Raise your hand if you remember Oregon Trail – the original Oregon Trail. How about Where in the World if Carmen San Diego? Math Blaster? Probably a lot of you do. Where did you first encounter them? If you said “in school” you can happily stand beside the majority of twenty-, thirty-somethings as the first generation of gamers to be produced by the modern education system. Since those days in the early nineties, schools have played an increasingly important role in grooming tomorrow’s gamers. The reverse is also true, games have become an important tool for educators, too. Wrapped with a bow: gamers breed learners and learners breed gamers.
It’s probably been a while since you’ve spent a week in an elementary or high school classroom, but let me assure you, games are a pivotal part of modern education. In the morning, a struggling reader practices phonetics with a talking squirrel on the library computer. Before lunch, a senior studies for his history exam with a rousing game of jeopardy on the class smart board. That afternoon, a fifth grader supplements his math lesson with a first-person shooter where aliens hold up multiplication problems as a form of defense. A second grader “reads” an interactive storybook and “helps” the main character by answering comprehension questions. Games become a part of every subject, at every grade, at some point.
School’s have finally caught on: Games have an uncanny knack for making the mundane interesting. Students of every age prefer games to work and are far more likely to invest in something competitive than compulsory. In a way, schools were the first major institutions to embrace gamification. Reading competitions, behavior competitions, school spirit contests; they’re all effective game-based ways of guiding students towards a particular set of actions and rewarding them when they do.
Moving those principals into specific content areas, wrapping them with fun graphics, animations, and sounds, instantly makes the topic more accessible to children (or teens). And they love it. They look forward to it. They ask for it. The current generation of students is being taught to love games at they same time they learn to read and study. It’s rather remarkable that so many teachers seem oblivious that their own actions are indoctrinating kids into the “time wasting” evil of video games – or that this very thing shows that gaming has an immense potential for depth beyond their own derision.
Their disdain is made especially contrary considering how uniquely suited games are for enabling teachers to know and, well, teach their students better. In the education field, we place an immense emphasis on differentiation and tailoring our lessons to the individual student. Games are an incredibly powerful tool in meeting that very goal. Take the phonetics game, for example. Sure, it helps the student learn her phonemes, but it also collects data on every answer she provides, as well as every other student who uses the program. At the end of the week, it puts those results into graphs and charts and sends it back to the teacher so she can change the difficulty or focus for next week. The teacher can then use that information to see where her students succeed and struggle, where they’re at grade-level and where they need extra help. It allows that teacher to know her students better and focus on what will help them most. It’s incredibly empowering, and equally important, allows the teacher to spend more time teaching and less time collecting that data herself.
It’s a common refrain in school break rooms that kids today spend too much time plugged in. It’s games and computers and text messages. Yet very few teachers ever take the time to look at why they approach life in that way. It’s not just the march of technology or poor parenting, it’s that for years we’ve shown students that games – and especially video games – are fun. It’s that they’ve finally caught on to how immense and limitless the internet really is. As teachers, we have to bear the responsibility of our methods and not shrug it off. More importantly, we have to look outside of our own little corner and realize: Gaming is anything but worthless, and if that’s not so, why have we created a system in which it’s a central part?