By Jenny Windom, Rubicon International

Many students of the 90s have fond memories of playing games like Oregon Trail and Math Blasters in class. Now that the generation that’s grown up with video games has moved on to teaching in their own classrooms, technology is becoming a more common part of the classroom experience.  But is there a way we can use video games to teach students more effectively, rather than simply as time fillers or rewards?  Can we engage students in deeper dialogue regarding emotions and social interactions without the “cheese factor”?  Can we provide alternative methods for students to gain a more nuanced understanding of the world around them?  Video games are no longer just ways to kill time and procrastinate.  Teachers are already beginning to use games—and gamification—in the classroom to increase student engagement, and you can, too!

Historically, games have provided a visually interesting way to drill factual information or practice more technical skills: Mavis Beacon, anyone?  We need to remember that games can also provide a safe way to experience and explore complex topics without students having to necessarily put themselves on the spot.  While teachers must be intentional with the use of screen time, if an educator has done the legwork to create a structure and context for students to play video games, they can provide powerful experiences that foster empathy and socio-emotional development while helping students grapple with complex academic concepts. 

Character Development, Self-Awareness, and Self-Management

It’s critical to honestly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your character in order to effectively progress in games. It’s also important to modify gameplay to best take advantage of those strengths and weaknesses.  Students who are able to take that character reflection and apply it to themselves are able to better evaluate where they are and how they’re doing, both in games and in life.  Teachers can also take the act of character development that students experience in-game, and compare and contrast that to the development of characters in other mediums, such as books and film.  

Games are challenging and players often get stuck or have to try certain levels or areas multiple times before progressing.  This perseverance and willingness to fail in the face of challenges pushes students to manage their stress and frustration, channeling those feelings towards a positive goal rather than using that energy negatively. In addition to handling stress, games can have complex stories and plotlines that can provide a wide variety of emotions experienced by the players.  Games provide a lot of positive emotions: feelings of perseverance, luck, victory, teamwork, collaboration, and more.  Students can learn to channel these positive emotions in times of frustration, especially if teachers help bridge that connection for students.

Social Awareness and Relationship Skills

While games can provide lots of fodder for personal development, another strength of video games is the practice with building community, developing teams, and general collaboration.  Shared experiences build community.  In games that require teamwork, students learn to communicate with their classmates, encourage “n00bs”, and forgive their teammates’ failures in order to progress to the next stage.  Cooperative multiplayer games also teach students how standard rules of conduct can translate into real life behaviors.  If students learn to help one another by sharing tips and resources while in-game, those behaviors can translate to real life.Even without the ability of online cooperative play, there are games that address collaboration and acceptance of individual strengths and weaknesses.  Thomas was Alone is a prime example of a game that teaches cooperation, but is a single player game.  Don’t let the simple shape art deceive you: this puzzle platformer follows the journey of Thomas (a square) and the friends he meets along the way.  Each of his friends–various types of rectangles–has a different ability that makes them unique, but also insecurities that provide some of the conflict for the game.  Ultimately, their cooperation solves a larger problem at-hand in their world.  Topics of discussion include empathy, relationships, community, hope, diversity of personalities and different abilities.  

Games may seem isolationist and prohibitive to relationship-building, but it all depends on the type of game and how the act of playing that game is fostered.

Responsible Decision-Making and Critical Thinking

Problem-solving is central to all video games.  We typically see educational games teach decision-making explicitly, but playing almost any game requires students to engage their critical thinking skills.  When playing games, students must learn to carefully navigate new environments, thinking through all possible options and outcomes.  In many games, choice plays a role in how different situations in the game play out.  For example, in the Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” (which is based on a graphic novel about surviving during the zombie apocalypse), there are scenes where a group turns to your character for pivotal decisions: should rations be split up equally between members of a group, or should more be given to the children?  Should more be given to the ones defending the group and using more energy?  Those kinds of questions, when answered and then discussed as a class, can lead to a practice in sympathy, empathy, and philosophy.   

Games are unique because they are experienced and guided by the player; games can address both a student’s’ socio-emotional development as well as help deepen their content knowledge.   Of course, this means teachers must also put in the time to play these games prior to providing them to students, and develop some tech-savvy.  Off-the-shelf games, when not vetted by an adult, can contain material not appropriate for students or school settings.  Remember: we wouldn’t give a student a book to read and not support them in learning how to engage with it.  The same goes for digital media like video games.  We take it for granted that we should teach students how to analyze a text or a movie: why not do the same with games?  Foster discussions.  Ask students to reflect on how these games make them feel.  Push students to question why games are made the way they are.  

Video Games for the Classroom: Our Suggestions

Consider suggesting the games below to your students to increase your “cool” factor as well as provide fodder for some great discussion and experiences!  All of these games are available through PC/MAC, and some are even available for students to play on consoles at home.  As always, be sure to play these games and experience them yourself before providing them to your students.

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