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The State of Games in the Classroom

The State of Games in the Classroom
Reported by
Nicole Cojuangco

Posted May 25, 2012

Presented By


Since their inception, video games have been steadily invading our screens, playing increasingly significant roles in all aspects of American life. Known for their entertainment value more than for their educational benefits, video games are still infrequent inclusions in the American classroom. At the Science Education Initiative event The State of Games in the American Classroom on April 17, 2012, Scott Lachut, director of consulting at PSFK, presented the Future of Gaming Report as a resource and an inspiration for educators to begin considering games less as a mindless medium and more as an innovative, interactive tool to increase student achievement. The Future of Gaming Report, which emerged from PSFK's analysis of patterns in the development and use of games, identifies promising trends in gaming and analyzes gaming's expanding role in bettering the individual and society. At this event, Lachut focused on the education-related aspects of the report, discussing the growing impact of gaming on students inside and outside of the classroom.

Lachut began his presentation by addressing why people play games and what makes a great game. Beginning with a video clip of the reactions of various children playing a video game, he suggested that the reason for the children's obvious engagement was that games, unlike real life, offer a "structured experience, measure a skill in a specific way, and provide timely feedback." To do this effectively, a game must have seven elements, Lachut explained. These seven elements can also contribute to effective, innovative teaching strategies.

The first "pillar of gaming" is narrative: narrative is entertaining in books and films, but it is even more so when it is embedded in a game. The game medium allows a player not just to witness the narrative, but also to participate in its making. Second, games need a clear set of goals: participants aware of exactly what is to be accomplished are more likely to focus on this task and to be drawn into the game. Third, successful games incorporate continuous feedback, showing participants a result for each of their actions. In this way, players "see consequences much sooner than they might ... in real life." Drawing a connection to education, Lachut voiced student thinking, "If I don't do my homework today, maybe I won't see the consequences until several days later when my parents find out." In a game, the consequences are immediate.

The fourth element of a successful game is that it is increasingly challenging. A good game "builds on a precisely acquired set of skills to test ability and then to empower future success" via constant feedback and constant challenges. The feedback-mediated challenge allows an audience with a variety of skill levels to maintain interest in the game, an advantage that could prove very useful in a classroom of students with diverse interest and ability levels. Reward for achievement is the fifth attribute of an effective game. "Whether it is a release of dopamine or a pocket full of virtual currency," Lachut remarked, consistent rewards for certain actions maintains players' motivation to go further into the game. The sixth pillar is the establishment of a safe environment to fail, allowing "experimentation and creativity without that feeling of fear or failure." Lachut conveyed this facet with an anecdote about John Sterman, who runs a game creation program at MIT. Sterman designed a simulation game for CEOs of major corporations to test out different business practices and noticed that many "CEOs are so afraid to fail within the context of their other colleagues that they will stick to their current way of conducting business," and they are eventually out-performed by, for example, a 15 year-old student who, unafraid to fail within this game, is willing to experiment with business practices. Lastly, the seventh pillar of gaming is the social element. Player–player interaction can lead to sharing, collaboration, or even competition around a shared problem or towards a common goal.

Some of these elements have obvious parallels in education innovation, as do the skills good games can inculcate. For example, Lachut introduced the idea of crystallized versus fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence refers to the "lifetime knowledge base acquired over time and defined by the ability to use previously learned skills knowledge and experience." Conversely, fluid intelligence is "the ability to think logically and to solve problems in novel situations without acquired skills." Gaming exploits and hones fluid intelligence, demanding skills such as pattern recognition, abstract reasoning, and creative problem solving, and, Lachut continued, those with a high capacity for fluid intelligence tend to acquire crystallized intelligence faster. Educators can use this relationship as they re-envision effective learning environments.

Games already play a large role in the informal education of young people. Jane McGonigal, a creator of alternate reality games that blend offline and online platforms, has reported that "97% of boys under 18 and 94% of girls under 18 report playing video games regularly." Moreover, the average young person racks up to "10,000 hours of gaming before the age of 21," which Lachut equated to all the hours of spent in middle and high school for a student with perfect attendance. Educators can therefore take a process in which their students are already highly engaged, and can redirect that engagement towards specific learning goals and life skills needed for students' classroom success.

To advocate the incorporation of gaming into the classroom, Lachut presented the trends that PSFK identified in the gaming industry: changes to the purpose, mechanics, and functionality of games. Furthermore, he introduced current applications and games that fit into each trend and explained how they exhibit several of the attributes that make a game great and that would also increase its applicability to classroom teaching. (Image courtesy of Scott Lachut)

Some games allow people to collaborate on a common problem. For example, FoldIt is a new game in which participants experiment with different ways to fold proteins, contributing to current biochemical research. The players learn as they go, contributing to solving the problem without needing specialized scientific skills. Scientists then sift through the solutions to help redirect their research. The success achieved by FoldIt and by other programs like it increases the appeal of such games by turning game play into a vehicle for social change. Similarly, an online game, Project Noah, sends players on missions to collect real-time data on organisms in their neighborhood, rendering them citizen-scientists. Not only are individual players learning about their environment, but the resulting collective manpower can advance scientific research related to botany, ecology, and more.

