Gaming in the Classroom: from High School to Higher Ed

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Educational gaming has been popular in grade schools and high schools for years. Teachers, administrators, and previously-wary parents have all touted digital games for their abilities to engage young minds. MIT even put out a paper, “Moving Learning Games Forward,” which cited games’ usefulness in teaching, simulation, and the promotion of critical thinking.

Despite this track record, video games haven’t caught on as well at four-year universities. Sure, you’ll see quite a few in graduate-level programs. Clark Aldrich, the leader of a successful simulation and gaming company, has said that “By far the best serious games and the biggest use of serious games is at the master’s level.” Most MBA programs involve market simulations, and medical students can examine digital bodies before they treat real patients. But what about undergrads?

The Case for Games

There’s plenty of hard evidence to support gaming for K-12 and graduate classrooms. For instance, a 2008 UCF study showed markedly more improvement in algebra skills among high schoolers who played the popular “Math Evolver” game. A 2012 experiment from the Journal of Research in Science Teaching showed similar results for chemistry students who used digital molecular simulations. And, as a recent study from Greece has shown, even games intended for entertainment can be useful for education. At a Junior High in Athens, kids who used “The Sims 2” to complement their math homework actually scored three percent higher on their final exams.

Can gaming be this beneficial for college students, as well? Yes, according to quite a few teachers and neuroscientists. Neurologist Judy Wills has said that games are useful for people of all ages because of their universal hormonal and psychological triggers. “Winning” leads to a dopamine response, “levels” allow for the recognition of incremental progress, and well-designed games can help people gauge their familiarity with the material.

Game designer Jane McGonigal outlined several other benefits in a 2011 TED Talk. Gamers usually display “urgent optimism” – they act quickly, always believing they have a reasonable chance of success. Collaborative games encourage stronger social ties and a sense of cooperation. The fun of a game can make players happy – happier than they would be if they were being unproductive. And perhaps most importantly, a good game can add meaning and purpose to an otherwise-dull assignment.

Current Projects

In their 2012 Horizon Report, the NMC predicted that we’d see widespread adoption of gaming in universities by 2015. Given the its rapid rise – as well as the “gamification” of everything from workplace training to politics – it may not even take that long. Here are a few universities that have already implemented games into their undergrads’ curricula:

• University of North Carolina: UNC-Charlotte computer science professors have start the Game2Learn program, a project they hope will help to gain and retain more students. They’re using motivational games in lieu of normal homework assignments to promote growth and diversity in their department.
• Purdue University: The premier school for the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative, Purdue now features games in its math, science, and even humanities departments. Their School of Aeronautics and Astronautics actually made their entire “Introduction to Aerospace Design” course into an online multiplayer game.
• Boise State University: In a World of Warcraft-like online environment, Boise students immerse themselves in educational “quests” – videos, tests, short assignments, and the like. They receive “experience points” based on their performance, and their end-of-semester point totals determine their final grades.
• University of Pennsylvania: UPenn’s Wharton School of Business now features two popular marketplace simulations. In Fare Game, students learn about air fare competition by manipulating prices and resource allocation for mock airlines. In Future View, they conduct market research to determine the profitability of new products and services.

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