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Playing Games In School

When games make a difference in education

It doesn't take a PhD to know that when students are engaged, they learn. Any game that fails to engage students gets chucked into the trash or relegated to a yard sale. Ergo the hypothesis that if "education" is more like a game, kids will be engaged and learn.

Of course, the experimental evidence is mixed.

Plenty of games have found a role in the classroom, from Monopoly to Oregon Trail and more recently, Minecraft. Educators and game designers continue to hone ideas about how to build truly engaging games that carry genuine lessons. At the same time, plenty of educators and parents worry that game playing just distracts students.

The biggest lesson learned: building games, when students are nudged to create meaning out of the ether, is how games can most powerfully support learning.

Our collection of articles draw from a range of perspectives from researchers and practitioners, including the latest market trends from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center executive director, Michael Levine, and critiques from Arizona State University professor, James Paul Gee, over the potential pitfalls when games are designed around assessments such as the Common Core.

And then there are the games themselves. We've pulled out some of our favorite here, organized into four categories:

Edugame Classics (designed to support learning)

New Kids On the Block (designed to support learning)

Mainstream Games In Edu (commercial products with a learning twist)

Games That Teach Game Making (what students need to learn)

There are still many hurdles to clear before games become a fixture in education. On the top of the list: strict accountability rules based on assessments, a patchwork of distribution channels, and patchy school infrastructure remain obstacles. 

So for now, welcome to the jungle--filled with lush ideas, howling debates, and rich resources. Game on!

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Product Comparisons

30 Ways to Get Your Game On 

Pulling out all the stops, we bring you 30 educational games, past and present, along with mainstream games being co-opted into education. We even went a little meta with five games that teach players how to make the games themselves.   

Looking at the sprawling landscapes of Second Life and Minecraft, it is safe to say the genre has come a long way since Mario Taught Us Typing. And, as usual, if you have any other edugame favorites, do let us know

Prices (as of August 2013) are as indicated, with any extra fees noted in a product's description.

Edugame Classics

Compiled by EdSurge

Product Subject Platform Price
Math Blaster
Offering platforming and first-person-shooter mechanics in a math-filled package, Math Blaster set a design precedent for educational games that alternated between work and reward.     
Math
Mac, PC, browser, iOS, Nintendo DS
$2 - $30
Number Munchers
A few of us remember playing this by the green glow of an Apple IIe. Elegant game design means reaction time and math skills rarely get in the way of each other. You can still play the game free here.   
Math
Mac, browser
FREE
The Oregon Trail
Perhaps calling it the Citizen Kane of edugames is going a little too far, but no discussion of the genre is complete without a mention of MECC's seminal hit. It has sold over 65 million copies--not bad for a game that was programmed by two hackers in a week. Protip: as in life, always be the banker.
History

Mac, PC, iOS, Android, browser, wii, Nintendo 3DS, Kindle, DOS
$5 - $15
Reader Rabbit
A veteran series in the literacy game scene, EdSurge just spoke with a teacher who is still using a version in her class that's over 10 years old. And we can see why, it's hard to beat the top notch voice acting on the latter games in the series.  
Literacy
Mac, PC, Nintendo Wii
$3 - $15

New Kids on the Block

Compiled by EdSurge

Product Subject Platform Price
BrainPOP
This suite of games covers everything from STEM to health and the arts. The quality of content is uneven, but its top games shine and many are available to try for free before dropping the $195/year for a classroom subscription.
All Subjects
Mac, PC, iPad, browser
Freemium
DragonBox
This puzzle-based algebra game replaces traditional math symbols with its own to allow players to recontextualize their learning. 
Math
Mac, browser, iOS, Android
$6 - $10
Duckie Deck
Colorful, polished artwork and intuitive controls make the mini-games of Duckie Deck easy for toddlers to jump into. The mobile version features six games for iOS and Android at just under $2. 
Early Education, Social Skills
browser, iOS, Android $2/month
Filament Games
With games that cover topics ranging from photosynthesis to virus transmission, Filament Games is certainly keeping the space interesting. 

STEM Mac, PC, browser $1 - $10
Mangahigh
A suite of games that tips its hat to arcade favorites from yesteryear and teaches everything from arithmetic and prime numbers to translations on a coordinate plane. Plans offer more content, analytics, and progress reports. They start at $180 to support up to five students.

Math
Mac, PC, browser Freemium
Motion Math
Putting that accelerometer to good use, the Motion Math team first taught kids to embody fractions in Motion Math HD. They now have six apps, some of which are free. The company's latest game, Questimate, is $8 for its pro version. 
Math, Number Sense iOS Freemium
PBS Kids Play
A suite of over 50 games to prepare young learners in math, english, development, creativity, and more.  
Early Education Mac, PC, browser $10/month
Sokikom
This collection of math games is based around a social element: students can play individually, cooperatively, and competitively to solve problems.  
Math Mac, PC, browser $10/year per student
ST Math
Get JiJi the penguin across the screen! A simple premise, but it provides the foundation for ST Math's host of games. The program allows students to progress from visual representations of math into the symbolic representations that they'll use later in life. A favorite for teachers with ELL students!
Math, Number Sense Mac, PC, browser $100/year per student

