Games for Learning

Twelve a Dozen Screenshot via Game Revolution

This is what I’ve found this year: It is easy to add games to my classroom. It’s not, however, easy to use games for learning, either to support student learning as an intervention or to extend student learning. More importantly, it’s not easy to teach students to learn from games. Or at least the students I am teaching this year.

What I’m noticing is that many of my students are used to being passive consumers of game entertainment. They are mostly casual gamers, but some of them use systems like the X-Box to play FIFA Soccer. Otherwise they play games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of these games. They’re fun, and can involve strategy. I even know someone who does a physics project that’s entirely centered on Angry Birds. But, the tack my students have taken on these games is, as they call it, “spray and pray”. They seem to lack the patience and problem solving skills that many of my friends who play RPGs or puzzle games seem to have cultivated, and that I even noticed in my youngest sister when she started gaming in middle school (I was in grad school at this point). When playing games like Dragon Box 12+ or Twelve a Dozen, my students quickly give up and try to sneak over to play 2048 or decide to take some selfies. However, I have another group of students who become totally immersed in these games. They stop by at lunch and ask if they can borrow my iPad to play Twelve again. They discuss strategy. They’re enthralled by Dragon Box and have even started making connections between the game and algebra tasks. What’s the difference between these two groups?

I know my approach hasn’t been different with them. I introduced the games in the same way, gave the same preview, and provided similar supports when they asked questions. Perhaps it is that one group is 7th graders and one is 6th graders, but I have a second 7th grade group where a majority of the students are more like the 6th grader group–engaged and interested in solving problems. It could have something to do with learned helplessness. It could also have something to do with the students’ respective understandings of what games are, and how their particular learning styles interact with the characteristics of my chosen games, and how my students’ experiences with school frame their educational gaming experiences.

According to Jane McGonigal in her book Reality is Broken, games are defined by four characteristics: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation (p 26). Each of these characteristics impacts a person’s engagement with a game–whether it’s  a board game, a puzzle, an iPad app, or a complex MMORPG.

A Goal

McGonigal defines a goal in a game as the specific outcome a player wants to achieve. This goal, she says, is what gives the player a sense of purpose. In Twelve the goal to get the main character, 12, home after an explosion in the city of Dozonopolis that destroyed the super-computer. In Dragon Box it’s to help the dragon hatch–it will only come out of the box to eat when it is alone on one side of the screen. But the idea of a goal becomes more complex when we’re talking about using games for learning. For example, I have a goal for my students beyond the explicit goal of the game. I want them to sharpen skills and begin to develop answers to our essential questions: How do patterns in the world help us to make meaning and become better learners?, How can I use known information to figure out new information?, and What strategies can I use to work through a problem when I’m stuck? I chose these games specifically because, in addition to having an engaging explicit goal, the implied goals of the games (the learning goals) matched up with my goals for my students. But are the explicitly stated goals of the game enough to give my students a sense of purpose? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But if they don’t understand the implicit goals, will they be actively engaged with the game enough to achieve the implicit goals? This is where I’m getting stuck.


I really like McGonigal’s definition of game rules: They place limitations on how one can achieve the goal of the game, forcing gamers to think creatively and apply problem solving skills. This is another point where my students start to get stuck. I posted a while ago about how being comfortable with being uncomfortable, confused, or not knowing was an important skill for students to learn. In both of these games, the rules and obstacles reveal themselves slowly and new rules are added as the games progress. For students who aren’t comfortable with working their way through confusion, these games can be very frustrating. I don’t want to choose different game though. I chose these two specifically because I wanted my students to work on answering essential questions that lead them toward being comfortable with working their way through confusion to be problem solvers. Not having the skills or understanding of problem solving techniques to work their way through this, however, is making it difficult. This is another spot where using games for learning gets tricky.

