Exactly How To Teach With Video Games In The Classroom
by Terry Heick
The idea of teaching with video games is an exciting concept leading to a challenging practice.
Right off the bat the topic is a bit polarizing, the whimsical connotation of “games” juxtaposing harshly with the rigorous tones of classical academia. But past that, there is the larger issue of practical integration. Even if you’re soundly convinced about their merit and place in learning, how can you consistently integrate them in the classroom?
As much as any other theme, the 21st century classroom is about diversity–infinite possible pathways between content and students, resulting in self-directed learning as much as data-driven “teaching.” Video games can be a significant part of that.
But you’ve probably heard the rhetoric before. You want to know how exactly.
Technology in the Classroom
Integrating technology in the classroom is a multi-faceted affair that can seem overwhelming. There is the matter of curriculum—what is being learned, and how does that align with necessary learning experiences?
There is the matter of instruction—what is the teacher’s role? What should be guided and what should be self-directed by the learner?
And assessment? How do we measure what has been learned in the increasingly sandbox approach of video games?
There are also more minor but equally important issues of Wi-Fi access, extension cords, high-definition cables, mature and often violent content, parental concerns, and even the significant cost that comes with higher-end, popular games that may resonate strongly with students—especially struggling male students.
These kinds of issues have kept video games out of formal learning environments for years, but with the increasing convergence between media forms, and the improved gaming ability of everyday mobile devices, it will only be a matter of time before they’re a part of every classroom.
Exactly How To Teach With Video Games In The Classroom: 10 Specific And Practical Ways
1. Play them in school
Play them on mobile devices, such as the iPad, Android smartphones, iPhones, or other mobile devices. Who decides what to play, you or the students? Why not both? Why does that part matter?
You can also play them on consoles from the Sony PlayStation 3 to the Microsoft Xbox 360—many projectors and screens accept high-definition cable hook-ups, and the Xbox 360 can be had for as little as $99 brand new. PC gaming is also a possibility—browser-based games played right in your Google Chrome browser (e.g., Age of Empires Online), or played through Valve’s Steam service. Unlike years past, PC gaming has never been more streamlined or affordable. (Bastion is literally $3.75 right now.)
2. Have students play them at home
If playing them in the classroom doesn’t make sense for you in your setting, students can also play them at home.
Through project-based learning, screen capturing software, or well thought-out writing and multimedia assignments, students don’t have to access the games in the classroom to access game-based learning. Equity concerns remain, but they’re no reason to abandon the idea altogether. This is 2013. Figure it out—or better yet, empower students to figure it out.
3. Watch them played
Not every student has to have access to the game. In fact, there are excellent walk-throughs and play-throughs viewable on YouTube that have been recorded by players as they play the game, often hours long. Simple, done, and ready to be displayed on your projector screen tomorrow.
Model tactics in strategy games, think-aloud approaches towards resource management, or pause and think through the problem-solving of key scenarios.
4. Analyze them
The video game industry is a powerful one that has surpassed the film industry in total sales. This has spawned a digital media cottage industry of folks who create high-quality content that reviews games, their developers, their development, their trends, and so on.
This media, in the form of video reviews, text-based reviews, feature articles, tweets, their related art, fan fiction, cosplay, and so on, all can be used to analyze not only the games, but their creators, competition, and target audiences. Critical thinking through comparing, contrasting, analyzing, evaluating, deconstructing, reconstructing—this is the marrow of learning, yes? (See our post, “6 Video Games You Can Teach With Tomorrow.”)
5. Reimagine them
How we communicate and express ideas are limited by local prevailing technology. Right now, video games sit near the periphery of this practice, but soon they will be closer to the middle, and something else will replace them as “edgy.”
Like any good RAFT assignment (Role, Audience, Format, Topic), video games can be re-imagined in different forms—the video game Bastion as a novel, the narrative of Portal 2 as a film. They also can be re-imagined taking on new roles (didactic versus playful), for new audiences, covering new topics.
Re-imagining a video game requires sustained critical thinking skills, analyzing its design, understanding its key characteristics, and evaluating the ultimate impact of those changes, similar to the branding changes when Macintosh morphed into Apple.
6. Design them
Designing anything creates a considerable cognitive demand on the designer. But video games especially require macro-level perspective and micro-level attention to detail—and that’s just the planning stage.
Pushed further, an entire unit could be spent researching markets and demographics, analyzing the current demand for certain genres, evaluating existing trends in gaming, pitching an idea for a game, collaborating on its creation (real or imagined), planning its marketing, and so on.
Whether a cross-content unit involving math, science, social studies and English Language Arts, or a new kind of “class” altogether, there are countless options here.
7. Actually make them
Actually designing a game, whether crudely with Minecraft or something more in-depth with GameMaker, actually creating a video game is actually attainable for students as young as elementary aged. Easier said than done, yes–but more possible than ever.
8. Mash them with other media
Mashing is the processing of combining two distinct and separate “things” (usually a medium of some sort)—a song with a movie, a video game and a book, two songs (melody from one, words from another, etc.) This is a kind of remnant from our “remix” culture—so apply it to video games. Mashing requires would-be mashers to understand what makes a medium unique, whether in form, content, theme, tone, use of literary devices, etc.
This process can also be extremely learner-centered, allowing them the opportunity to find the media, decide how to mash them, whether in form, content, theme, tone, use of literary devices, etc.
This process can also be extremely learner-centered, allowing them the opportunity to find the media, decide how to mash them, decide why to mash them, and analyze the impact of said mashing. They can then share their work with their peers, often to great amusement and engagement.
9. Watch trailers, developer diaries, gameplay samples, and walkthroughs
Can’t actually play the games themselves? As we mentioned in #3 and #4, YouTube, blogs, and social media are chock-full of video game related content that allows teachers to integrate them into lessons and units. And when students complain that they want to be able to play them—to share them and create them—challenge them with the issue of logistics.
They might surprise you with their problem-solving skills after all.
10. Confront pressing social issues
Video games are increasingly being used to confront social and cultural issues that are otherwise problematic to address with a raging troll-fest. Terrorism, racism, poverty, child abuse, and other sensitive themes are consistently covered in games in a way many students can relate to.