Computer games can offer students a fun way to learn!

From a commercial standpoint, games and simulations have always been a prime focus of software developers and technological innovators because of their strong public appeal. Much of the current internet demand is driven by online gamers and it is estimated that more that 217 million people around the world regularly play online games. Gaming software companies reported sales reached $9.5 billion in 2007. (1)People are even beginning to study online game addiction. From a teaching standpoint, many games and simulations include an educational component. In fact, games designed specifically for educational purposes are being integrated into traditional school curriculums. This allows both teachers and parents to capture the attention of the "digital native" generation, that is, the generation of young people who have grown up with computer technology as a major component in their lives. (2) At its most basic, an online or digital game is some type of game played over the internet or on the computer. There are various genres, but some of the most popular include: first person games, role playing games, real-time strategy games and multiplayer online games.

Here is an amazingly realistic simulation of the US Airways 1549 crash landing into the Hudson River. Explanation simulations such as these are a great way to teach students and go beyond just reading words in a text book!

Simulations are a version of games that usually focus on realism, or re-creating some real world experience. They can be an "explanation" type such as a computer game that demonstrates the landing of a plane from the cockpit's perspective, or an experiential version such as a flight simulation game in which the student has control over the cockpit.(3)

One of the older- but still popular- experiential simulations is Oregon Trail, a game that requires the user to plan and execute a wilderness excursion across America. Perhaps the best known commercial simulation game is Sim City, where the user builds and maintains an urban life scenario. Other popular forms of real-time simulations include things like fantasy sports, such as ESPN Fantasy Sports or CBS Sportsline, and stock market simulations such as fantasy stock markets or kaching, which are used particularly in economics classes.

Learning Theories and Simulations:
Games & sims (like Oregon Trail) challenge students to plan, prepare and make decisions.

Games and simulations, like much technology, can fall under a number of learning theories. For example, a game that drills students in grammar or in the use of math skills applies a behavioral method of learning. These games fit the behavioral method because they present students with repetitive skill practice while thier teacher shapes and reinforces their correct reponses.

Another game scenario would also address the cognitive approach to learning. When a student is presented with a particular stimulus, that student holds the information in their working memory. If they continue to perceive that stimulus, the information may then be stored in long term memory, and be recalled at a later time when cued by additional stimulus. Matching games are an example of the cognitive apporach to learning. Primary Games has some excellent online matching
games for students (that will even challenge adults). On the higher education level, computer technology allows us to complete more complex activities such as experiments to help us understand cognition. The "Stroop Effect" is an example of this, and there are several free opportunities to experience this through a sort of a gaming mechanism via the internet. The Neuroscience for Kids website offers an interactive opportunity to discover this theory of cognition.

Games and simulations can also fall under the constructivist learning theory. The stock market simulations mentioned above allow students to act as their own stock brockers. They are made to do their own research and by playing the game are allowed to construct their own understanding of how the stock market works. The stock market generally rewards those who have a diversified portfolio, rather than have "all their eggs in one basket." What better way for a student to learn than to invest the majority of their money in singular stock, and then have that stock suddenly decrease in value?! There are also several different "Lemonade Stand" gaming models available via the internet that offer a constructivist approach. The games allow students to operate a lemonade stand business while taking into account the cost of goods sold & a variable customer demand, the whole while updating you on your financial success (or failure) and customer satisfaction ratings. A simple but effective version of this game is available at www.lemonadegame.com.

Benefits and Challenges:

Games and simulations can have many benefits. Perhaps the most obvious is that they usually generate strong student motivation. Students play games in the their free time, and when those interests can be integrated into an educational activity there is a great chance of involvement. Games and simulations are also excellent for letting students achieve a "realistic" experience without facing some of the consequences of the real world. One example of that would be in driver's ed. Some students only learn how to drive on simulations because they have come so far technologically that they mimic real driving. These simulations allow students to learn without the stress of worrying about accidents and other hazards of the road. It isn't suprising that the air force and NASA train their pilots using simulations.

Games and simulations also offer an opportunity to complete assignments that require important life skills such as planning, organization, reasoning, logic, as well as working toward a goal under pressure. For instance, the aforementioned Oregon Trail simulation requires the student to plan for the equipment and resources necessary to embark on a Lewis and Clark type journey across America. Along the way, the scenario changes and the student has to make decisions such as what equipment to keep and what to discard, the amount of food and medicines to purchase, and what other members of the traveling party are needed (i.e. a guide, nurse, teacher, etc...). Facing rugged terrain, bad weather, and possible enemies challenges the student to utilize the skills they have learned in school in a simulated, "real life" scenario.

Here is a video that demonstrates how an engineering course at Northern Illinois University utilizes students' ability to understand geometry, force, acceleration, velocity, torque, and other elements of the mechanical universe. The students write programming to give the car its "brain," and their final exam is racing on an unknown track with obstacles waiting to hinder them. Great stuff!

Some of the very same things that are benefits with games and simulations can also be challenges. Games can have the stigma of "fun" and students may not take them seriously. Alternatively, students may become too engaged in games - see link on gaming addiction above - and it may hinder their social development. Also, some games that appear to be educational may not have any real pedagogical value. Students have been shown to focus more on winning the game rather than learning the key points intended by the teacher. It is important to have the teacher interact with students as they participate in these games and sims, reinforcing the key points of the lesson. Prompting students with questions and ideas ahead of time is an effective way to focus them on the areas intended. (4)

Special Guidance Needed:

An understanding of basic computer operation is necessary in order to get started. Fortunately, a couple hours of playing solitaire on the computer will allow even the most technology-averse individual to operate a mouse. Most of the basic games require very little knowledge of computers. Basic keyboard understanding will suffice. As the student becomes more adept at using the computer, the games and simulations can in turn become more sophisticated.

Current Research:

More than one book has been dedicated to the topic of games and simulations in learning. Here are a few:

There are several websites that discuss the effectiveness of games and simulations in education. They include:

Lesson Ideas:

Several lesson ideas have already been mentioned above. Here is a list of ideas that teachers can utilize in their curriculum:
  • Games for elementary age children include matching games, word games (such as phonics practice), crossword puzzles and basic math are all available for use. The Education Place website listed below includes games that address subject areas such as parts of speech (Wacky Web Tales) and U.S. and world geography (GeoNet).
  • At Primary Games (listed below), teachers can implement games for subject areas such as social studies, math, science, virtual worlds, puzzles and more.
  • YouTube and other video related news and information sites have an almost endless supply of multimedia options that cover a vast array of subject areas. Just a quick search on YouTube, Google or Yahoo! will give you plenty of resources to support yor teaching efforts.
  • Get your middle and high school students involved in experiential simulations such as Lemonade Stand or Oregon Trail listed above. These software programs will give your students the opportunity to work on planning, organizing, analyzing, and problem solving, as well as basic math, reading and comprehension, and their science knowledge. All that, and having fun at the same time!
  • Here is an example of teachers utilizing games for creative writing. The kids are having fun and improving their writing skills at the same time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZrkzXOV15k

Links to Resources:


1. http://news.softpedia.com/news/Computer-and-Video-Game-Industry-28-Percent-Bigger-77383.shtml
2. http://www.digitalnative.org/wiki/Main_Page
3. http://it.coe.uga.edu/~lrieber/mayer2005/
4. http://www.cited.org/index.aspx?page_id=143#ref