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Kelli Dunlap on the strength of video games in the classroom

Corrinna PoleJanuary 4, 2019

Video games have the ability to transport us to different worlds, stretch our skills as the hero or the villain, and explore real life and ourselves. Schools that use video games to teach are giving students unique opportunities to develop socially and emotionally.

Dr. Kelli Dunlap and the team at the nonprofit iThrive Games are working with teens, educators, mental health professionals, and game developers to integrate social emotional learning (SEL) skills into games so students can develop the abilities and habits they need to thrive.

A lifelong gamer who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and a masters in Game Design, Dunlap is a passionate advocate for intersecting digital games and mental health. It fuels her work in addressing mental health issues in game content and developer culture, destigmatizing games among other mental health providers, and bridging the gap between education and mental health in the classroom.

Unlocking potential through games

Good digital games have the ability to teach us about real life and ourselves. To realize their value requires shifting the stereotype that games are frivolous or a waste of time. A good place to start, according to Dunlap, is by looking at games that might not be thought of as educational.

“One of my favorite examples is ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ … a really amazing, visually rich [adventure] game,” Dunlap. “At its core, this game is about finding identity, understanding family and connections, who people are, and even death positivity, which is something I don’t think people think of as coming from a game.”

iThrive, in cooperation with Paul Darvasi and Matt Farber, developed a SEL learning curriculum based on Edith Finch that sets the foundation for players to have a shared experience to practice different skills like cooperation, exploring their own identity, understanding their connection with others.

From an educational standpoint, the curriculum develops social emotional skills. For the students playing, the content is challenging, interesting, engaging, and something they get to participate in. Since games include participants in the narrative, they develop knowledge and skills as they play. It’s a formula more and more educators are bringing into their classroom.

Deeper learning without boundaries

Used for years in many classrooms to teach memorization through fun quizzes or as rewards or time fillers, today’s video games offer a platform for deeper learning and self-discovery. They are a powerful tool for fueling creativity and problem-solving. They actively engage students in their learning and create a space where players can explore, experiment, and even fail safely.

“(Games) are a great tool for identity management because we get to put ourselves into these worlds that are not constrained by social norms, expectations, rules, and we really can experiment with what might happen,” explained Dunlap. “The reason it’s so powerful is that the consequence of failure in games is either non-existent in terms of how they are applied to the real world or they are a positive opportunity.

“A lot of times when you fail in a game, it’s not ‘I didn’t do it,’ it’s ‘I need to do it that way next time.’ That growth mindset approach, learning from the mistakes we make, is a key component to being able to learn and do better. That is so inherent in any game not just for education games.

“I like to say you can’t ever fail a game unless you quit. There’s always a way to win, to accomplish a goal, and having that kind of mental resilience and ability to take in the feedback, the information, and figure out ways to get to where you want to be, is an important life skill for anyone.”

As Dunlap explains it, games are the container that allows experiences to happen and platforms like Classcraft are tools that facilitate greater learning.

“It’s not that people sit down and pick up Classcraft on their phone and are staring at it but rather it’s the board in the board game,” Dunlap said. “The real learning experience, to me at least, and the positivity comes from the interactions between the students and their teachers, and the environment, and the community.

“Those things are made possible because the platform is prompting for those events to happen. I think that is a really unique way to conceptualize the use of games as a facilitating tool rather than the end game, pun intended.”

Using games as a tool complements learning

Curiosity, which is at the core of good video games, makes it easier for us to learn and retain information. But while games can support learning, they are not learning machines. Dunlap encourages educators to think of them in the same context as a book or other media.

“If you think you can have students play a game and walk away with everything you wanted them to take away, that’s not realistic,” Dunlap explained. “We would never expect a kid to sit down with War and Peace, read the whole thing themselves, then walk away with all of the messages, themes, and the content. It’s not realistic in other mediums we use, it’s not realistic to think that games are going to magically do.

“Games are not magic. But they are these really amazing shared experiences and touch points that can invoke really complex feelings from excitement and joy when you master something to sadness, remorse, and fear, emotions we tend to avoid. That we actually approach these emotions we tend to avoid willingly and joyfully through games is an interesting way to promote to educators that this is a space for this to happen.”

So, where do teachers, schools, and parents start when they want to use games to teach new information or skills?

“The most import thing is to understand is what is important to the kids,” Dunlap suggests. “I’m not saying bring Fortnite into every classroom although there are things you could learn from your kids talking about Fortnite but figure out what your goals are as an educator or parent, then what interests and inspires your kids, what needs are being met because they are doing it, and find ways to bring those things together.”

For more on Kelli Dunlap’s work, follow her on Twitter @KelliNDunlap.

Photo credit: Annapurna Interactive /; NeONBRAND / Unsplash