Teachers embrace video games as learning tools

Some educators believe that video games help engage students and make learning fun

Parents who think that their kids’ classroom time represents a break from playing video games may have to think again.

Increasingly, teachers looking to engage their students are turning to video games as a way of teaching core subjects and real-world skills in a format kids can relate to.

The term “Gamification of Education” has become a bit of a buzzword, but that doesn’t make the phenomenon any less real, according to Renee Jackson, a member of Concordia’s game studies lab TAG (Technoculture, Arts and Games).

“Kids are growing up playing video games; it’s part of their literacy. It’s how they understand the world,” says Jackson, a PhD candidate in education. “If kids are so engaged in these games, we as teachers need to ask ourselves what we can learn from them in terms of teaching.”

Early educational “games” designed for classrooms were usually straightforward tutorials on math, typing, or vocabulary. Unfortunately, Jackson says, they didn’t tend to be particularly fun. She’s more interested in exploring the educational potential of the games children play on their own. These games might teach important skills, such as collaboration, problem solving, and the ability to sort information.

An empire-building strategy game such as Civilization III, for example, allows players to re-enact history from different perspectives, and has the potential to show students how history can be altered as well as get them interested in maps, Jackson says.

Beaconsfield High School history and geography teacher Louise Adam is a believer in the potential of games to enhance school curriculum. She hosts a weekly lunch hour workshop where she invites her Grade 7 students to bring their laptops and play Minecraft, a 3D game where players can build cities from the ground up.

She regularly has up to 20 students join her for the optional sessions, during which students work together to build replicas of the early civilizations they study in textbooks.

“Instead of just getting lectured about what’s in a city-state, they can create one,” Adam said. Although Minecraft doesn’t replace traditional teaching, she does believe it enhances the curriculum, adds a visual layer, and – most importantly – gets her students excited about learning history.

“You should see the boys’ eyes light up when I mention Minecraft,” she says.

Brent Callahan, another Beaconsfield teacher, uses gaming to turn kids into programmers.

His game-design focused computer classes teach Grade 9 to 11 students software and programming skills that he believes will translate directly into job skills later in life.

He got the idea years ago from watching kids at a game-design workshop run by McGill’s Explorations summer camp.

“I saw right away how engaged the kids were, and the way they divided up the work according to their strengths,” he said.  Some did programming, the ones strong in art did the visuals, and others worked on the storyline.

“They were learning leadership, collaboration, software skills, problem solving, organizing – all skills that are useful to every job,” he added.

Callahan says he is impressed by his students’ abilities. They constantly push the boundaries to learn new skills and to develop new and better games. “They really want to see the final product, and that’s motivating to them,” he says.

Although the experience of both teachers has been overwhelmingly positive, Jackson says that the use of video games in the classroom is still in its infancy.

There is still limited evidence of how games impact test scores, and there are difficulties getting the technology into the classroom.

Nevertheless, the educators believe that anything that gets kids this engaged in learning is worth exploring.

“I don’t think we need games to get at something other approaches can’t,” Jackson said.  “But what’s important is being more creative with teaching. Games can remind us of something we may have forgotten: that learning should be fun.”