Learning through play: gaming’s rising place in the classroom

Since the release of Minecraft: Education Edition in 2016, video games have had an ever-growing presence in the classroom – and provided a handy tool for teachers of all age groups.

Forget about iffy edutainment software on outdated school BBC Micros or PCs of yore: today, games, technology, and apps are being used to teach a wide array of subjects in classes and schools all around the world.

Following the success of Minecraft, several game studios have followed Mojang’s lead in making specific versions of their titles for school use. One of these is Stray Fawn Studio, creator of the ‘genetics survival game’, Niche.

“For a while, we were thinking about doing a proper educational licence, but then, in the end, we thought ‘No, it should remain an entertainment game’,” says studio co-founder Philomena Schwab. “Otherwise it might take some of the fun out of it because you have to read through everything, and the game’s designed so that you don’t have to read through all the information. Then we decided to give it out to schools for free.”

Niche tasks players with keeping a woodland animal – and by extension its genetic code – alive in an unforgiving wilderness. You must balance traits, strengthening what’s best against the predators around you, and covering for your weak spots so that you don’t get caught too easily. With a simple, easy-to-read UI and bright, clean art-style, Niche teaches without lecturing, turning biology into something students can interact with rather than simply read about.

Power of Creation

Niche’s value in a classroom setting wasn’t a happy accident. The team spent months looking into research on congenital traits and evolution, making sure their progression system was scientifically sound. They felt the subject matter was inherently interesting – they just needed to deliver it in the right way to entice players.

An entire UNESCO MGIEP curriculum was developed around This War of Mine, discussing issues like citizenship, personal values, and gender.

“Genetics and heredity, in themselves, are an interesting game mechanic,” Schwab says. “So if you just combine that with a survival game, so you’re punished and rewarded for making the right and wrong breeding decisions, I think it’s just fun to look at two animals and think what might come out of it as a combination.”

The studio’s only real concern, she adds, was keeping player choice intact. “Sometimes, something would’ve been more representative – for example, with the sexual selection, we thought about maybe letting the animals decide who they want to mate with. But then we thought ‘No, this is something that’s more fun if the player can select it’. So the sexual selection is a very minimal version of how it is in the wild.”

Player autonomy is one reason why many experts believe video games can be useful learning tools. Dr Matthew Barr is an author and lecturer at the University of Glasgow who, in a recent experiment on the subject, found that playing games had a positive effect on people’s “soft skills” – communication, ethics, flexibility, and so forth.

Two groups of college students were randomly chosen, and over the course of several weeks one clocked up 14 hours on a range of titles while the other didn’t, and at the end, they all underwent a rudimentary psychological survey. The group that played games saw a significant increase in their soft skills over the one that hadn’t, to a degree that surprised even Barr himself.

“I didn’t expect to get as strong a result as I did,” Barr explains. “It’s not a massive study – it’d be great to do this with thousands of people. But the stats were actually remarkably strong.” Those tested played two hours of several well-known games, including World of Warcraft and Portal, and one hour of some smaller indie releases such as Papers, Please and Gone Home.

Designers wanted to push players towards using their intuition and trial and error in Borderlands 2, minimising the weapon information that’s readily available.

The games were chosen for their reliance on the various types of intuition that Barr and his associates were looking to highlight. They also generally reviewed well, with scores of 80 or above on Metacritic.

The selection of games was important, because the researchers wanted to demonstrate the enlightening effect the medium can have on players. “There was one young man, he was playing Gone Home, which is to some extent the story of a young girl’s coming out,” Barr recalls.

“And he was, like, ‘I’m not a lesbian’. But what he was getting at was he had never thought about what that would mean, to come out, to be in those shoes. And because you get to see some of the reactions to it if you read the stuff that’s lying around the [in-game] house, you can really get into it.”

Strength of the Mind

Just as Philomena Schwab believes freedom of choice makes for better video games, Barr argues that games can teach a range of qualities through their design, such as critical thinking, without players even noticing. “[The creators] set out to embed these things because they’re actually what make the game fun,” Barr says, referring to an interview he conducted with the lead designer of Borderlands 2.

“He deliberately made it ambiguous about what weapon was better than what. He said there was a discussion in the team – they wanted a ‘damage per second’ or some stat when they picked up the gun, but he resisted that. He wanted players to exert some level of critical thinking by looking at the wider picture; all the various attributes they’ve got and their personal style, and the circumstances they’re in. That makes it a more interesting game, and more interesting by exercising their critical thinking – it’s built-in.”

World Rescue is a globe-encompassing adventure about culture and nationality, and the one non-commercial game used in UNESCO’s digital learning.

