, 2012; Foundation, 2008). Well-designed and carefully implemented video games can be a powerful teaching tool in the classroom.

While the range of opportunities for using video games in a classroom context is not a new idea it certainly is not the status quo. One librarian even argued for its use in teaching library research skills: “We should quit force-feeding information literacy to students on our own finicky terms,” said Doshi (2006). Traditional ways of teaching may have more to do with the comfort and experience of the teacher than with actual best practices. Video games can also be part of a solution for engaging hard-to-reach groups. Gaming has been proven especially effective in motivating at-risk youth, particularly boys, and even students with autism (Abrams, 2009; Gillespie, 2012; Toppo, 2012; Carr-Chellman, 2011). Games have been used since the early eighties in the classroom; in spite of this, initially they were ineffective drill-and-kill based “edutainment” games which drilled the fun out of gaming (Shreve, 2012). Delwiche (2006) has called gaming the “learning environment of the future;” nonetheless, if this is to be a good thing than we need to establish some best practices.

Playing is Fun (and Educational)

Playing is learning. It allows students to explore and to be in control of their own learning in a positive environment. The Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (2010) has released a statement on play-based learning. The Council asserted that the benefits of play are well documented and supported in the research:

“When children are engaged in purposeful play, they are discovering, creating, improvising, and expanding their learning. Viewing children as active participants in their own development and learning allows educators to move beyond preconceived expectations about what children should be learning, and focus on what they are learning…. Play allows them to actively construct, challenge, and expand their own understandings through making connections to prior experiences, thereby opening the door to new learning. Intentional play-based learning enables children to investigate, ask questions, solve problems, and engage in critical thinking. Play is responsive to each child’s unique learning style and capitalizes on his or her innate curiosity and creativity.”

Our political leaders are sending a clear message that play is not only acceptable, but a preferable way to learn. Traditional lecture-study-test (“spray and pray”) styles of teaching are not sufficient for teaching today’s curriculum and the broader 21st century skills. This idea of building intuitive understanding is further supported by Clark, Nelson, Sengupta and D’Angelo (2012) who stated that: “Well-designed digital games and simulations… are exceptionally successful at helping learners build accurate intuitive understandings of the concepts and processes embedded in the games due to the situated and enacted nature of good game play.” This idea is also finding its way into more popular news articles like this one: “Want to get your kids into college? Let them play.” In it Christakis and Christakis (2010) argued that in order to succeed academically that the play-based curriculum is the way to go. They noted that playing is even more important that grades, “As admissions officers at selective colleges like to say, an entire freshman class could be filled with students with perfect grades and test scores. But academic achievement in college requires readiness skills that transcend mere book learning. It requires the ability to engage actively with people and ideas.” It is through interactive play that active learners engage with activities where they can acquire literacy practices of collective intelligence, problem-solving, strategic thinking, interpreting contexts, and imaginative play which can be used to meet curricular outcomes (Beach and Doerr-Stevens, 2009).

Renowned industry leader and philanthropist Bill Gates’ foundation set game-based learning as one of its priorities. He spoke a national forum where he shared his vision for schools. He imagined a place where students work in clusters; where one group is playing an educational game or working on a simulator; while another group works with a human teacher getting direct instruction; while another gets a digital lesson delivered from their teacher’s avatar: “Imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught them math concepts while they barely noticed, because it was so enjoyable” (eschool news, 2012). Squire and Durga (2012) called this a “mature theory of game-based learning… [which] will take into account the underlying principles by which they work as learning environments ‘naturalistically,’ or ‘in the wild.’”

Limited Buy-In: Bad Experiences and the Corruption of Young Minds

from Wikicommons

The challenges getting games in the classroom are multi-faceted. The first hurdle is modifying one of our basic values. Our post-industrialized society holds hard work in greater esteem than playing games. Charles Bernstein said, “while the games often mime the purposive behavior of accumulation/acquisition, they are played out in a context that stigmatizes them as wastes of time, purposelessness, idle, even degenerate” (in Colby & Colby, 2008). Colby and Colby (2008) believe that, “the primary reason computer games have not been more fully integrated in the writing classroom are because of traditional conceptions of work and play that highlight differences between classroom space and gamespace as binary opposites.” Before we can start playing to learn we need to accept that not only is fun learning effective, it can be more effective than “hard work.”

from Wikicommons

Getting a buy-in to educational gaming from parents and educators is going to require some convincing (Lim & Nonis, 2009). Mader (2012) highlighted many of the key reasons that educators are skeptical about using video games in the classroom in her mainstream article. She cited examples of teacher whose students are having trouble with knowledge transfer, a lack of evidence on gaming efficacy, the challenge of monitoring students’ use of multiple devices, lack of teacher training, and lack of funding. These are all valid concerns.