We often think of games and gamification as a way to pull in reluctant or struggling learners, but as games become more than just a fun way to practice math drills (who around my age that’s reading this didn’t relish the opportunity to play Math Blaster?) or spelling words, some of these students end up at a disadvantage again. And it’s not because they can’t do what’s being asked. Many of these students are proficient problem solvers in other areas: video games, skateboarding, soccer, building go-karts, designing art projects, planning events. It’s possibly because they aren’t comfortable with the possibility of failure and trying again in school. Even if the gaming environment is supposed to be a safe one for making mistakes and for trying and retrying, as McGonigal asserts, the other difficulties many of these students have encountered in school is making these games for learning something that doesn’t connect them to the problem solving that they’re used to, but brings them back to school where they may have learned that not getting it the first time is failure.

The question now becomes: How do I pull these kids in? How do I scaffold this before and during game play so that they can use the games to help build their capacity for problem solving and their tolerance for working through the unknown? Perhaps I should be modeling game play more and talking through how I work my way through obstacles. Maybe we just need more time with non-digital games (which I use a great deal as well and have actually experienced similar challenges with), so I can do more of that modeling. I can also do more to model how in-game supports can help me work through problems and figure out how to work within the rules of the game. For example, Dozen has a hint button, and Duolingo (a gamified language learning app) will translate words for you as you’re going through practice mode if you tap them. I, wrongly, assume that as frequent game players my students understand these types of supports or know to look for them, but that’s not necessarily the case. I think we also need more conversations about growth mindset and about positive self-talk in order to improve their self-regulation skills.

A Feedback System

Feedback systems tell us how close we’re getting to the goal. It can be something as simple as a progress bar or points, to more complex forms of feedback like text or voice feedback. Feedback keeps us engaged in games because it tells us how we’re doing and lets us know if we’re breaking the rules. One thing I have noticed is that the students who are less engaged in the games haven’t necessarily picked up on the feedback that’s being provided. In some cases, it seems like there’s a genuine mismatch between the student’s learning style and the type of feedback they’re receiving. But in others, it seems like I need to do a better job of teaching them how to use the feedback that’s being provided.

I have one student who struggled with Twelve a Dozen. This game has a narrator that gives feedback on your performance, ranging from informing you of new rules or obstacles to overcome to telling the player that it’s time to rewind and try again. The narration is also captioned. The narrator serves several purposes: reconnecting the player to the goal during a long term game, explaining rules, and giving feedback. Since it serves so many functions, it is important to listen to, even if it is a little annoying (think of the Paperclip from older versions of Word, crossed with a fussy British nanny, with a dash of dorky mathematician humor). This child turned off the sound (because he found the narrator annoying and thought it was unnecessary) and didn’t read the captioned version, so he had no idea that he was getting feedback on the way he was trying to solve the problem (“Maybe we should rewind and try something different”). There are also more subtle forms of feedback that my students miss that involve changes in color on the screen or a simple “Yuck” from the dragon in Dragon Box. Players have to be closely attending to a game and be an active participant in the game in order to realize why the dragon is saying “yuck” instead of “yum” and adjust their game-play appropriately.

I’m not sure if the difficulties my students are having using feedback for determine what they’ve learned and what they need to do next is something that they’ll learn through experience, or something I’ll have to teach them. Either way, it seems that in order to learn from gaming, they need to be able to read and take in feedback from the games.

Voluntary Participation

This final characteristic of games is, I think, one of the most important when we want to use games for learning. Being a voluntary participant in a game, according to McGonigal, means that you buy into all of the above and are agreeing to the goal and the rules. And as I said above, my goal for having a student play a game (and the implied goal of the game) may not match up with why a student is playing a game. When that happens, can learning happen? I think so, but it’s more challenging. I think games really have the power to draw learners in and engage them in difficult work in a fun way. But I think we also need to start scaffolding their abilities to engage with the goal, the rules/obstacles and the feedback system in order for them to truly be voluntary participants and use games as tools for learning.

Nearly 2000 words later, I’m still in the same place that I started. I know that games are a powerful tool for learning and that I think they have great potential for engaging my students, but I’m not entirely sure how to make that happen. I think the most helpful thing I can do for them is to keep working with them to build their perseverance and their problem solving skills, as well as do more modeling of how I engage with games and learn from them.

How do you use games for learning in your classroom? Any advice for how to help students become active participants in game play, rather than passive consumers of game entertainment?

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