If you’ve talked to a teenager lately, you may have noticed a trend. Teachers everywhere are scratching their heads over how a group of students can have a deep conversation about the ins and outs of a video game but cannot remember what they went over in class yesterday. Rather than feeling frustrated over the disparity in students’ engagement, why not seek to engage students on their level through game-based learning?
Game-based learning is not a new concept. You may even remember playing games like Oregon Trail or Number Crunchers in elementary school. At some point in a child’s academic career, the computer games are put away in favor of more serious instruction. But games still have great potential as engaging learning devices for students of all ages.
History of Game Learning
When we discuss game-based learning in the 21st century, we are referring to computer and video games that achieve an instructional objective. However, children have been playing educational games since the invention of schoolyard games like Simon Says.
Those games, and the earliest educational computer games, aimed to present information and content in an engaging way for children too young to sit at a desk and listen to a teacher talk at them all day. As the material became more complex and the class sizes too big for one-on-one interaction, the lecture format became the preferred method of instruction.
These early computer games were a huge hit with kids and educators alike at a time when the only access they had to a computer was in the school’s computer lab. As hardware became more powerful and sophisticated, computers slowly entered the home, and a multibillion-dollar video game industry started to take off. At that point, however, video games were seen as a leisure activity — a distraction for kids who should be doing their homework.
Games designed to meet instructional criteria are experiencing a resurgence in popularity now that computerized devices are a central part of daily life. Where Generation X children might have only looked at a computer screen in the classroom, younger generations may find the classroom to be the only place they are not frequently looking at a screen.
In response to this fundamental shift in the human experience, educators are beginning to take a closer look at what video games can teach them — and their students. So let’s take a look at just what they’re learning. As we go forward, we ask ourselves, what is game-based learning?
How Game-Based Learning Works
In broad strokes, game-based learning is an attempt to use a game platform to impart skills or information to its players. There is a subtle difference here that provides contrast to the concept of gamification, which is an attempt to adopt game architecture in a nongame-related setting.
Gamification can best be illustrated in the plethora of social apps, where increased participation unlocks rewards such as badges or experience points (XP), which can take on any number of names in each individual app. These concepts are lifted straight from the gaming world, but the apps themselves are not games.
Game-based learning, on the other hand, is all about playing a game. Effective game-based learning bakes the instructional objectives right into the game-playing experience. The ultimate goal is that a student has so much fun playing the game, theydo not even realize they are learning new information. Of course, games can take many shapes, but they generally fall into two categories — analog and digital games.
Digital game-based learning can become two subcategories— games and simulations. Understanding the differences between games and simulations can provide some insight into why game-based learning is so effective:
- Games: In a game, you have goals and levels, and your advancement depends on successful completion of tasks or puzzles. Working on these tasks helps the game-player develop skills or engage their knowledge, but often in the context of an unrelated story. Games designed for educational purposes are often referred to as serious games, though they can still be fun to play, just like typical commercial games.
- Simulations: In a simulation, you learn by interacting with a computerized environment designed to simulate the very environment where you will eventually apply your skills and knowledge. In a driving simulator, for example, you are sitting in the cockpit of a car and driving around a road course or race track. Simulators have been built to mimic all sorts of situations, from driving and flying to office conflict and interaction.
Board Games vs. Computer Games
The world of analog game-based learning has a few key limitations, chief of which is the attention span of the game players. When was the last time you sat through an entire game of Monopoly or Life with a teenager? Board games do not have the same mass appeal as video games, as evidenced by the difference in their global market values — $15.44 billion versus $138.4 billion.
Board- and card-based games also have a pretty low information capacity. After a couple of runs through a game, a player has likely learned all they can from it, and the novelty wears off almost immediately.
In digital game-based learning, the information capacity is nearly infinite, limited only by the ability of the game’s developer to update the game with new levels and content. Good digital games also have the advantage of holding the player’s attention span for much longer periods. In contrast to the Monopoly question, when was the last time you saw a teenager put down a good game after less than, say, a half-hour? Students’ undivided attention for a prolonged period is a valuable asset in any educational context.
Why Game-Based Learning Is Effective
Now that we have covered our definitions, we will take a look at the characteristics of game-based learning that make it such an effective educational tool.
1. Engaging and Memorable Content
Holding a student’s attention is only useful if the content actually sticks when the student walks away from the game. As we have seen from such blockbuster game franchises as Halo and Pokémon, the information and skills a child absorbs when playing a fascinating game can be quite sticky indeed.
