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What About Games Makes Them Good for Learning?

Digital games have become a major force in our culture. They even make more money than Hollywood movies. Digital games are … everywhere.

And now they’re entering a new realm - the classroom. Lots of people, including the ones at the National Science Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, think digital games can help teach both standards-based academic content and 21st century thinking skills. No one’s making these claims for any of the other kinds of media our kids love (action movies, graphic novels, dance music …). So what’s so special about digital games?

It’s in the game.

The best digital games are efficient, fun and unique learning experiences. Just like you, the designers of these games have a deep understanding of what keeps people engaged and how they learn. They also know that the power of digital games has nothing to do with killing space aliens and everything to do with interactive game play that is inherently compelling regardless of the subject matter.

How do good games connect with kids and help them learn? Well, for starters …

Kids love to make stuff. Games give them tools to make stuff.

Today’s kids are used to being able to create and share their own media (blogs, podcasts, digital images, etc. etc.). But you may not always get the chance to let them do that kind of work in your classroom. Good digital games give players lots of opportunities to be creative. In fact, good games typically engage players in ‘co-creating’ the world of the game. Players make meaningful decisions about characters, storylines and environments that shape the game play and build their commitment to the experience.

Kids learn best by experience. Games teach through experience.

Anyone who’s tried to teach kids the multiplication tables or the Pythagorean Theorem knows that kids have a hard time with abstract learning. Good digital games are never abstract. They always embed their learning in the experience of the game play. Players learn new skills and information in context, when they need to learn it … to feed a monster, to free a pet or to escape from an enemy. Connecting learning to experience increases players’ investment in learning, even while they may not even realize that they are learning.

Kids learn in different ways and at different speeds. Games are built to reach everyone who plays them.

One size never fits all for kids in the classroom (or anywhere else). Teachers always have to tailor their teaching to a wide range of learners. Good digital games have customized game play that meets everyone where they are. Almost every digital game has levels that allow players of varying skills to find a place in the game where they can succeed. And many games even detect players’ learning styles and adjust game play to accommodate them. Good digital games provide truly differentiated instruction.

Kids like to explore and take chances. Games are built around player experimentation.

All kids love to experiment and take chances in their learning. That’s how they learn new information and skills in their lives. Every teacher wants to encourage this kind of intellectual exploration, but the demands of high-stakes testing can limit your opportunities to do this in the classroom.

Good digital games reward experimentation. Players almost never read the instructions before starting a new game because they know that the best and most efficient way to learn a digital game is by playing it. They simply dig in and start making hypotheses about what will work in the game; they test out those hypotheses, refine them, and test them again until they learn the rules of the game and how they can win. And if you think that sounds a little like using the scientific method, well then we agree with you.

Good digital games reward ‘failure.’ Players inevitably make lots of ‘wrong’ hypotheses when they’re learning a new game. And that can make it seem, from the outside, like players aren’t getting anything at all from the game play. Kids understand this process, though, and are aware that only by continued ‘failure’ will they learn the right ways to move forward in the game. Digital games give them a very safe environment for relatively risk-free experimentation.

So what’s the upshot of all of this? Well, if you’d like students to be engaged, invested in their learning, confident, creative and adventurous (and what teacher wouldn’t?) … you may want to consider using digital games.