Halfway around the world, the thesis of Dr Barr’s studies is echoed in UNESCO’s ‘Games for Learning’ program in New Delhi, India. There, a team creates games and game-based courses that focus on social and emotional learning. Professor Anantha Duraiappah, director at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), explains how it all works.

“Drawing from the research on pedagogy, and some other basic elements of learning, like motivation, experimenting, emotion, experiential feedback, the whole notion of failing but without shame, the digital medium allows a lot of that,” Duraiappah tells us. “We have a number of products on the platform. One’s called Global Citizenship, which is about six modules on contemporary issues like violence, extremism, nationalism, migration, but in a storytelling way, which the digital medium lends itself to.”

Focusing primarily on e-learning with a side order of classroom work, the institute teaches through four games: GRIS, Florence, This War of Mine, and Assassin’s Creed, with the aim of broaching difficult subjects in a more accessible and collaborative manner.

One lesson plan, called Digital Intercultural Exchange, teaches students from an array of countries – including South Africa, Norway, USA, Malaysia, and India – about migration and related subjects. The idea is that playing games together creates a deeper exchange of viewpoints that crosses country, culture, and other boundaries to meaningful dialogue.

“You don’t have a linear approach to learning – you can jump from one game to another and then back to where you left off,” Duraiappah says. “Much of the research is saying that learning in a linear process is really an outdated concept and not in line with the neurobiological development and maturation of the brain.”

Ubisoft has thus far released two Discovery Tour supplements for their Assassin’s Creed series, which lets players explore the history of ancient Egypt and Greece.

Building the future

As Stray Fawn, Ubisoft, and other studios encourage learning by giving free copies of their games to schools, other developers place their focus elsewhere. Sheffield-based publishing house Twinkl offers an array of digital resources on tablet, PC, and mobile for educators of early learning up to pre-teens, developing their products with a student-teacher relationship in mind. Augmented reality, they’ve found, can be a huge benefit in helping learners visualise a problem and its solution, and with rolling updates, a game or app has much greater flexibility than a traditional textbook.

“We made an app called ARchitect,” explains Robin Williams, Twinkl’s former head of emerging technology. “It’s based on the teaching approach where you use spaghetti and dried marshmallows to construct towers and shapes. We managed to put real-world physics into it. We could use different weights, so we got wood blocks in there, and stone blocks and ice.

“The teachers said it’d be great if you could put some balloons in, so we’ve added that function where you can start to suspend and build construction. By adding in those bits, teachers were saying they could teach fractions, they could talk about percentages. Their input, from what was a fairly simple concept, took it out to lots of different learning objectives.”

All of Twinkl’s AR apps are free, with paid memberships available for greater access to resources and support. The company maintains an ‘agnostic’ position on new technology, wherein they develop based on what’s currently most widely used and maximise compatibility from there. Most of all, the firm wants its work to connect to all the avenues of a child’s tuition.

“We want children to find these [apps] with their parents, and take the ideas back into the class so that teachers can then understand and download it,” Williams says. “At the same time, we want to keep teachers up to date on what’s going off in the industry and the technology and what they can use it for, and take that into the class.”

Regular updates from educators and organisations like the World Wildlife Fund have made Minecraft: Education Edition a robust resource for educators.

Finding the key

Despite the success of Twinkl, Niche, and projects like them, gaming as a whole is still met with a hint of scepticism within the wider teaching community. Barr talks of peers in other universities and schools having to engage in ‘skunkworks operations’ to do analysis akin to his.

Duraiappah, on the other hand, has been advocating for the use of games to teach mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Though in the early stages as a framework at UNESCO, Duraiappah is particularly passionate about the idea, given India’s own high rates of depression and suicide, especially among teenagers.

“I just got back from Canada, where I was telling them about some of our programs, and the one that really got them excited was our socio-emotional learning programs for anxiety and depression,” he says. “They jumped on that, because they’re facing those issues.”

Matthew Barr’s confident that Minecraft is leading the way in making games a more acceptable sight in classrooms, but what the long-term outcome will be is still unknown. “[Minecraft] is kind of ubiquitous,” he says. “It’s the thing that, even my boss at the university who’s not a games guy at all, he kind of accepts that Minecraft has a role to play in this stuff.

It could be the back door for this to start to normalise. Now it’s got Microsoft putting money behind the educational version. It’s creative, it’s got programming in it, it does so much, and it’s kind of innocuous. I just can’t think of what comes after that. I don’t know what doors that’s opened yet. We’ll have to wait and see.”

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