Games Level the Educational Playing Field – And They Make Learning Fun

Games and education seem not to fit for those who are traditional educators. For some reason they don’t think learning is fun. In a recent article, I shared how interactive demonstrations at museums captivate the interest of children. The interactive modules often integrated a short game. Here’s the thing. Games don’t write red marks all over the paper if you make a mistake. Instead, they are engaging in that you can continue to play to improve your scores.

Games let you explore different ways of working with data. I had a game, something about warlords, and I took the role of each of the groups to learn techniques that would let me play well. In some games, when you get a top score, you receive some type of special recognition.

Unfortunately most educators and administrators do not wade into games to understand the fascination, the intricacies and the methods that games use to entice, enchant and involve students, teachers and players.

I have worked with MECC, a group that started games in education. The great thing about it was that you had license to replicate the games in the school system. So, as fast as the ed tech people could copy, you could use the games. They were originally quite simple, but complicated enough to interest children.

Educational games left a breadcrumb trail so that the teacher and other users could see scores. Here’s a funny thing. Sometimes, as a teacher, I had to stay after school to nuance a game. The children had more time to use the games than I did so they got better. But there was also this. There were children, that no one thought much about as students, who could ace the games and then show others how to do it, including the adults or teacher if they were interested.

We have expected scholars, but with certain games I began to learn that there were students who were quiet achievers who relished getting the best scores. I was also a teacher of gifted and talented students, but in classes with a mixed population of students, these unexpected student triumphs leveled the learning field.

Think of the games with a quest — Amazon Trail, Oregon Trail, that kind of game. I would watch helplessly as some kids played the games to see how to manage the data, i.e., how far they could go in starving off the people on the trail and getting the results they wanted. So they read, wrote and learned; and interestingly enough, the Oregon Trail game was upgraded. It was on! I tried to think of ways to augment the shooting so I added recipes, quilting, learning about the plants and herbs that people took West as well as how they went to school and to the bathroom. We looked at covered wagons, trunks, cast iron pots and pans, and medicines. We were learning, learning, learning. One mother came in and showed us how to can, store and save foods.

Do you know Hot Dog Stand? This was a clever game about economics. It was about running a hotdog stand, under different circumstances, different kinds of events, variations in weather and so on. That game made us all think hard, and one of the things that that game did was to have us interview a vendor who worked and dealt with the kinds of differences that happened in the business. We ran a hot dog stand in the school for one day to experience the business. We did not have bad events, however, and we did have a lot of fun.

There was another game about Oceans. I think it was Odell Down Under. The Baltimore National Aquarium was a resource, and we learned about adaptations, estuaries, life cycles, and all the nuances of fresh vs. salt water. We never were able to afford a salt water aquarium. But I think the children worked a lot harder than peers who just reading a book or a paragraph about oceanography. We had fun learning because we visited SERC, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. We worked on a pier and did salinity studies, turbidity reports, weather studies, and we joyfully seined the little river, estimating populations.

I could share a lot of different games that made a difference. My steepest learning curve was DinoTycoon — before games went big and wonderful. I was not that much in love with dinosaurs, but the book and the game and the movie were resources that worked for us as learners.

Later in life, I participated in a games and simulation project with several outstanding teachers at the San Diego Supercomputing Center. Sometimes I was a semicolon away from disaster. We learned to change the background in games, to do simulations, and to explore games and simulations that were academic. I remember gamers showing us how the sports games were created. They played around with the characters in the games and made them atypical. That was fun. George Lucas contributed to USC, and we were able to see games that students created as part of their studies. Cloud was my favorite.

The Armed Forces use simulations in interesting ways that work. Check out Defense Acquisition University.

A way to get students started in making games would be to learn how to use Agent Sheets. I learned to use it and can say that it’s easy. AgentSheets is a revolutionary tool that lets users create their own agent-based games and simulations and publish them on the Web through a user-friendly drag-and-drop interface. AgentSheets users range from elementary school students to NASA scientists, entire school districts, and large federally funded university projects.