Some previous attempts at implementing of gaming have been unsuccessful. Some boring games were used in the American educational climate of being penalized for low test scores. Districts bought what Shreve (2012) calls “expensive drill-and-kill software — the kind that costs a fortune and displays a silly animation of fireworks or cheering crowds for every five correct answers — with only minimal improvements on test scores and scant evidence of long-term progress among students.” This type of ineffective use of gaming has lead to a reluctance to spend more money on yet another piece of software.

If teachers are going to begin to explore how to use games that may be perceived as violent, like World of Warcraft, then they must also defend themselves against public perception of the impact of the video games on corrupting young minds. Sternheimer (2007) collected a body of research that refutes this popular claim which is supported by research from the Entertainment Software Association (2012):

Numerous authorities, including the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Surgeon General, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between violent programming and violent behavior. The truth is there is no scientific research that validates a link between computer and video games and violence, despite lots of overheated rhetoric from the industry’s detractors. Instead, a host of respected researchers has concluded that there is no link between media violence and violent crime.

Nonetheless, this is a well-established fear fuelled by the media. Sternheimer (2007) also did an interesting analysis of the news and found these eye-catching headlines: “Virtual Realities Spur School Massacres” (Denver Post, July 27, 1999), “Days of Doom” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 14, 1999), “Bloodlust Video Games Put Kids in the Crosshairs” (Denver Post, May 30, 1999), and “All Those Who Deny Any Linkage between Violence in Entertainment and Violence in Real Life, Think Again” (New York Times, April 26, 1999). She also quoted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article “Days of Doom: A popular game triggers national debate” that claimed “eighteen people have now died at the hands of avid Doom players.” Collier’s (1999) article claims to be about debate, yet it is replete with one-sided inflamed rhetoric. The statistical reality that Sternheimer (2007) documented was a 77 percent decrease in homicide rates among juveniles in the ten years following Doom’s release. This public fear may not be supported by research, but it is still a barrier to using this software in the classroom.

Proper Implementation: Contextualized by a Teacher-Facilitator

New software implementation is often done quickly and in isolation. A decision is made to purchase software; teachers receive condensed training during PD days or after school; and quickly the software moves into the classroom. The result can be that software is used in an ineffective way, the results are less than impressive, and the software is blamed as the failure.

Implementation of gaming software needs to be part of a holistic change in philosophy and a change in the role of the teacher. A key challenge that remains for educators is how to produce “pedagogical models that leverage the strengths of the medium, yet meet educationally valued goals” (Squire & Durga, 2009). When teaching in a classroom where students are gaming there is obviously a shift from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered structure. The teachers need to become a responsive facilitator. They provide a context, set goals, and pair gaming with other strategies like journaling, and blogging (Delwiche, 2006; Hakan, 2009). In some games the learning task can even be avoided or students can get so involved in exploring the game that they are not doing the prescribed quests (Lim & Nonis, 2006) to which a teacher needs to monitor and respond. Also some games are very difficult to learn the navigation which takes away from learning time. Therefore, games must be well-chosen to maximize time-on-task. Teachers need to be aware and troubleshoot any of those problems (Hakan, 2007, Delwiche, 2006, Halas Moulton, 2012). On top of that, Colby and Colby (2008) offer a further caution for teachers to be careful not to smother the quality of a game by making it seem like too much work: “for games are usually voluntary and if one is forced to play it would cease to be play.”

Quest to Learn: the land of playful learning

A flexible play-orientated school seems like a fantasy, but it is not. There are two charter schools in Chicago and New York that have opened with the name, “Quest to Learn.” These schools’ teaching model comes not from post-industrial Victorian England, but from a teaching model created by game designer Katie Salen and her colleagues at the New York-based Institute for Play. These schools are being run with an expressed philosophy to, “create producers of information and not just consumers” (Mullany, 2011).