Mainstream Games Used in Edu

Compiled by EdSurge

Product Subject Platform Price
Angry Birds
The $1 app that spawned a line of t-shirts, cartoons and graham crackers may have turned our feathered friends into a Hitchcockesque consumer nightmare; however, teachers are bringing them back to our side. While using the game to teach physics seems a natural choice, one teacher is using it as a starting point for a multitude of writing exercises.
Physics, Writing iOS, Android, browser, PSP
$1
Brain Age
Proving that handheld games aren't just for kids, Brain Age became the 4th best selling Nintendo DS game of all time. Players try their hand at math, memory and reading games in an effort to hit the optimal "brain age" of 18.
Math

Nintendo DS
$16
Civilization V
The latest in Sid Meier's venerable series has players macro and micromanaging an empire in turn-based comfort. Think about this as more of a conversation starter in history than a complete lesson--Civ's version of Gandhi tends to rush nuclear weapons for the early win.
History Mac, PC $20
Garry's Mod
Based on the Half Life 2 engine, this physics simulator gives users all they need to make all manner of Rube Goldberg greatness. However, educators found it to be the perfect playground for both physics and chemistry demos.    
STEM Mac, PC, Linux
$10
Minecraft
It's hard to believe that a sandbox game that actually features copious amounts of sand could ever be popular, but this indie darling has sold over 11 million copies. The game sneaks in ideas about probability, ratios, and volume so stealthily that players never find the broccoli 'neath the chocolate. The Minecraft Teacher is the go to resource for bringing the game to the classroom.
Communication, STEM Mac, PC, Linux, iOS, Android, Xbox 360, Raspberry Pi
$18/student or $27/home
Portal 2
Thoughtful puzzles and laugh out loud dialogue made the game one of our favorites in 2011, but Valve decided to go one step further and release a Puzzle Maker mod for its Teach With Portals initiative that allows students to create and share puzzles. Let the testing begin!
Game Design, STEM Mac, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
$20
Scrabble
The original wordsmithing game in tactile cardboard and wood. A classic that scales to all skill levels. Protip: every tile is a blank when you turn it over.  
Literacy

boardgame
$16
Second Life
A truly open, open-world experience that allows players to create or purchase any objects they like. During a brief period, several universities were holding classes that met exclusively in the game. And, if students got bored, they could literally fly away--what a thought. 
Communication, All Subjects Mac, PC, Linux
FREE
SimCity
DRM fiasco aside, SimCity 2013 brings the series back to its roots. Urban planning hopefuls, keep your eye on this game--GlassLab hopes to create a curriculum based around SimCity with SimCityEDU.  
Urban Planning Mac, PC
$36
Sudoku
While we hesitate to call it math, it's hard to deny the logic and memory skills this newspaper favorite reinforces. Plus there are a ton of sites where you can download puzzles for free
Number Sense pencil and paper
FREE
Super Mario Bros.
The Nintendo classic also makes for one heck of a way to teach physics. Students can compare the in-game gravity to our real-world constant. And this doubles as a lesson in game design as students learn how to bend rules so that they feel "right" in a game world.
Physics Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS
$5
Typing of the Dead
The first time we saw this machine in arcades, it seemed too good to be true. Keyboard drilling and House of the Dead combined in a humorous, 2-player package. If there's a better coin-operated edugame out there, we haven't seen it. And fans rejoice: an iOS version is in the works. 
Typing Skills
Arcade
50 cents / play

Games That Teach Game-Making

Compiled by EdSurge

Product Subject Platform Price
Gamestar Mechanic
This program allows users to create tile-based games in the style of the NES. Its premium offerings include a $20 lesson in game design and additional sprite sheets for $2. 
CS / Game Design
Mac, PC, browser Freemium
Globaloria
Blended-learning courses that teach students to design and code educational games. Start by playing and analyzing games, move onto prototyping and coding in Flash Actionscript, Unity3D, Java Script, and more. Used as standalone courses or to supplement core classes. Annual school subscription $75/student includes onsite professional development, virtual mentorship, and daily support system for students, teachers and administrators.
CS / Game Design
browser $75/year per student
LittleBigPlanet 2
Media Molecule's breakout hit proved that gamers aren't afraid of a little hard work. Its sequel added even more triggers, assets, and game types to play around with. Combine this with a soundtrack featuring Royksopp and Passion Pit and you've got some game development you can nod your head to. 
Game Design, STEM
PS3
$20
Roblox
Roblox allows users to participate in a community of builders and play a vast library of user-created games. In addition to game design, Roblox allows players to model basic objects in 3D as well. Premium memberships can be bought for between $6 and $20 per month. 
CS / Game Design
Mac, PC, iOS Freemium
Scratch 2.0
Developed at MIT, Scratch allows users to create animations, music, and even fully fledged games. Its "visual blocks" style of coding means that younger programmers can jump in without learning all the daunting syntax of more complicated languages. Its latest iteration adds community features that allow designers to program together and comment on each others' creations.
CS / Game Design
browser FREE