Video Games in the Classroom

Soon after video games made the leap from the arcade to the personal computer, educational video games were introduced in schools. 1985 saw the release of Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego – the former designed to teach children about American history, the latter made to help children study geography. Along with Reader Rabbit, which was released the following year, these games gained widespread popularity and commercial success.

In the nearly three decades since, video game technology has blossomed, and a multitude of educational games have filled the market. Some, like Sim City, have aimed to foster creativity; many, like The Cluefinders series, aim to help students review academic material, especially math. In the past ten years or so, some (such as the current iteration of Math Blaster) have also come to include an element of social interactivity.

How Effective Are Educational Games?

As educational gaming has developed as an industry, video games have become increasingly common in the classroom. Some parents are dubious about this – a common concern is that games will take away from instructional time and thus children will learn less. However, studies suggest that video games in educational contexts can have beneficial effects.

A 2011 study by SRI International found that use of the DreamBox edutainment system had a strong positive correlation with improved test scores in math. This system uses adaptive software which tailors difficulty levels to children’s proficiency, challenging them just enough to help them advance. Games like DreamBox are designed to complement lecture-style instruction and take the place of in-class practice problems.

There is one potential benefit of educational games which is contested within the scholarly community – the competitive aspect. Competition is a feature of most educational games which incorporate a social element. Noted researcher Mizuko Ito (2012) found that competition could detract from the learning experience by shifting the focus from mastery of content to completion of the bare minimum necessary to “level up” and stay ahead of classmates. However, another study by Plass, O’Keeffe, et al found precisely the opposite – they reported students who engaged in competitive learning games in the classroom focused on comprehension rather than just “looking smart.” They postulated that this might even lead to a shift in overall attitudes about learning and put students in a frame of mind conducive to mastering concepts.

Apart from this point of contention, however, research on educational games has shown positive results overall. When used to complement the usual classroom-style learning, games can help students engage with the material and get excited about learning, and they can improve memory and retention of lessons.

Recent Developments In Educational Games

In the wake of positive research, the past several years have seen games being used for learning in unprecedented ways. The most prominent example is Minecraft, a virtual building and survival game in which all resources and tools must be found, mined, or made. While it was originally designed for entertainment rather than education, some parents and educators have embraced it as a tool for learning. The organization Minecraft Edu provides support programming for integrating Minecraft into the classroom, while the Minecraft Homeschool network provides lesson plans for collaborative learning in-game.

While games can be implemented as part of the curriculum, some educators also view them as a valuable extracurricular tool. Joe Anderson, a math teacher at The Rainard School in Houston, created a private Minecraft server for his students to play on in their free time. For him, the most salient feature of Minecraft is that it affords opportunity for social interaction and cooperation. This is particularly useful for students who are too old for recess, which provides similar opportunities but only up to a certain age. In addition, he feels Minecraft is beneficial for his students because it requires them to think critically about problem-solving – a vital skill for mathematics.

Another recent trend is the proliferation of review games for specific subject areas to which gaming had not yet been applied. A good example of this is Do I Have A Right?, a short online game focused on the US Constitution. Similar in structure to FarmVille, this game provides content review on the Constitution and the amendments and walks students through judicial procedure. This type of game has many advantages. Because it has a narrow focus, teachers can incorporate it into the curriculum on a one-time basis even in classes which would ordinarily be entirely lecture-based, with no in-class practice problems or equivalent. And because it is online and free to play, parents can tell their children to use it at home if further review of the topic is needed.

Perhaps the most exciting trend in educational games is their increased accessibility and usability outside the context of the classroom. Edutainment in the home is itself nothing new – many games used in schools can also be purchased by parents, and the LeapFrog Corporation has been selling educational gaming devices with proprietary programs since 1994. Until recently, however, educational gaming in the home has been expensive – requiring the purchase of a PC game at minimum. With the diversification of online edutainment games and the rise of smartphones, however, the price of learning through play has dropped dramatically. While there is something to be said for LeapFrog’s carefully researched and designed materials, free online games like Do I Have A Right? are nevertheless valuable educational tools. And the development of edutainment apps for Android and iPhone/iPad means that parents no longer need to purchase a LeapFrog system to make learning portable for their children. Games for every subject and age are available in app stores, many of them for free.

The Takeaway For Parents: Educational Games And Your Child

Parents are often hesitant about putting games in the classroom, but many studies have found they can be beneficial if used in certain ways. If your child’s school is considering implementing educational gaming on a widespread scale, or if individual teachers make use of games in the classroom, learn more before deciding how you feel about it – the recommended further reading listed at the end of this article can help you stay informed.

And if your child enjoys gaming, it might be worthwhile to investigate educational games they can play at home. After all, one of the best ways to ensure that children learn is to make learning fun; and edutainment is one important way of accomplishing that.

References And Recommended Further Reading

A Brief History Of Video Games In Education

DreamBox Aces Test: Study Shows Edutainment Program Boosts Exam Scores

Educational Games Research

Educational Video Games Can Boost Motivation To Learn, NYU, CUNY Study Shows

A Literature Review of Gaming in Education

Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software

Minecraft Edu: Bringing Minecraft To The Classroom

Minecraft Homeschool: Where Learning And Gaming Collide

New: 10 Of The Best Apple And Android Apps For Education In 2013


About The Author

Sarah Craig is a senior at Rice University, where she is majoring in anthropology, linguistics, and Asian studies. She intends to pursue a graduate degree focusing on the social science of technology.