Some high school and college classrooms are using games, such as Angry Birds and SIM City, to help students develop an intuition for the concepts they learn outside the games. Success at Angry Birds relies on an intuitive grasp of projectile motion, while the latest SIM City asks players to account for the effects of climate change as they build their city. An entertainment-focused game, when used the right way by the teacher, can become an effective and engaging learning exercise. Other games, such as Launch Now, Rocksmith, Code Academy, and Dreambox, aim to inspire a sense of purpose beyond the game. Through these and other games, players can, for instance, learn new skills, (e.g., to play an instrument, to code software, to start a business), improve everyday behavior, or fundraise (i.e., success in the game leads makes donations to real charities). Similar games, re-tooled for education, could be adapted to help students stay motivated to achieve learning aims.

New trends in the mechanics of games can be exploited for educational purposes. For example, educators could adapt Platform Wars, a business simulation program currently used by MIT to train technology executives, to teach K-12 students key business skills. Peer pressure mechanisms, reinvigorated by gaming platforms, can be used for good, motivating students to reach their goals and to develop new skills. Hacker Scouts, for instance, establishes a "skill share" community in which a player receives virtual and physical "badges" as he or she finishes a new project. This innovative online platform is even being developed as a way to earn academic credits instead of badges. uses barcodes on bins to monitor recycling activity and to reward households and neighborhoods that recycle more frequently. Some suggest this mechanism could be used to address recycling problems in school systems. Incorporating reinforcement mechanisms into games that drive people to real-world, positive actions is clearly a trend that can be applied to motivation in a classroom setting.

Advances in the functionality of gaming systems make their application in classrooms even more promising. Games are increasingly being moved off screen and into the real world, driven by higher tech, more mobile media such as Xbox Kinect, smart phones, and tablets. Microsoft has collaborated with National Geographic and with Sesame Street to develop gesture-based platforms—systems that use sensors and motion recognition to promote a more physical gaming experience—that teach elementary school-aged children about nature or even about socialization and emotions, subskills that they can deploy in real life. Life of George from Lego and Sesame Street have also developed games that blend the physical and the digital, requiring the use of off-screen objects that are then sensed and used onscreen. Cheap sensory hardware and software have even allowed the development of several game-like programs with life-sized game pieces such as Nike Basketball and the French Digital Kitchen.

All of these programs highlight the growing appetite for innovative games that bridge virtual and physical realities. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, kids consume an average of 10 hours of media a day. If this consumption is evolving into the norm, then incorporating daily learning activities into these hours seems to be the natural next step.

As Lachut summed up, gaming essentially takes "an action we all engage in at some level and [adds] an incentive." Corporations successfully use this mechanism to make a profit, so, Lachut asked, why shouldn't educators use it to meet learning goals? Effective games stimulate the individual, maintain engagement, broaden players' perspective, provide timely feedback, and motivate them to do better. These are all things that teachers try to accomplish in lessons, so teachers should consider incorporating the core elements and methods used by the tools of the gaming industry to accomplish these shared goals. Yet including gaming in curricula has so far been met with hesitation. Ultimately, it is up to educators to determine whether the potential benefits of classroom gaming outweigh the potential downsides.

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

Presentation available from Scott Lachut (PSFK)

The Future of Gaming

Scott Lachut (PSFK)



Course materials used in the teaching of Massachusetts institute of Technology's courses, available on the Web.

Aboard the International Space Station, flight engineer Don Pettit presents the physics of Angry Birds in an entertaining and educational video. Scott Lachut cited this video as an example of using games to embed knowledge.

Pew Research Center reports on various statistics and trends that involve Americans and their technology usage.

The website of game designer and researcher, Jane McGonigal, presents literature and multimedia to advocate "gamification"—using elements of gaming to enhance non-game contexts—as a means towards "a better world."

The full PSFK report on The Future of Gaming can be found here.

Books & Articles

Lawrence J. Atari founder to create game to reduce high school to 1 year. Education News 2011.

Looking to use gaming in the classroom to counter underperforming public school systems, founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, intends to prepare college-ready students through his "Speed to Learn" program, which uses a system of computers and incentives to educate children.

Matthews JNA. Computer games take their place in the science classroom. Physics Today April 2012: 27.

High school physics teacher Frank Noschese uses science-based games and online programs such as Angry Birds to improve learning in the classroom.

McGonigal J. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin Press; 2011.

Thomson I. Negroponte plans tablet airdrops to teach kids to read. The Register 2011.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT's Media Lab and of One Laptop Per Child, is hoping for the possibility of self-taught literacy via a cost-efficient tablet computer.


Scott Lachut

e-mail | website

Scott Lachut is PSFK's Director of Consulting, working with a team of global researchers to provide leading companies with insights on the trends and innovation that are shaping the marketplace from both a consumer and business standpoint. His previous jobs resemble multiple chapters from Studs Terkel's Working, with jobs ranging from the blue collar to the white collar. Away from the computer his interests skew towards cooking and lawn games. Lachut holds a BA in English, Philosophy, and Religion Studies from Syracuse University.

Nicole Cojuangco

Nicole Cojuangco is a high school biology teacher for the New York City Department of Education and has been teaching in central Brooklyn for more than four years. Nicole has a BS in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, and has recently earned an MS in Science Education, via the NYC Teaching Fellows program. Since 2009, she has been a member of the Academy, through which she finds the opportunity to enrich, develop, and fuse her passions for teaching and for science.