Ask your local gamer to tell you all about how they have built their world in Minecraft and what their current inventory looks like. Then be prepared for an exhaustive explanation, all off the top of their head. Good game designers are building educational games that are just as engaging, filled with the content they are required to cover in their classes.
2. Departure From Assessment Anxiety
Games are also helping to redefine the paradigms that have governed the learning and assessment models in the classroom. Gameplay does away with the discouragement that comes along with poor assessment performance. In a game, kids do not mind dying five times in a row. If the game is worth playing, they will dive right back in the sixth time. However, many students are understandably anxious about taking a one-time-only quiz or test.
When teachers are attempting to cover a lot of ground and assign grades along the way, they do not have time for students to retake quizzes and tests. If they are playing a computer game with a reset button, where is the harm in letting the students try until they succeed? Isn’t success what we are looking for?
3. Appeal for Different Learning Styles
Many educational tasks appeal to auditory or reading and writing learning styles. It is helpful if teachers can incorporate other types of activities that appeal more to visual and kinesthetic learners.
For a visual learner, interacting with the information in a game setting can be a lot more effective than writing it down in a notebook. The graphics can engage their eyes in ways that a textbook page could not. For kinesthetic learners, applying the information in a game and completing tasks that require the manipulation of that knowledge is undoubtedly better at creating long-term connections with the information. Of course, games can also appeal to reading and writing or auditory learning styles, so there is something for everyone.
4. Immediate Reinforcement
A common refrain from the student body in most classes is, “When am I ever going to use this information?” While this question is often short-sighted, it is still a question all teachers should be able to answer. Students are more likely to retain information they have a chance to apply — not in the distant future but in the immediate. Immediate application of new knowledge is much more effective for creating long-term memory.
Learning skills and knowledge in a game context allows students to put what they learn into action right away. And games provide much more effective knowledge reinforcement than traditional end-of-unit assessments. Take three days’ worth of notes on the War of 1812, and you will forget everything by test day. Or spend those three days playing a turn-based strategy game as either the American or the British army. You will remember that war for much longer than you would have with a notebook full of dates and names.
5. Opportunities for Growth
Students are used to failing or their character dying in a game. While there are consequences when they lose a level or make a mistake, this is considered a normal part of gameplay. They can always hit the “play again” button, which is far less discouraging for many students than receiving feedback on an assessment they did poorly on and cannot retake.
With games, students get a chance to learn from their mistakes on the very next try, helping to cement the contrast between the right answer and the wrong one. Partly due to this immediacy of feedback, the rewards systems written into games can be more impactful on a child’s psychology than the rewards systems of traditional assessments.
The Data on Game-Based Learning
To this point, we have been discussing ideas and hypotheticals. Now, take a look at the numbers that back it up.
Game-based learning has become a major multibillion-dollar industry, climbing from$3.5 billion in 2018 toward a projected $24 billion in 2024.Clearly, the education and training world is working hard to capitalize on all of the wonderful benefits.
Many studies have demonstrated the efficacy of using serious games and simulations to help students learn and test their knowledge. A 2020 study confirmed conclusions from previous research — simulation tools and games are an excellent methodological option to create realistic models to assist in training. The researchers also noted that one of the many benefits of using gaming or simulation software is its seamless integration into both blended and online courses in addition to in-person classes.
A 2019 study found some serious benefits for students learning English as a second language — even when the game is not explicitly a language-learning game. These students played a history-focused game and came away with significant improvements in both their knowledge of history and vocabulary.
Another 2019 study found that, in addition to being great teaching tools, serious games can also be used as accurate assessment tools to measure knowledge acquisition after students have finished playing the game.
These recent studies build on a wealth of data from years past that support the value of educational games and simulations for learning. These researchers typically begin their studies by reviewing these important findings before adding new insights. In future years, researchers will likely continue to find new ways game-based learning can enrich students’ experience in the classroom at all levels, from kindergarten to adult education.
A Better Way to Educate
It is an undeniable truth that the youngest generation has a fundamentally different life experience and relationship with technology. By understanding and embracing their children’s worldview, parents and educators can provide a more effective educational experience for everyone involved.
Does this mean teachers of the future should be relegated to observers in a classroom where children receive all their education from computer games? Of course not. Everything in moderation, as the saying goes. But teachers and administrators everywhere could help their students be more successful by taking advantage of the bounty that the world of technology has provided.
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