The Games (and Education) of the Future

I was nine years old when I stopped enjoying school, and my father, an educator himself, was surprised.

“What changed?” He asked me. I considered the question as seriously as a nine year old can, and told him.

“Last year, in second grade,” I explained, “we did fun things, like write poems for Halloween. This year, our Halloween homework is to memorize these spelling words. It’s boring! Why don’t they ask us to do something fun with the spelling words, like write a poem using them?”

For years, my dad used that story as a quick explanation of how games can be educational without being complicated. And yet still, twenty years later, education across the United States is suffering and students are “bored” in most classes. Read more ›

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The Unintended Education: An Educational Retrospective of Scorched Earth

In this ongoing column, I’ll take a look back at a past game that may not have been specifically intended to serve an educational purpose, but still managed to teach us lessons in its own way.

Today:  Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth, 1991 DOS/PC

Scorched Earth was a 1991 DOS-era shareware game that featured two or more opposing tanks that traded rounds of fire in an attempt to destroy the other first. The game featured extremely rudimentary graphics, a wide variety of weapons, utilities and gameplay options, and was one of the first examples of deformable terrain seen in a video game.  This game’s lessons stemmed from the wide number of variables that could change before or during combat, and the trial and error experimental nature of each players turn. Read more ›

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Which came first: the Curriculum or the Egg?

Chicken and the eggDeidre Witan and I have recently been part of some interesting chicken-or-the-egg discussions. They typically go in this cycle:

“If more games were used in classrooms, students would be more engaged and would learn more.”
“But students will never learn until the curriculum changes to better reflect what they need to know.”
“But the curriculum will never shift until we have new models for teaching.”
“But we won’t have new models unless we embrace technology and make use of it to create games, so students can be more engaged.”

…and so on. In brief, here are the two sides to the argument. You can decide which came first. Read more ›

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How to Teach Guitar

This past week I finally had some free time, so I decided to pull out my guitar and play a few songs. My girlfriend, who also plays, asked if she could join in. Naturally I agreed, but we hit the problem that she didn’t know the song I was playing. I started explaining the chords we would be using and started talking her through the progression and rhythms, but it wasn’t long before we both got frustrated.

Learning to play a song and teaching a song are very different things and I have much more experience with the former. Attempting to teach a song I realized there were several fundamental problems: It was hard to determine what parts of the song would challenge her the most, it was difficult to explain things without resorting to jargon, and it was not always apparent when she wanted to keep practicing something and when she wanted to move onto something new. This experience got me thinking about how some games are very effective at reducing the impact of these kind of challenges, while others fall short. Read more ›

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We don’t need no Stinkin’ Badges

Or, Why I’m Unenthusiastic about the Badging Fad

Badges are gaining considerable traction in the field of educational technology, and are a cornerstone of the “gamification” movement. However, I’m unenthusiastic about their potential to increase student engagement or motivation, because no matter how they are used, they serve as a proxy for real, meaningful accomplishments. I’ll discuss the three main purposes of badges, and their limitations, here: Read more ›

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This is your Brain on Video Games



There have been plenty of studies on the benefits of crossword puzzles and other brain teasers in the elderly – playing “games” boosts their memory, and strengthen their cognitive skills. Now, new studies are showing that video games can also improve memory.

My favorite quote from the article:

“‘While previous studies have shown differences in brain structure of video gamers, the present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games,’ says study leader Simone Kühn, senior scientist at the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.”

But please, don’t take my word for it: read it for yourself!

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Teach Through Play: Minecraft

I intend to use the Teach Through Play series to provide ideas on how teachers can educate through games. In this blog post I want to talk about teaching history through Minecraft.

Minecraft is an interesting game. Most popular games rely on action. Minecraft relies on a creative mind. The creative minds who play Minecraft have come up with many things. From simple block houses…


to historical monuments… Read more ›

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Creating the Art of Jade

The art and progress for completing our teams first post-Zeebi project has been coming along, and today I’m going to post a very brief rundown of the artistic process for creating the character.  One of the primary goals for my work was to feature high-quality art for our games, at least more than what is usually seen in the average educational title.  Early on I created some illustrations for the characters, just trying to work out the flow and style for everyone.  Going from some rough sketches to something more illustrative.

jade_mk1 Read more ›

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The Theory of Prior Knowledge

“Read the following paragraph once through, and then read the questions at the bottom before re-reading the paragraph. Then fill in the answers.”

