Blog Post

Using Games to Teach

I have been actively involved in the Games4Learning initiative at UNC Chapel Hill since I started the doctoral program. I love the idea of using games for teaching and learning because I think games:

-- are more where current undergraduates are at in terms of how they interact with the world and technology (see PEW and Kaiser Family Foundation for information on how much time those below the age of 30 spend online, in games and on social media sites)

-- provide a way to do experiential learning with low risk (often the worst thing that can happen in a game is that you die and must resurrect your character and try again)

-- afford opportunities for experimentation, risk taking, and practice (the ability to do something over and over again)

-- are more interactive and engaging that sitting in a classroom listening to Charlie Brown adults say "wa wa wa waaaa."

Many faculty who have attended Games4Learning events have expressed concerns about using games in teaching. One frequently voiced concern is something to the effect of: "If I don't do something as high tech as World of Warcraft, my students won't want to do it. They may scoff at how low tech and amateurish my efforts are." This doesn't worry me personally. I think that any attempt to add active, experiential learning (no matter how low tech it is) is certainly a pedagogical step up from straight lecture. I believe that any type of activity that affords students the opportunity to play with the material, experience it, apply concepts and practice with them is going to be readily appreciated.

However, I have heard other concerns raised by faculty that I can now understand on a more intimate level since I have started teaching this semester. These concerns are:

-- Sometimes the material doesn't really lend itself to a game; and I need to disseminate this information and have the students work with it in other ways.

-- <This one is not overtly stated.> If I get rewarded largely for research (tenure and promotion), then it isn't necessarily a good investment of my time and energy to reengineer my class to provide a game environment. It's a big risk. What if it doesn't come off well? Will my department/school be disappointed in me that I used precious research time on some teaching strategy that failed?

-- I don't have the time to reengineer my class into a game environment. I'm already trying to keep my head above water. The class already works.

These are very valid concerns. So where does one go with this? Well I think we have to accept that some material is just not suited for gaming. Sometimes a discussion is a better teaching method. Sometimes giving the students a scenario and having them work in groups to come up with an answer to a problem is better. So I think we need to be open to all kinds of teaching and learning methods. Probably going back to the learning objectives is the way to go. What is it that students need to learn and know? And what is the best way or ways to help them learn and know it?

I do think that trying to use a variety of methods is always good because some students are more visual learners, some need to get their hands in the material, some need to talk things out, etc. Using multiple methods can help foster learning opportunities for a variety of learners.

If a faculty member's department or school frowns on experimentation in teaching or simply wishes the faculty to focus more on research, then the faculty member would be hurting him/herself by not being attentive to that. It's a shame that something like teaching might be sacrificed for or subjugated to other objectives at a learning institution; but it may be the reality of the situation. Is there no way around this? Well, I think there are little steps that could be taken. (Perhaps I will change my tune if I end up in a faculty position in this kind of environment; but we'll see about that later.) Even a jeopardy game with powerpoint slides can be helpful. Low tech games of this sort don't require a lot of extra planning and design. They are simple and easy to implement. They can be conducted for a short period of time in class - like 15 minutes. And because they are simple, easy to plan and conduct, and don't take a lot of time, they are low risk. Adding just a little splash of active, experiential learning is always a plus in my opinion.

I like the movie Contact. In it, the main character's father keeps telling her: "Small moves Ellie! Small moves."


1 comment

Anonymous (not verified)

I think its a good idea.One reason to promote educatonal games is to encourage students to learn outside of class.Young adults will go out of their way to play games, even a single game, for hours on end.

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