In these schools students set their own learning goals and instead of letter grades they are tracked on a four-step scale running from “novice” to “master” of skills. Teaching is built into missions and students must apply knowledge like fractions and rational numbers to save the town – and meet the states’ standards for math competence. Patterned after video games that build skills until gamers can beat a “boss,” at the end of each trimester students have a two weeks “Boss Level Challenge,” in which learning is tested (Q2LChicago, 2012; Mullaney, 2011). The creator, Salen, pointed out that technology is not the “magic bullet…. It’s not the technology. It’s the pedagogy that counts” (in Mullaney, 2011). Even the students’ admission requirements reflect the schools’ philosophy calling on students to be creative; college and career-focused; curious; hands-on-learners; technology, design, art and media enthusiasts; game lovers; great collaborators; and interested in the way things work (Q2L, 2012). Even though most teachers do not work in such an ideal learning environment like the Quest to Learn schools we can still see the possibility and work towards an educational environment that is flexible, playful, and effective.

Several governments are adopting play-based-learning policies for Early Years Education (CCME, 2012; Early Childhood Australia, 2012) following the example of the well respected Scandinavian policy leaders. This successful policy should be extended into higher levels of learning like at the Quest to Learn Schools. Still the gamification of a classroom or school needs to be done carefully. Moreover, since all games are not created equal one needs to choose them judiciously.

Need to access good quality educational games

I recently wrote a meta-analysis of ten scholarly articles about gaming and learning. Even though the studies did not set out to discuss ddearth of quality software most of them addressed that issue in their conclusions (Halas Moulton, 2012). Some educators have resorted to building their own games to meet the needs of their specific classrooms only to find after investing a “excessive” effort that the games to not meet the expectations of students who are used to playing commercial games with multi-million dollar budgets (Hakan, 2007).

There remains a challenge to have games that will be affordable for schools of a quality to hold students’ attention, differentiate for many student needs, and fit neatly into a school period (Millstone, 2012). Effort is successfully being made to link educators and game designers to create some powerful educational games (Centre for Game Science, 2012; Scacchi, 2012).

Scacchi (2012) explained the dichotomy that challenges the growth of this gaming specialty. Young people avoid games with an explicitly educational agenda and educators shy away from media that have elements of peer sociability and entertainment genres embedded in them. A further problem is that software quickly becomes obsolete or certain grant funded research projects that “develop powerful and innovative learning tools, demonstrate significant learning gains, receive enthusiastic response from teachers and students, only to founder unused as funding ends, platforms change, servers are unsupported, and software won’t run on newer machines.” One example of that is the River City Project where Harvard researchers created a virtual environment where students could time travel to a 19th century town to solve historically relevant problems which lost its funding grant after three years in operation despite its success (River City, personal communication, November 26, 2012).

Some really good games and some really good educators

There are some really great educational games available as well as some off-the-shelf games that are being applied to educational purposes. A recent survey done on BrainPOP showed that of the 505 of these linked-in teachers that were surveyed 32% use games 2-4 days per week, 18% use them every day. Teachers reported that for the lower-performing students 70% felt there was an increases motivation and engagement. Further, 62% said it was easier for them to level lessons and differentiate. The emphasis for the majority of this group was on standardized test. One of the most noteworthy findings was that 95% used edugames, while only 18% used off the shelf games (Millstone, 2012).

Instead of using drill-and-kill software we need to be using software that enhances technical literacy and builds 21stcentury skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and technical literacy. These skills need to be, “supported by state-of-the-art social media and virtual worlds technologies, and need to be the focus of more extensive research and development (Scacchi, 2012). Hofstaetter (2011), who is a game designer involved in the development of Ludwig, pointed out that the reason his company has been successful in creating a game that appeals to schools in many different countries is that the learning objective is embedded in the gaming objective. This was the most difficult challenge his designers faced which they achieved by making it impossible to complete the quest without applying what they have learn about energy.

from playludwig.com

Colby and Colby (2012) offered very clear criteria for a good game:

Game designers work to ensure that a game is neither too difficult nor too easy, and well-designed games have a feedback loop that keeps game objectives within this range. Tasks that are too difficult are replaced with ones players can more easily master; tasks that are too easy are replaced with more challenging ones. So, good games keep players within a type of zone of proximal development.

