Powering Up with Games

From hide-and-seek to tic-tac-toe, playing games is how we learn important skills about ourselves, others, and the world around us. The word “game” comes from the Old English gamen, meaning amusement or fun. By definition, a game is simply a structured form of play that excites the senses and captivates players. Research backs the benefit of games across a wide range of developed cognitive skills from building reasoning, strengthening working memory and improving fluid intelligence, and has led to an explosion in the educational gaming industry and a plethora of super fun (and informative) games now at our fingertips. But how can we harness game play to complement learning at school and at home?

Analog or Digital: Not Either… Or… But Both!

As opposed to didactic instruction, a well-developed game can instinctively convey lessons while offering a spectrum of entry points for teachers, parents, and players. Games played in classrooms run the gamut from analog to digital, each with important skills and exciting content to engage learners. Gone are the days when Uno and Scrabble were the only options. Today schools have countless games to choose from that align to curriculum while also getting children excited about learning.

Pairing analog with digital games ensures that today’s digital natives are engaged in a host of multi-sensory learning experiences. While analog games are great tactile tools to get kids excited about learning, digital games add a level of interaction by creating unique experiences, more complicated story lines, facilitate teacher assessment, and offer different types of player collaborations, such as global villages of student teams.

School children can take a virtual field trip with Google Expeditions to Burj Khalifa to learn about architecture and city planning, while gaining valuable skills such as math and science. At the same time, the expedition also challenges kids to think deeper about how buildings have changed over time? Additionally, new research suggests that immersive learning via games also creates a sense of empathy and may build pathways to being more engaged citizens. The ability for digital technology to create empathy in its viewers is ever present in Clouds Over Sidra, the virtual reality film narrated by Sidra, a 12-year-old girl living in a Jordanian Refugee camp. This immersive experience debuted at the World Economic Forum and is now being used by the United Nations to elicit empathy in its viewers.

Immersive learning experiences such as games can be used across content areas and over a variety of age ranges to support content learning and deepen immersion in an array of domains.

In elementary school, social studies teachers can use digital games like Stack the States to help their 2nd graders master important geography skills such as capitals, flags, and the states locations. They can strengthen this knowledge by adding in The Scrambled States of America to bolster teaching about the states in the greater context of the USA including nicknames that almost always activate deeper conversations (“Ms. Blau, why is Kentucky called the Bluegrass State?”).

In high school, social studies may be taught using the hands-on World Peace Game to teach about global diplomacy and the interconnectedness of economic, social, and environmental impact on the world community. Similarly, a teacher may choose to use the digital game iCivics to teach about the structure of the executive, judicial, and legislative branch of government as well as what it takes to run an election at the local, state, and federal level. These are but a few of the countless tools teachers and parents can utilize at school and at home to scaffold learning and engagement across a host of content areas.

Family Games FTW!

Similar to games at school, games played at home can convey valuable content, such as learning about biodiversity, to skills, such as critical thinking. It is true, many post dinner evenings are spent crowded around a large screen while my youngest (Wario) and eldest (Luigi) try to beat out dear old dad (Yoshi) in a race through Moo Moo Meadows. While they aren’t necessarily learning quantum physics, they are learning how to communicate (get out of my way, Wario!) and to take turns (big brother sometimes lets the youngest win). But the real winner in most family game time is the deepening relationships in time spent together.

At home kids can play digital games like Club Penguin where they take on secret missions as part of the “Elite Penguin Force” and learn about problem solving while helping to solve in-game problems and build critical thinking skills by unlocking coded messages. Kids can even collaborate in their creations from various screens as they sit side by side playing in the same Minecraft world and together craft a diamond sword to defeat the Enderman.

A new generation of analog games are another way to bring the family together whether by building settlements in Settlers of Catan, Jr. or demonstrating our quick counting savvy to 100 with a stolen Zeus during Zeus on the Loose game play. Games like Super Tooth are a great way to engage the budding paleontologists in your home as they learn about creatures beyond the dreaded Velociraptor and discover the difference between carnivores and herbivores as well as the many events in the ecosystem that affected the livelihood of these giant creatures.

One isn’t a Lonely Number

When kids play solitary games it doesn’t mean their experiences are taking place in silos. Games like The Migrant Trail help kids 11 and up take perspective of refugees entering the United States and helps teach about important social problems that are relevant and timely and open the door to discussion at the dinner table. By opening the door to the experiences presented in games like The Migrant Trail, players are learning about complex issues that teachers and parents often struggle to take on while also gaining empathy and a deeper understanding for world events.

The Foos is another single player game that teaches kids as young as 5 how to code while helping friendly creatures solve problems. During game play kids learn important concepts from pattern recognition to conditional statements while gaining coding skills along the way towards their goal of rescuing puppies lost in space. By the end of a single playing session, children as young as five are building their own worlds, problem solving and strategizing for how to best create a new habitat for their lovable new friends, the Foos.

Net Gains

The way players move towards the goal of the game is referred to as ‘mechanics’ by game designers. Game mechanics offer countless opportunities to teach important knowledge from social norms, like turn taking in CandyLand and collaboration in the Game of Life, to problem solving and arithmetic in Settlers of Catan and Sleeping Queens. Depending on the game mechanic players acquire a variety of cognitive skills that are developed and honed during game play. For example, players must have a basic understanding of probability when ‘stomping’ at a creature in Dragonwood and should have a solid strategy before using super lures in Gubs. The mechanics enacted in these games reinforce valuable executive functioning skills of planning, monitoring, and attending to multiple tasks with a single goal which makes gaming a perfect companion to engaging with others in class, at home with the family, or even independently.

There’s a science to making games and one of the greatest assets of games for learning when done effectively is that they are complementary and not supplementary. Games can be partners for teachers in the classroom to aid in the multi-sensory approach to teaching content. Additionally, games offer parents a diverse array of options for engaging their kids in anything from storytelling to empathy building, architecture to coding.

While the future of education is always evolving, we know that kids are using digital devices to play and learn, and we have to meet them where they are. Teachers and parents need an arsenal of tools that engage and ignite the imagination. Game designers must partner with teachers, parents and children to develop the best possible gaming experiences to entertain children while engaging their minds. Together we will power up and play!

Lindsay Portnoy is a cognitive psychologist, co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer at Killer Snails. You can connect with her via LinkedIn, Twitter, or email.