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What serious lessons come from playing games in the classroom

Corrinna PoleFebruary 8, 2019

Games open up a whole world of possibility, and they can lead to some serious learning in the classroom too. Teacher Dr. Matthew Farber (@MatthewFarber) was inspired to curate engaging activities in his classroom after seeing his students’ reactions to an iCivics game.

“Students would come back to class and tell me they played the game again to see if they could do better. I never ever had that experience before, and I wanted to have it all the time,” Farber explained. “To me, the concept of gamifying every lesson wasn’t always just using game mechanics and structures but also using games themselves.”

Matthew Farber
Photo credit: Dr. Matthew Farber

Farber researched the impact of games in the classroom, which led to his book “Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning” and a UNESCO paper, co-authored with Karen Schrier, Ed.D. Now an assistant professor in the Technology, Innovation, and Pedagogy program at the University of Northern Colorado, Farber said there’s an urgency to teach with well-developed games.

“I think it does a disservice, it’s almost like malpractice, to not teach with games, and not just because they’re popular and kids are doing it,” Farber said.

“It’s because games are where we are sharing stories. It’s the campfire of the 21st century.”

Matthew Farber

Play to learn real 21st-century skills

Students learn by doing. And games present the perfect landscape to facilitate that exploration. While game-based activities are being used by more teachers to support instruction and their students’ needs, digital games — including commercial video games — are still largely categorized as entertainment.

“Play isn’t the opposite of learning [and] not all digital games are Pac-Man and Space Invaders,” said Farber. “They are different and nuanced just like there are lots of different types of books. We don’t talk about film or books as one monolith. Yet we still do that with games.”

Most educators would agree that all types of books support literacy. But Farber points to a time when even graphic novels were not considered serious literature. At least, not until Art Spiegelman published Pulitzer prize-winning “Maus,” now known as the greatest graphic novel ever written.

Photo credit: Gone Home

Games should share the same classroom space as other media due to their ability to build knowledge and skills. Farber says when teachers don’t use games to teach, they are eliminating an entire segment of literacy where abilities and understanding are constructed.

Games like “Kahoot” and “Classroom Jeopardy” can teach things like computational thinking while simulator games with environmental exploration like “Gone Home” use storytelling to teach critical thinking.

“One emotional game I like is “Florence,’ which has won different awards,” said Farber. “It’s an interactive game you can play on your phone that is challenging that notion that mobile games are time-wasters. It tells a romantic story using game mechanics. Why would you not teach with that?”

Screenshot Florence game.
Photo credit: Florence

Games also teach systems literacy, which is essential for today’s students. Equally important, Farber adds, is gaining systems fluency, which comes from making games. That can look as simple as introducing a third player into tic-tac-toe or a fourth mechanic into rock paper scissors to see how those systems change.

“I think teachers should start to look at games less as systems that teach content or equity and look at them as models and how you can change models. That is impactful and interesting.”

Learning empathy through games

While Farber says empathy is “kind of a buzzword these days,” his research into games led to interesting discoveries. Aside from cognitive (thinking about) and affective (emotional), empathy is nuanced.

Games not only teach empathy but touch on these complex aspects, and can expand on these nuances based on the desired outcome. For example, a game like Civilization can be used to teach historical empathy giving a player an understanding of how people from the past may have thought or felt. That makes games a powerful learning tool in the classroom.

“It’s an interesting critique. Some teachers ask why you’d use a video game to teach empathy. ‘Why not have children act together, face-to-face?’ But we see empathy in all sorts of other media,” said Farber. “I like to point to the beginning of [the movie] ‘Up’ from Pixar or ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet, you’re watching a digital cartoon, but you feel for these on-screen pixels.”

Game "That Dragon, Cancer" screenshot
Photo credit: “That Dragon, Cancer” screenshot courtesy Numinous Games

Like film and books, some games have transportation theory — experiences that can mentally transport you into fictional worlds. As the viewer, reader, or player, empathy is gained because you get into the heads of the protagonist. But unlike film and books where empathy is seen in broad strokes, Farber says games dig deeper.

“What’s interesting about games is that because of the agency, because you take ownership of an action, you may also feel a different set of emotions that you wouldn’t in those other forms of media,” Farber explained. “You don’t feel guilt, shame, or pride following a character in a film or book, whereas you do by playing the video game. Some of those emotions may trigger an empathetic response from people.

“Empathy involves a bit of imagination and episodic memory. Some games are interesting in that they play with agency. Like in ‘That Dragon, Cancer’ [a game about a family’s journey with terminal childhood cancer], you become different members of a family, or sometimes you’re just the extra person on a couch. In the humanities-based game ‘What Remains of Edith Finch,’ [exploring the last day in the life of several family members] you play as all of the characters in the family. Collectively, I think there’s even a sense of empathy for the family there.”

Game screenshot "What Remains of Edith Finch"
Photo credit: Game screenshot “What Remains of Edith Finch” courtesy Giant Sparrow

Virtual worlds vs. real life

So, games can teach empathy, but can their digital worlds prepare kids for real life? According to Farber, they do.

“Games do not always need to have a winner or loser. They are spaces of inquiry and places to play around with ideas. You don’t need to even finish the game to get enough of what you might need to imbue what you teach.

“I like to think of games as field trips, where you make decisions. You’re not passive. You are active in your experience.”

Matthew Farber

These practice spaces, free from real-world consequences allow players to develop their growth mindset and resilience.

“If I play Tomb Raider, I might take Lara and see if I can hurl her off a cliff just to see what happens because I know it’ll go right back to the last save point. We can do this with games, and I think it’s even better. If you were to role-play this in class, the consequences would be pretty bad.

“In classrooms, we use the bullying triangle to teach anti-bullying. You’ve got one student as the bully, one as the bystander, and one as the victim, and that doesn’t always end well. In a game, it can. But in games, like with other forms of media, we need points of reflection, we need time to stop, think, and discuss.”

Games may have started in the classroom through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning and computational thinking, but their potential to help players develop socially and emotionally is a precious resource.

Photo credit: satyatiwari / pixabay