As part of our mission to make research into serious games and games for learning, NASAGA is kicking off 2021 with a bold new project. We are building a games for learning blog and wiki. As we continue to grow as an organization, we want to give back to our members and the community as much as we can. Pooling our knowledge into this blog is one way we are doing that in 2021.
Below, you’ll find a quick summary of games for learning research. As this blog grows, the summaries will fill out with details and links to related articles. If you see a word in blue below, that means you can click it and get to another article for more detail. There are lots of articles not yet finished, but don’t worry. We are working hard to get them up and running!
It’s our hope that these articles will help you to use games to empower learners in and out of the classroom.
Building your own games? – more interested in what it takes to make your own games for learning? Check out our development section. It has learning theories for games, design patterns, and tools to help get you started.
What are Games for Learning?
So, what are games for learning, anyway?
Well, that’s a surprisingly big question. We won’t spend too much time waxing philosophical about the definition of a game or what it means to learn. But, you also need a good definition when you start journey.
Salen and Zimmerman, in their amazing book Rules of Play see games as having three tiers: signs, systems, and context. Simply put, this means a game has something you directly interact with or observe (signs), a set of rules (systems), and a setting in which you play (context). Lindsay Grace, an amazing scholar and author of Doing Things with Games, refers to games as having goals (something you want to do), obstructions (something that prevents you), and means (how you overcome your obstruction).
Whatever definition you subscribe to, remember this: games are supposed to be playful.
Too often designers try to sell us “games” for learning that are really just learning with points. It’s chocolate covered broccoli. It can ruin the fun of games and the impact of learning to try to hide the learning inside an asinine point system. So, I will say it again: games are supposed to be playful.
Remember that, and you’ll be fine.
Interested in learning why games are great for learning? Brush up on your theory here!
Games For Learning: Formal Teaching Tools
When most people think of games for learning, they most likely think of games for learning formal concepts. This can be anything from math to history or science. Whatever the specific content, we usually refer to any game that is used to support school teaching as a game for formal learning or a formal teaching tool.
Our games for learning teacher’s resource is a great place to start, if you’re looking to get games into your classroom.
These come in three flavors: playing games in the classroom, making games in the classroom, and games outside the classroom.
Playing Games in the Classroom
Playing games in the classroom can take a lot of forms. Everything from boardgames to informal social games to videogames. Games can engage learners, contextualize a problem, or even work to illustrate complex systems models. One great example is using the popular game Catan to inspire debate about social and economic issues.
You can check out our list of board games for the classroom here.
Making Games in the Classroom
With game building technology becoming more and more accessible, students are no longer limited to learning just by playing. It’s entirely possible to design a curriculum around making games in the classroom.
Teachers and researchers alike have found that students (especially those who enjoy games already) learn an immense about by designing their own games.
Students can learn computer skills like programming or animation. They can even make games without needing to program by using Scratch or other block-based programming game-builders.
But, that isn’t all!
Many teachers have used game making to foster inquiry in the class (even board games making). Having students make games about complex content can be a powerful way to ensure they understand the content well enough to turn it into a game.
Games Outside the Classroom
Finally, games are often used outside of the classroom to either assess or inform. Informing games used the power of narrative to teach new concepts while assessment games use the built-in interactivity of games to test a learner. But, no need to think of these as mutually exclusive. Any good game usually has an element of both.
Quest Atlantis is almost certainly the most prominent example. Used by thousands of students across the world, Quest Atlantis uses the power of story-telling and roleplay to teach students everything from geology to argumentation.
You can also check out our list of games for learning library or our games for learning research center.
Games for Learning: Informal Environments
Though games for learning in the classroom is the more popular topic in academic circles, there are plenty of examples of games in informal settings.
What is an informal setting?
Usually, an informal setting is a place where learning is still the goal, but isn’t so structured as a school. Places like museums or nature parks are great examples of informal learning spaces.
Games for Learning: Social Issues
Though not what most people think of when games for learning is brought up, we games can be amazing tools for learning social issues.
The impact of these games is complex and diverse. Games have been used to help build empathy for civilians in war-torn countries, to explain the futile cycle of wars on terrorism, and even to actively support impoverished villages across the planet.
One of our major goals is to expand this section to include details on games for:
- Environmental impact
- Social justice
- Wealth equality
- Empathy for mental health
- And many more.
About the Author
Clayton Whittle is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, focusing on games for social impact research. He serves on the board of NASAGA and handles the blog.
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