Several educators have chosen World of Warcraft (WoW) as being an effective game to implement in the classroom (Cobly & Colby, 2008; Gillespie & Lawson, 2012). World of Warcraft is the Guinness world record holder for the most popular massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-game (Glenday, 2009). Over 12 million subscribers have played it for a combined 5.93 million years solving the virtual problems of Azeroth. The WoW’s average player logs in for 22 hours a week. What’s more, with 80,000 articles, used by five million people a month, the WoW wiki is world’s second biggest after Wikipedia. Gamers have compiled more information about World of Warcraft on the Internet than any other topic covered on any other wiki in the world (McGonigal, 2010). Clearly, there is something that could appeal to students gamers; furthermore, educators could be motivated the great potential for literacy with the WoW wiki. Students could be involved in designing forums, blogs, websites, and various gamespace guides (Colby and Colby, 2008).

Lucas Gillespie and Craig Lawson are educational leaders who have gained renown for their work in implementing World of Warcraft in the Language Arts curriculum. They provide a free 297 page guide to using WoW. They prefaced their work with this statement:

“We’ve seen some incredible things. We’ve seen students running to class, begging to get started, day after day, week after week. We’ve seen students improve their reading and writing skills. We’ve seen kids develop much needed social skills. But, most importantly, we’ve seen our kids get excited about school and learning. We make no claims about the impact to standardized test scores (though our learners did show growth), and we certainly don’t claim that this project, or any game-based learning, is a magic pill that will meet the outcry for educational reform. What we do claim is that learning can be fun and engaging.”

WoW from Wikipedia

The power of the resource guide is that they are providing is that it is a template for the gamification of a classroom. The games are clearly embedded in a classroom that uses more established strategies like literature circles and peer editing of work which are carefully aligned with curriculum, and rubric assessments. They even include a letter to the parents to help with the “buy-in” factor.. The problems that have been discussed earlier as challenges are met with this project.

The work is presented to students in a playful imaginative way. For example, the same types of journaling and conversations that would be expected in a regular Language Arts classroom are reformulated. Students are seen as heroes, who write in a Hero’s Journal, who participates in Tavern Talks with fellow heroes, who submits work to the Lorekeepers (teachers) in order to collect Experience Points based on the quality of the assignment. Moreover, heroes are expected to be courteous, respectful, prepared, and focused which helps students work towards citizenship outcomes (Gillespie and Lawson, 2012).

The rubric below exemplifies the playful yet clear, and rigorous criteria in evaluation rubrics which are graded according to experience points:

100-199 XP 200-299 XP 300-399 XP 400-500 XP
I wish you were sitting here as I read this. I’m having a hard time understanding what you mean. There’s not much here other than what we discussed in class. If someone asked me, I’d have a hard time telling them what you thought about this topic. If I had your cell phone number, I’d probably give you a call to ask you what you meant about some things. As I read, some things aren’t too clear. I could probably summarize your overall view, though. I’m not having any trouble reading your ideas and thoughts. Everything makes sense. If someone asked me what you said, I could easily give them several examples from your writing. What you’ve written is pretty amazing and you are very reflective here. In fact, I can’t wait to share it with people. Your ideas and thoughts give me something to think about and they make sense. In fact, I think I’ll go read it again.

Another popular commercial game that has been used successfully in the classroom is Civilizations III. Kurt Squire taught a group of students who had already failed the Western Civilizations course once to enjoy heated debates on the impact of germs on national economies through this game (Shreve, 2012). Clearly though, playing the game is not the only activity going on in the classroom. Despite the fact that they are engaged in debate and critical thinking Squire admitted one cannot only use gaming to teach History. Students are not prepared for conventional testing since, “Civilization III teaches the underlying principles behind history, rather than names and dates” (Shreve, 2012). Teacher still need to provide supplementary reading material and other activities for the classroom. As Bill Gates said, “We’re not saying the whole curriculum turns into this big game. We’re saying it’s an adjunct to a serious curriculum” (eschool news, 2012).

Squire and Durga (2009) began their research report with a discussion of the documented failure of History classes to contextualize textbook knowledge given students’ lack of global understanding of historical contexts. They showed that History classes often do not allow students to draw meaningful interpretations of their reading. They argued that historical simulations such as Civilizations III while being an imperfect replica of the real still enabled students to make useful insights into basic relationships.

The power of the Civilization III game is that it requires the use of complex diplomatic, scientific, cultural, or military strategies and though the game, obviously, simplifies reality, “the model does contain 10,000s of variables, and takes months, if not years to master” (Squire and Durga, 2009). Using the CivEdit students can manipulate variables such as technological advancements, and population growth to test theories about building civilizations. They get to play with History and test different possible directions such what could have happened if the First Nations people had held off the Europeans. Researchers described the role of the teacher as a facilitator who should

  • allow for expertise is socially contextualized,
  • encourage collaborative troubleshooting,
  • create a playful lucid,
  • develop multiple trajectories for expertise,
  • and promote historical inquiry in the game play.

