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Digital “Gamification” in the Classroom: A Growing Teaching Trend

By Marcus A. Hennessy, CEA (ret)

Students playing computer games in classroom

A middle school in New York applies The World of Warcraft (WoW) in-School Project to bolster at-risk students’ skills in digital literacy and leadership.

The University of Colorado’s departments of Computer Science and Education, and its Science Discovery Outreach Program collaborate with AgentSheets, a Scalable Game Design project to teach computer science to middle school students by helping them to recreate popular arcade games.

And students in Singapore learn about their country’s history using the Nintendo Wii platform.

These are just a few examples of an explosive trend in the modern K-12 classroom—using digital games as educational tools.

Today, an estimated 183 million Americans play digital and video games, including 97 percent of America’s young people age 12-17.

Last year the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released a survey of 505 American K-8 teachers who’ve implemented digital gaming into their classrooms and revealed that 60 percent believe these games foster student collaboration and improve focus on specific tasks. The survey also noted that:

  • 32 percent of the teachers use games two-to-four times per week, while 18 percent use games daily;
  • 70 percent of surveyed teachers agree that digital gaming increases engagement and motivation among struggling students;
  • 60 percent indicated that digital games actually personalize instruction and provide better knowledge assessment.

The use of digital and video games in America’s classroom has steadily increased over the past decade, and has acquired a new buzzword to describe the interactive dynamic—“gamification.” A recent post by blogger Denise Doig elaborates on “gamification” as the integration of game mechanics in non-gaming contexts, with these contingent benefits:

  • Gamification can make difficult or boring subjects more fun.
  • Gamification encourages students to perform, show progress, and cultivate strengths that can improve self-esteem and promote achievement.
  • Gaming platforms can track student progress, offer tangible and immediate rewards such as certificates, and motivate students to compete with peers for recognition.

Today’s Market for Educational Gaming

As the market continues to expand for educational digital games, developers have focused on platforms which enhance specific skills and knowledge, such as completing goal-oriented quests or missions, and enhancing social and collaborative skills through teamwork.

Applicable types of games include standard CD or DVD software discs intended for 1-4 players; console systems such as the Nintendo Wii; and online hubs accessed through a special game client (e.g., IBM’s Power Up) or via a web interface such as Whyville.

A Snapshot of the Most Popular Educational Games

  • Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster are classified as single-player drill-and-practice games that include targeted educational content.
  • Quiddler incorporates key spelling and grammar skills into game play.
  • World Without Oil, Superstruct, I Love Bees and The Tower of Babel are considered open-ended alternate reality games (ARGs), in which student players search for clues and solve intricate puzzles in both imaginary and real-life scenarios.
  • Whyville and WhyReef guide young students in an online community and help them explore topics from recycling to programming; WhyReef focuses on coral reef ecosystems.
  • World of Warcraft, Everquest, Lord of the Rings Online and America’s Army fall under the aegis of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games which bring large groups of players together to work on solutions requiring collaborative problem-solving. The special appeal of these types of games derives from the many sub-games or embedded paths which players can choose that cultivate goal-setting, social collaboration, strategizing, leadership, digital literacy, and even public speaking.
  • One notable example of an MMO game designed specifically for education applications is Mithril, developed by Stanford University students as an online multiplayer game where students must conquer mathematical concepts to cast spells, vanquish foes, and advance in the scenario.

The Downside of Classroom Digital Gaming

Not all teachers embrace digital games in the classroom, however. In that Joan Ganz Cooney Center survey mentioned earlier, half of the respondents cited cost as a barrier to using games, while less than five percent of teachers said that parents and/or administrators are “not at all supportive” of digital game use.

According to the informal results of an NBC Education Nation summit conducted earlier this year (as reported in the Huffington Post), educators are concerned about the dearth of evidence that classroom gamification has any real impact on student achievement. One teacher at a summit panel said his students had difficulty transferring game-playing skills to paper-based tests. Another teacher claimed that teachers often have to pay for games out-of-pocket, which can be prohibitive.

Assessment is another concern, according to results from the summit. Since many games don’t have proper assessment tools, it can be hard to determine if students are playing games at the appropriate level.

For a Detailed Report on Digital Gaming in the Classroom…

The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report provides an in-depth analysis of where digital gaming in the classroom is headed in three-to-five years, and gives numerous references for additional reading.

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