How and Why Do Games Help Kids Learn?

Learn how games can engage kids and reshape traditional lessons.

September 24, 2013
Kathleen Costanza
Common Sense Education Blogger

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Technology Integration

In 2009, Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play, gave a talk at TEDxLeadershipPittsburgh about Quest to Learn, a New York City school she helped start. At the time, it had been in session for only nine weeks.

“The big idea with this school is we began to say, ‘What would happen if we could design a school that, as a system, was designed around the intrinsic qualities of games and play?’” Salen said. “This doesn’t mean video games fill the classrooms, although there are certainly instances of that. But instead, it’s an approach to learning that draws on all the qualities of how we know games really support learning.”

Five years later, Quest to Learn has expanded into Chicago and has become an international leader for teaching with games. Its growth mirrors the spread of game-based learning (GBL) into classrooms around the country. As one of the most covered developments in education right now, there’s endless discussion surrounding both games’ potential and their pitfalls.

GBL’s momentum stems from games’ proven ability to engage kids as well as their potential to reshape traditional lessons into collaborative, challenging experiences. A recent SRI review of 77 gaming studies found that games can enhance cognitive competencies. Experts have found a variety of reasons for the benefits. For one thing, 97 percent of kids play games outside of school. Connecting what kids love to do outside of school with what they do in the classroom is by itself an exciting, novel activity for them.

SimCityEDU is an example of a digital game retrofitted for learning. Created by GlassLab, the game challenges players to build a city, from infrastructure to public works projects, all based on STEAM principals and aligned with the Common Core.

“The big pain point we’ve heard from teachers is that they cannot entertain their kids to the level that they are being entertained outside of the classroom,” Jessica Lindl, general manager of GlassLab, told Mind/Shift. “They want to be able to create meaningful learning experiences and they just can’t compete with the digital tools their kids are accessing all the time.”

Another digital game, DragonBox, teaches algebra at record speeds (the Washington State Algebra Challenge found the average was about 42 minutes). DragonBox allows kids to “level up,” increasing the level of difficulty at an individualized pace -- a key aspect of games that keep kids interested for long periods of time.

“DragonBox does 50 percent of the job. We need to teach the rest,” DragonBox creator Jean-Baptiste Huynh told Forbes writer and GBL expert Jordan Shapiro. “DragonBox is about the mechanics of algebra processes and abstraction. It is 100 percent algebra math skills. But it doesn’t replace teachers. It requires help to transfer the knowledge to pencil and paper.”

SimCityEDU and DragonBox might speak to the potential of learning with digital games, but the games-based learning movement is more than the games played on devices. Rather, the best educational games, no matter what medium, pull from what makes any game worth playing -- a dynamic challenge rich in complex problem solving.

Last summer, the University Chicago partnered with Chicago’s Summer of Learning to build an episodic, alternate reality game called “The Source.” Teens experienced the narrative game in small teams throughout the summer, solving puzzles that incorporated public health, sustainability, cyber-bulling, and STEAM. On one day, teams collaborated to stop a simulated STI breakout in a city.

Exploratory games like “The Source,” or “Trojan horses,” as gaming expert Constance Steinkuehler has called them, are more difficult to create and manage than premade, digital games. But games that engross kids in imaginative quests are replicating what the best teachers already aim to do -- spur critical thinking and creative problem solving.

“There is a unique and, for many, surprising alignment between the core elements that make video games so deeply engaging and the best practices that many of the most effective teachers are employing in the classroom,” writes Alan Gershenfeld, founder of games-based learning company E-Line Media.

Open-ended, exploratory games that are geared toward the process of learning -- rather than the content or end result, can be a bit of a game to create in themselves. But when teachers keep GBL in their pockets as another tool for deeper learning, everybody wins.