Classroom Games

Aaron Lynch

This fall I started a master program at the University of Washington in Human Centered Design & Engineering.  In one of my classes, a research group called Games for Good, I am developing a game to get students excited about learning bioinformatics concepts. It was this class and a post I wrote, “Beyond Entertainment” that fueled my interest in educational games.  In my User-Centered Design class we picked articles to analyze and relate back to user research, so I picked one on how students feel about video games as educational tools entitled, “Students’ perceptions about the use of video games in the classroom.”

According to the NPD Group, 91 percent of kids are gamers, so it would make sense
to use games as a communication tool to bridge the gap between traditional education objectives and the technology habits of this generation. One of the reasons games have become both the enemy and friend of education is their powerful ability to engage students.  Many people fear that by playing games our kids will be unable to function without constant stimulation while others see the potential to use games’ engagement to help our students learn.

It was not until I saw a TED Talk by Gabe Zichermann, a “gamification” advocate, that I understood the potential for games in education. I have to admit – the whole idea seems pretty great to me. Playing games at school would have certainly gotten my attention growing up, and I am in favor of bringing fun and learning together when we can, especially if it leads to positive attitudes toward school.

In his TED talk, Zichermann tells a story about a teacher, Ananth Pai, who vows to change the education system by bringing games into the classroom. In the course of 18 weeks, Pai teaches math and language through single and multiplayer games. As a result, students in his classroom increased their reading level dramatically. This story really opened my eyes to the potential for games as an educational tool.

But what do the students think?

There seem to be a lot of adults speaking on behalf of what students would benefit from, but has anyone asked whether students would like to see video games in the classroom?  While I would have been excited about the possibility to mix school with video games when I was young, I am not sure everyone would have been intrigued by the idea.

Cue Jeroen Bourgonjon and his team of researchers from Ghent University.  In 2009, they published a study with the goal of finding out how students feel about games being used in the classroom. The study went straight to the source.  Bourgonjon surveyed more than 850 students from 20 different schools and found that there was a lot more diversity in video game habits than previously thought.

What the students think

One of the most enlightening portions of this user research was the analysis of gender differences in video game use and perceptions in the classroom. Both boys and girls play games, but the amount, type, and device used is very different.  More than 80% of boys played games moderately or frequently, while only slightly more than 40% of girls played games moderately or frequently.  The other big difference was that girls play games mainly on computers, websites and mobile devices, while boys played games on computers and consoles.

At first glance, the data indicate that boys have a much more favorable opinion of game use inside the classroom than girls.  However, that was not full story.

“The conspicuous gender differences found in the descriptive statistics do not result from a direct relationship between gender and preference for video games. Instead, they appear to be mediated by ease of use and experience.”

To put it another way, it is not necessarily that female students are uninterested in video games in the classroom, but do not have as much experience. This has huge implications on how video games could be introduced into classrooms.

The reality is that students are still very diverse in their preference for video game.  A large portion of students don’t play games at all so if video games were to be introduced into schools, it would require everyone to be able to use and understand them as learning tools.

In Bourgonjon’s words,

“the immersion of students in technology needs to be put into perspective. The usage of media rather reflects the desire of students to communicate with friends, to search for meaning, to create their own place in society, and of course to relax and have fun … therefore, it could be argued that the need for video games in education is somewhat exaggerated.”

In other words, these kids may play more video games than previous generations, but it stems from natural desires of what it means to be human.

What wasn’t obvious to me in the research was whether students who are inexperienced with video games opt out of games for a reason.  Because the research was quantitative, there was little ability for researchers to follow up with individuals on why they do not play games.

Research Methods

The scope of the study was to understand student perceptions of video games in the classroom, however, while I was thinking about this article I kept being drawn back to the implications of the research. This article helped me understand the difference of objectives between qualitative and quantitative data collection. While the quantitative data the team collected was really valuable to understand student perceptions from a data driven point of view, qualitative data would be much more effective in understanding students’ attitude toward video games in the classroom.

Many children do not know what they want in educational tools nor do they understand what an educational game would look like. Asking children how they feel about theoretical games being used as a tool in the classroom is not an effective approach to understanding whether they would benefit from this type of learning.  Observing how kids react to playing educational video games would be more effective at gauging perception than having a child fill out a survey.

There is a school currently testing how effective games are as a learning tool.  Developed by Institute of Play and supported by the MacArthur FoundationQuest to Learn is a public school in New York City that uses games in the classroom to encourage students to innovate and apply concepts to the real world.  From these types of learning environments, researchers will be able to much more effectively observe whether students are learning from games effectively.

The use of games in the classroom still requires much testing and research, but how do you feel about it? Do you allow your kids to play educational video games? Would you place your student in a school with a game-based curriculum?

Tagged , , ,