ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Gaming in the Classroom Can Be an Epic Win

Post written by Mikaela Dwyer, a journalism student at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. She considers herself a human rights activist and spends her time volunteering on campus and with various local nonprofits. After graduation, Dwyer hopes to join the Peace Corps and then become an investigative journalist for human rights issues.

Jane McGonigal - 2014 ASCD Annual ConferenceResearch has proven that children who play games have the opportunity to become great creative and critical thinkers as well as quick problem solvers, resourceful engineers, and empathetic individuals. For years, however, the media has tried to convince parents and educators that gaming is a way to escape real-life problems and a real waste of time. Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, held a session at the 2014 ASCD Annual Conference advocating that gaming can be an incredibly positive thing. It is our responsibility as the adults and role models in the children's lives, however, to focus on the benefits of gaming when talking to them.

Research over the years has proven that playing video games sparks activity in the brain's hippocampus, which enlightens memory, thus creating a stronger ability to retain information as well as master new techniques or knowledge. Today, 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls ages 18 or younger play some type of video game. Boys are actively engaged in gaming 13 hours a week and girls play about 8 hours a week. "If these kids are spending so much of their time in such great states of learning with games, why aren’t they really successful in the classroom?" McGonigal asked. In her recent research, she has discovered what she feels is the root of the issue.

Ultimately, McGonigal discovered, children play video games for one of two reasons. The first is to escape—to tune out the real world and ignore their real lives. The other reason is to play with purpose. Children playing video games with a purpose use gaming to relax or calm down, connect with friends that may not live close, or get energized to complete homework in real life.

Those using gaming as an escape are self-suppressing; they are running away from unpleasant thoughts. This can become a real issue further along because the more problems they deal with in real life, the more they play video games. The longer they put off the problem, the more the problem grows. Conversely, people who use gaming with a purpose are self-expressing. The more challenges that real life throws at them, the less they will play games. Self-expressers become more ambitious and content in real life.

So how does this relate to educators and the classroom? McGonigal urged participants to understand that how they talk to kids about video games can have a real influence on their lives. If they treat games as negative and useless, students will feel that way as well. Students who play games are failing 80 percent of the time, but they keep up their perseverance and determination to master the game. This is the same kind of determination they need to bring to the classroom. When teachers maintain a positive and supportive environment and embrace the idea of gaming, students can think more positively about gaming themselves and thus become self-expressers.

One significant way to keep students engaged in the classroom is to make sure that they feel a sense of worth and that they can make a difference. To that end, McGonigal showcased numerous video games that give back to a larger cause. For example, a science video game called Foldit: Solving Puzzles for Science teaches students about protein folding as part of an experimental research project developed by the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington in collaboration with the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry. Today, students can choose from hundreds of games that not only teach them, but also give back to social issues and research. For more information and a list of games, visit www.sciencegamecenter.org or www.gamesforchange.org.

McGonigal assured participants that moving forward and integrating games into the classroom is both smart and innovative. The classroom is the perfect place to use these educational video games as well as showcase how gaming can ultimately provide a positive environment for learning.

If you'd like to know more or have any questions about gaming, follow McGonigal on Twitter @avantgame.

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