The Key to Effective Gaming in Education


Last week’s discussion about teaching with tabletops was a topic that really hit home with me, it combined two of my passions in a way that I hadn’t realized until doing the research on the topic. To continue this delve into the relationship between gaming and education, I wanted to take some time and discuss some pitfalls that can occur through this, and how to avoid them … hopefully.

Let me make this point very clear: When it comes to education or child development, the goal of caretakers, parents, and educators should be to eliminate as many educational “accidents” as possible. Let’s examine a couple of pieces of dialogue to illustrate this point, so that it fits more easily into this larger point that I am going to make.

Exhibit 1:

Parent: “How did Sally get so good at multiplication? A month ago she was having problems, and now she’s getting A’s!”

Teacher: “I don’t know! I think things must have finally ‘clicked’ for her this time.”

This is an example of an educational accident, or at the very least a failure to recognize the relationship between teaching methods/strategy and student learning. Either way, the dialogue show a lack of something, thus making it an educational “accident.” That “something” is intent – being intentional. The flipside of this, as in Sally not knowing her multiplication facts and the response being that thing hadn’t “clicked,” would also be an educational “accident.” I will admit however that the outcome of the first is more favorable.

Next, let’s look at what “intent” would look like, and then we’ll get on with the gaming part of this discussion.

Exhibit 2:

Parent: “How did Sally get so good at multiplication? A month ago she was having problems, and now she’s getting A’s!”

Teacher: “Well, we started off with manipulatives, working hands on with grouping and arrays. Then we started to translate those models onto paper and began solving problems. From there we spent some time making connections between arrays and standard algorithms. Her hard work and attention to this really paid off. She was able to see the connection between the model and the problem! ”

This is an example of being intentional. The result might have been the same, but the method is apparent, and more importantly — it can be duplicated. The teacher and the parent both know now what worked to make it “click” for the student. The teacher now has a template or guide for how to try teaching this with similar students, and the parent is more aware of what works with their child.

So, how does this fit in with gaming in education? Think back to last week to Mr. Wells English classes. He didn’t go into his new approach to incorporating D&D into the classroom thinking “We’ll just play some games and see what we learn!” He went into it with a strategy and intent. Think about the Quest for Learning school in New York from a couple of weeks ago. The philosophy behind that school isn’t “Come — let your kids play games, and maybe they will walk away with valuable lessons.” No, the purpose of the games that they play are woven into every single thing that takes place in those classrooms.

Therefore, we can’t expect kids to benefit from games in the classroom without being very, and I stress -very- intentional, on how they are used. Eliminate the unwanted “accidents” by having a strategy behind it. The same goes for parents. A more impulsive caretaker might see the research behind gaming and problem solving and continue to let video games be “the best babysitter ever” because “heck, they might just get something from it!” The key word here is might. Why leave it up to might when there are things that can be done to change that phrase into “heck, they will get something from it.” They key to that is being intentional.

With all that being said, I wanted to provide some guidance on how to be more intentional with letting kids play games so that we increase the chances that they will get some value out of it, instead of leaving it up to chance.

  1. Don’t scoff at the value of board games for younger kids. You might want to start off with more simple games that are based more off of chance rather than choice. Games where outcomes are based off of dice rolls offer good opportunities to teach about probability and possibilities. Ask questions like: “What is the furthest you could move forward on the board when you move.” Guide them to the answer that reflects the maximum amount of moves based off the highest number on the dice. “What are the spaces that you could land on if you rolled a ….” Turn the game into tiny, teachable moments. Don’t ruin their experience by putting them through a rigorous education exercise, but incorporate those quick questions into your games so that they can start to see connections between what they are playing and how they play it.
  2. For older kids, incorporate more strategy based games, that are more choice than chance. Narrate your choices and moves so that they can see and learn the strategy behind what you are doing. “I’m doing x because y.” I’ve used this strategy to teach a friend to play Magic: The Gathering, and they began to beat me after two games. Try your best to remove the mystery and secret of success or strategy at a game. Allow them to make those connections in order to be a better player. Be intentional.
  3. Provide opportunities for kids to apply game skills to real life, and point them out when they present themselves. I find this approach particularly interesting when talking to kids about choices they make. “If this were a video game, what do you think would happen if you make this choice.” “How would that choice affect … “ In the past I used this with a secondary student who played Star Wars RPGs by asking “Would doing that get you light side points, or dark side points.”
  4. The most important tip I can give for parents and educators is the importance of relationship. If you are a parent of a kids who loves gaming, ask them questions about it! Not while they’re playing of course, that might rub them the wrong way since it is distracting from their focus. But before or after they play ask them about it. “What are you going to accomplish today (in the game)?” “How do you plan on doing that?” “What are you good at in the game, what could you improve on?” “Did you accomplish what you set out to do?” Questions like this can make the kid’s game time a more mindful, intentional experience. Also, for parents, don’t waste an opportunity to play games with them, even if they are video games that you have no idea how to play. Let them teach you. For educators, the same line of questioning can be used when having conversations with students about the games they play. (And if a teacher isn’t taking a little bit of time to talk to their students about their interests, then that teacher is doing something wrong.)

The whole point of these tips is to make gaming a more mindful, intentional experience. I think it is important to note though that we shouldn’t be too pushy or overzealous with our approach. It might come off the wrong way and result in some push back from the kid. Don’t ruin the gaming experience by doing too much. As you begin to incorporate things bit by bit, you’ll be able to see how much is too much, or not enough. Just don’t let those opportunities pass you by.

Hopefully this has been of some help to you if you are or ever plan on being a parent or educator. Next week will wrap up our January discussion of gaming in education as we move into what January has in store for us.

Until next time, my friend.