How to Implement Learning Games in the Classroom Successfully

Bringing change to education is a mighty challenge. No matter how effective an educational strategy proves to be, there are numerous obstacles that stand in the way of its widespread adoption in classrooms. In addition to convincing policymakers and educational leaders that video games can serve as powerful educational tools, many educators are unsure of how to integrate games into their curriculum, whether they’re teaching in primary schools, secondary schools or universities.  

While game-based learning invariably yields educational benefits, some strategies are better than others. Here are two effective approaches to game-based learning that we strongly recommend.

Assign the game as homework, then discuss in class

Assigning the games as homework is a great option for a number of reasons. First, many educators don’t have the equipment available on-site for the students to play the game in class. Second, it allows students to play at their own pace, taking as much time as they need to complete the game.

While students who play the game on their own undoubtedly learn in the process, they often complete the game with questions about how their success relates to the content they are learning in class. In a math-based game, for instance, there is often a disconnect between the visual aspect of equations that the student has mastered through the game and the abstract equations they are solving on paper in the classroom.

The disconnect is why an in-class discussion after students have mastered the game is so important. We’ve found that when teachers engage students in a discussion about how different parts of the game relate to what they’re learning from their textbooks or class lectures, students achieve major breakthroughs in their understanding of the subject and become much more enthusiastic about pursuing it further.

Put students in pairs

Getting students to work in pairs or in very small groups can prove to be a particularly powerful approach to game-based learning that yields educational benefits beyond learning the subject matter at hand.

Not only do the students collectively learn as they progress through the game, but they begin teaching each other the content and in many cases debating or negotiating with each other about the content and strategy.  It opens up a natural dialogue that is distinct from traditional group learning settings.

Peer-to-peer learning allows students to build off one another’s strengths. In many cases, one student will have great familiarity with the content while another will be more comfortable navigating the gameplay. By collaborating, each will gain a better sense of an angle of the game that they might not have picked up on their own.

The power of peer-to-peer learning wanes, however, if the group grows too large. With groups of more than two or three students, the conversation quickly becomes crowded and disorganized. In response, what usually happens is one or two dominant students will take over the process and others will end up playing a passive role, thereby impacting their learning.

5 Things the Oregon Trail Can Teach Current Video Game Developers

The idea that video games can serve an educational purpose is hardly new. In fact, some of the industry pioneers were driven to develop games because of the potential they saw in them for classroom instruction.

Take one of the oldest and most successful video games of all time: The Oregon Trail. Its story begins in 1971 with Don Rawitsch, an education student at Carleton College in Minnesota. Hoping to come up with a game that could help teach students about the westward movement of U.S. settlers in the mid-19th century, Rawitsch teamed up with several fellow student teachers to create a game in which players take on the role of an Oregon-bound pioneer in the 1840’s, making critical life-or-death decisions about where to hunt for food, whether to cross the Rocky Mountains in the middle of winter and what to do about the passenger who has fallen sick with dysentery.

Three years later, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a nonprofit focused on expanding the use of computers in education, agreed to produce the game for distribution in public schools across the state. Before long, The Oregon Trail was being used in classrooms across the country, serving the joint purpose of teaching history and computing skills.

More than four decades later, The Oregon Trail has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide and remains a treasured resource for educators and gamers alike. Here are five things The Oregon Trail can teach game-based learning developers even today:

A good game endures

A game that stimulates players intellectually never gets old. Unlike games that are devised purely for entertainment, educational games are not as vulnerable to technological changes that promise something “bigger and better.” While Pong and Asteroids have become distant memories in the world of gaming, The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? remain popular.

Keep it simple

Decades after its development, The Oregon Trail remains a relatively simple game. While the graphics have improved, the game’s objective has stayed the same: To get across the country without dying. The gameplay itself is also relatively straightforward. For instance, unlike many contemporary games, it does not demand lightning-fast reaction speed with a remote control or keyboard. Nor do players have to learn a complex set of rules. Instead, their attention remains focused on the central challenge: Making decisions that will keep the characters alive.

Clearly-defined learning outcomes

Educators who are strapped for time and resources need to know exactly what a game will teach a student. The Oregon Trail has a very clear educational objective: It teaches students about a pivotal era in American history. Other games may deliver intellectual or educational benefits, but if it’s not clear what they can deliver within the context of a school curriculum, teachers will be hesitant to take a chance on them.

It doesn’t demand prior knowledge

Your strength in a quiz game, such as Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit, is based on how much knowledge you’ve acquired about a subject (or multiple subjects) before playing. Those who happen to know a lot about Goethe or the Spanish Armada have a big advantage over those who have never heard of either. In contrast, The Oregon Trail does not demand or even favor prior knowledge about the subject matter, making it universally accessible and enjoyable. In fact, the goal of the game is to learn and gain subject mastery as you play, so having familiarity about the topic is not a requirement.

It isn’t abstract

To many students, history courses seem utterly detached from their day-to-day lives. What they learn in lecture-based courses is a series of dates and events that they find hard to relate to. More often than not, they learn everything from a book, perhaps accompanied by a few drawings, or they take notes from a presentation.

The Oregon Trail, on the other hand, puts students in the shoes of a person experiencing all of those situations. They’ve probably never experienced a smallpox outbreak or had to hunt for their own food. In essence, the game takes a slice of American history and brings it to life. In the process of playing the game, the student not only acquires knowledge about events that took place, just as they would from a textbook or lecture, but they gain an appreciation for what those events meant for the people who lived them.

Ways that Game-Based Learning Differs from Gamification

Gamification and game-based learning are both important educational concepts that can help students be better learners. At first glance, the two terms appear to be synonyms. It’s about making education engaging, right? Like a game?  

In fact, game-based learning and gamification are two very different things. While the use of one does not necessarily exclude the other, it’s important to recognize what makes game-based learning a particularly powerful teaching tool.

What’s the reward?

Gamification aims to incentivize an activity that a person might otherwise choose not to do. That might be a gold star for first graders who completes their homework or frequent flier miles for business travelers who stick with the same airline for work trips. In both cases, the gamification is not necessarily changing the way the person approaches the situation. It simply makes them more likely to do the work or take part in the activity.

In game-based learning, there is not necessarily any system of rewards or points. Instead, the reward comes from what you learn by playing the game. The games offer an alternative, effective way to learn.  

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

What is the value of a gold star to first graders? Perhaps if the students get a certain number of gold stars, they will receive a prize. And if business travelers accrue a certain number of frequent flier miles, they can earn a free flight. Both of these rewards deliver short-term, extrinsic value to participants.

What you achieve from a game is an understanding of a subject matter that you previously lacked. What you acquire from the process is not an abstract achievement badge, but rather the intrinsic value of your new knowledge.

Does it change the nature of learning?

While offering rewards for completed work may push somebody to do better, gamification does not change the nature of the work the student is doing. Game-based learning offers a completely different learning experience by stimulating critical thinking skills.

Can you win?

Gamification does not necessarily have an end state. You can always earn more frequent flier miles or gold stars. You may never win or lose. In Game-Based Learning, however, there is always an objective that you strive to accomplish with specific Student Learning Objectives or SLOs. You either figure out the math problem or you don’t and you have to try again.  

Who can play?

A process that is gamified may be restricted to certain participants and apply different rules to others. You have to buy an airline ticket to get frequent flier miles. In contrast, games are accessible to all. Anybody can develop a game and anybody can play it.