Computational Science: Interactive simulations help you grasp new ideas, test theories, explore complex processes in various science fields. Creating your own computational science applications deepens your understanding, but there is work to do to understand it.

Games: Building games (not just playing them) teaches you computer science concepts, logic, and algorithmic thinking. Our scalable game design approach is ideal for balancing motivational and educational concerns of computer education. That is a STEM thing!

Again, to integrate games into the classroom, administrators, teachers, and parents need to invest some time and experience. The problem is that many don’t think learning can be fun.

4 Responses

  1. I’d like to dispel an assumption that keeps cropping up in the “games and education” discussions. Learning is fun — in and of itself.

    Learning really is just discovering and creating new things. Well, new to the learner anyway. A “game,” properly structured can do that. Educational computer games tend to involve large amounts of time adding “sugar” to the “medicine.” For me, it’s an attitude thing. Don’t begin by assuming that learning is unpleasant.

    In my 6th grade class, we played a game regularly that involved the entire class. My teacher had obtained pull-down large maps of the world and of the United States. The desks were still in rows that long ago. The first student in the first row stood behind the second student. The teacher pointed with a pointer stick (no laser pointers then!) at a country or state. The first student to name it moved on to the next seat. Everyone paid attention. As the year progressed, we added bodies of water to the things to point to.

    No one kept score; there wasn’t a score as such. Groups of students would spend spare classroom time quizzing each other on more obscure geographical features. We learned geography with a game. A more advanced class could readily move on to learning capitals of countries, major exports, primary language spoken, and so on.

    The time spent was short compared to the learning. Reading or watching a video would have been less efficient.

    This teacher took a subject that’s usually not very much fun and transformed it into fun. The more you knew, the more fun you could have. Even if just watching, you were seeing if you could beat the two players (inside your head of course).

    Learning is fun. Knowing is fun. And you can actually find games that are not fun — at least to some people.

    Be careful as you’re making games into learning tools. I’d prefer to see us use gaming strategies to overlay the learning process.

    • Anonymous, I’ve been enjoying your comments. Very well written, topical, and thought provoking. Please consider joining us (ETCJ) as a writer. You can reach me at if you have any questions. Best, Jim

    • I cannot remember the name of a science educator who first talked about the fun in learning. All I know is that he would do a Christmas event for students, Being in the Washington area, I often got to see him and learn with him. This was before significant technology. I agree that learning is fun, but the problem is that of those who see learning as a chore , or some other kind of entity. Let me share an area, which is Geography. I worked early with the National Geographic who really pioneered the use of media, for scientific learning for kids in their Kidsnetwork. Kidsnetwork was not about the use of the real Internet, We were connected to an expert who took our data, crunched it, and teams of schools worked to share knowledge. That was when I first discovered that knowing , is power for kids and that they love knowing
      information and enjoy the learning process. Oh, I remembered his name
      Science is Fun in the Lab of Shakhashiri

      The master of chemical demonstrations and science policy advocate, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chemistry Professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, shares the fun of …

      I never got to know him.

      The NASA projects were also fun but hard fun, and we
      did projects like Marsville, Mars City Alpha and other
      work, Moonbase America.. the work was challenging , the ideas were new but children were involved in the creation, thinking of and designing the projects we were working on. We had some ancillary
      software, but we were dealing with real problems. What was interesting was that principals would complain that we were spending too many hours on one area.

      So thank you for saying that learning is fun. It is and has been all of my life. The hardest thing about the digital age was stepping away from the front of the classroom and letting the learning be
      different for boys and girls. Unfortunately this has not happened in many places , many learning landscapes.. It seems as if it will take forever for change to be like a wave of difference .


  2. Benefits of student gaming go beyond the classroom
    There is new evidence that gaming can be used in science learning and in scientific discovery, writes Audrey Watters. The online biochemistry game has been played by 100,000 people since it launched and helped lead to a major finding in AIDS research. The game Refraction helps students learn about fractions through puzzles. Scientists also are using data from the game to determine how students learn. Watters’ blog

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