I’m a big fan of the constructive use of games in education. After all, games are engaging and, potentially, connected to rich, authentic activities. Traditional schooling is often neither. Digital games can capture the process of learning. Traditional assessment is typically about the outcome of learning. Gaming promotes productive failure (or at least players persevere and fail productively in the games they play). Schooling can discourage learning from mistakes. Games hold great promise.
That promise for digital games to transform learning has been with us for a while. I remember attending a conference on video games at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (where I teach a course called Innovation by Design) and hearing how games would engage students in learning and foster the development of spatial and reasoning skills. Others fretted about desensitization to violence and games coming at the expense of other valuable child experiences. That conference was in 1983 (read what the NY Times had to say about it). Thirty-one years later the same concerns and benefits are being debated.
Meeting the recurring promise of digital games requires thoughtful and intentional integration into the curriculum. David Perkins, an eventual Harvard colleague and one of the speakers at that 1983 conference, offered some guiding wisdom that we should still be heeding. He warned of “contextual welding.” The wonderful skills and strategies that students develop playing games are likely to stay welded to those games unless we actively support the transfer of that learning. This issue of transfer is also relevant for all those cognitive enhancement games advertised everywhere. Sending your students off to play games may make them happy and look engaged, but getting the learning to spread where you want it to go takes work.
So what can we do to make games more effective for learning. Here are three suggestions:
The promise of games I heard back in 1983 remains. Technology has enhanced the possibilities, but good implementation, where teachers intentionally incorporate the games – from board to virtual – into the curriculum, is at the root of leveraging the potential into deeper learning for students.