Clark et al (2012) pointed out that, “sandbox simulations require more training time for users than targeted simulations and more curricular time for implementation, but allow greater flexibility for conducting open-ended inquiry.”

Here are some other games that educators have tried and recommended (Scacchi, 2012; Beach and Doerr, 2009; Panoutsopoulos & Sampson, 2012; Baston & Feinburg, 2005; Delwiche, 2006):

Writing: Mad City Mystery, Persuasive Games, Our Courts project, Debatepedia, Debategraph, Opposing Views, Grammar Ninja (mini-game), Word Frog (mini-game)
Math: Sims – Open for Business, Credit Safe
Science: Little Big Planet , Fallout 3, Global Warming Interactive, Interactive Physics, Geode Initiative
Problem Solving: World of Warcraft, Everquest, Second Life, Whyville, SimEarth, SimCity, SimAnt, SimFarm, Second Life
Game design: Kodu, Alice, Little Big Planet, Minecraft, Jumala, Roblox
Social Studies: Democracy, A Force More Powerful, Peacemaker, Making History, Civilisations III-V

Heick (2012) suggests these games in more detail as ones that could be easily implemented “tomorrow”:

Heavy Rain – Appropriate Grade Levels: 10-12+ (some mature content/themes) – Universal: Various Thinking Strategies – ELA: Narrative Style, Tone, Mood, Characterization, Point of View, Setting, Perspective, Style
Armadillo Run – Appropriate Grade Level: 4-12+ – Universal: Problem-solving, Project Management, Collaboration – Science: Physics
Civilization V – Appropriate Grade Level: 6-12+ (complexity) – Universal: Problem-solving, Resource Management, Collaboration, Various Thinking Strategies – Social Studies: Diplomacy, Impact of Geography on Policy, Hoarding and Trade, Political Tactics, Communication
Skyrim – Appropriate Grade Level: 8-12+ (some mature content/themes) – Universal: Problem-solving, Resource Management, Various Thinking Strategies – ELA: Inferencing, Audience, Characterization, Purpose, Media Form, Tone, Mood, Theme, Perspective, Point of View, Style, Metaphor, Symbolism, Propaganda, Rhetoric
Fallout 3 – Appropriate Grade Level:8-12+ (some mature content/themes) – Universal: Problem-solving, Resource Management ELA: Inferencing, Characterization, Audience, Purpose, Media Form, Tone, Mood, Theme, Perspective, Point of View, Style, Metaphor, Symbolism, Propaganda, Rhetoric, Various Thinking Strategies –Social Studies: Cold War, Scare Tactics, Propaganda
Portal 2 – Appropriate Grade Level: 4-12+ – Universal: Problem-solving, Collaboration, Visualization, Various Thinking Strategies – ELA: Irony, Tone – Science: Physics

*Note: ELA refers to English Language Arts

Students Can Create their Own Games

Another way to reinforce both educational and technical skills in the classroom is to have students create their own games. Some students may have experimented with creating their own worlds in such games as Little Big Planet which allow players to collect objects to use in creating their own worlds which can then be uploaded and shared. There also exists freeware like Microsoft’s Kodu where tutorials can walk you through the creation of your own games. My students created a wide variety of games in Kodu from mazes, to short quests. One innovative professor got a grant from Nintendo to have grade fours create a fractions game for grade three students. While the games were not, “visually outstanding, the kids who created them learned fractions and computer skills simultaneously, and they had fun creating flourishes like elaborate punishments and rewards for answers” (Shreve, 2012). Other educators have implemented competitions and assignments building games. The goals is, “not to encourage students or teachers to produce commercially viable games, but instead to encourage the learning and practice of computational skills and reasoning abilities” (Scacchi, 2012).


The gamification of our classrooms is a powerful realization of 21st century tools. Brilliant game designers, researchers, students, and educators have already laid a trail that can be followed to successfully evolve our teaching to motivate learners and increase achievement. As long as learning is contextualized, scaffolded, and assessed, and fun games have embedded learning goals, then we can successfully compliment other classroom strategies with games.

“Make no mistake about it: We are staring right into the face of a cultural revolution. [Educators] are in a remarkable position to engage with this new generation of gamers. Otherwise, we risk living in a state of continued perceived obsolescence” (Doshi, 2006).



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