Most of us are familiar with these instructions. We saw them on the SATs, on reading comprehension quizes, and sometimes even heard them repeated by teachers. But why is re-reading considered so valuable? What are students expected to get out of the paragraph that we couldn’t see the first time? Read more ›

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Can Video Games teach Social Development?

On Friday, Benjamin Herold of Education Week hosted a webinar on “Using Video Games to Assess Students’ Noncognitive Skills.” His premise was that video games can positively impact students’ social development.

Introduction: How are Students Successful?

Angela Duckworth, Associate Professor of Psychology and James Gee, Presidential Chair and Professor of Literacy Studies joined him. Professor Gee began by reviewing the concept that school is about helping students to create identities. He said the ideal is to, below any other identity, create in each student “the identity of being a proactive, hopeful, resilient learner.” Professor Gee acknolwedged the difficulties with this – many students will struggle to have hope when their lives may seem hopeless, and may struggle to be proactive when they feel they have no choices. He also reviewed the “Matthew affect,” well known in reading and math, where early successes give rise to more successes, and early failures give rise to more failures.

To Professor Gee, there are a series of steps that will bring learners to being proactive, hopeful, resilient learners, and thereby successful students, including:

  • Nurturing parenting (mentoring)
  • Interactive Reciprocal Talk
  • Pretend Play
  • Lots of Experiences in the world
  • Passion
  • Integration into identity
  • Persistence past failure
  • Efficient strategic goal-directed problem-solving with flexibility and creativity

In short: the amount of language a child hears at a young age is directly correlated to their success in school. But success in school requires students to be able to correlate language to experience. In other words, students need to be able to understand the meaning behind the language – run, for example means a feeling in the body of the legs moving, and not just a word defined as “faster than walk.”

Video Games Provide Perspective

One of the key ways students pick up noncognitive skills is by taking the perspective of other people. This can happen through pretend games (pretending to be someone else) or through video games, such as the Sims, which is meant for entertainment but provides students with other characters with specific experiences and reactions and emotions. In order to teach students about specific perspectives, you could provide them with specific challenges (such as being a single parent, or homeless, or in a certain job) to simulate perspectives in the Sims game.

Portal has a similar situation, where students take on the perspective of a Physicist, and since the game is collaborative, students can share what they learn. In this game, students explore similarly to how they might by reading a novel, but they are challenged to express their perspective because they must find solutions that can only be discovered by acting from the physicist’s perspective.

Assessing Noncognitive Skills

Angela Ducksworth began her portion of the presentation by defending noncognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills, she pointed out, are “just as strong a predictor, if not a stronger predictor of academic outcomes than IQ and other traditional measures of academic achievement.” For example, a student with good self control and perseverence may do better in school (and post-school) than a student who is naturally a quick reader or good at arithmatic.

“Playing is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” she quoted Sean Slade, but in the attempt to teach noncognitive skills, the obstacles become very necessary. Professor Ducksworth reviewed some of the ways that researchers find how students are learning these skills. A quick overview: it takes a lot of work. The research shows that, in order to find precise assessment of what students are doing, these games need to be clearly measured and the students need to get consistent feedback as well as opportunities to provide feedback and reflection on how they think they’re doing.

Can Video Games be a Powerful Tool?

If it was just up to the games, then yes. Sadly, since the technology is moving so much faster than our brains, it’s very difficult for the current teaching generation to embrace the abilities of the games. It’s hard to slow down our teaching styles – surveys and multiple choice tests are certainly “quick” ways to determine students skillsets.

I hear this as a call to game designers and developers. We need to work extra hard to provide teachers with “easy” ways to evaluate students’ progress. Let’s get on it.

Posted in Education