Game On: How to Empower Students to Learn and Play through Gaming - Digital Promise

Game On: How to Empower Students to Learn and Play through Gaming

Four middle school students play minecraft on their laptops

January 6, 2022 | By

“Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.”
Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Educators around the world are leveling up, empowering students to learn and play through games. Whether through classroom-based gamification, games-based learning, or scholastic esports, gaming in education is playing a major role in authentic, powerful learning opportunities.

According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Entertainment Software Association, nearly 227 million Americans play video games, up from 214 million people the previous year. It’s no surprise that more people are playing video games during the continued effects of COVID-19; however, gaming has been growing at an explosive rate for years, with the gaming industry consistently outearning “traditional” media formats from the movie, book, and music industries. Considering this data, it’s no surprise that educators are tapping into the gaming industry to create powerful learning experiences.

In October 2021, as part of the Reinvent the Classroom program in partnership with HP and Microsoft, Digital Promise hosted a panel of educators who are creating learning opportunities in and around video games.

Gaming Terms to Know:

Esports: organized, competitive video gaming​ (e.g., Rocket League, NBA 2K, Super Smash Bros., League of Legends, Fortnite, Donkey Kong​)

Games-based learning: a learning experience within a game framework​ (e.g., Minecraft Education, The Oregon Trail​)

Gamification: the use of gaming elements like points, achievements, and quests as extrinsic motivation​ (examples: Kahoot, ClassDojo, “House Points”)​

Games in the Classroom

Educators embracing video games as a media format on par with books and film has opened up countless opportunities to meaningfully address learner variability while creating authentic design opportunities.

Angelique Gianas, a San Diego-based high school English teacher, has been using video games as both texts and assessment tools. “I started looking at the things that I was teaching in my class that the kids were not engaged with,” Gianas explained. “Kids didn’t want to apply, for example, the hero’s journey to a book we were reading. The books that we were reading were super old and super boring.”

In one lesson, Gianas’ students built representations of the novel Fahrenheit 451 in Fortnite Creative Mode to represent scenes and themes from the classic story. According to the official Fortnite website, Fortnite Creative “offers a wide range of tools to design games and experiences in Fortnite.” Steve Isaacs, an HP Teaching Fellow alumni and current education manager at Epic Games, has long advocated for the use of these powerful tools in the classroom. In a blog post on the website for Unreal Engines, the free real-time 3D creation tool used in games like Fortnite and other popular media like Disney’s The Mandalorian, Isaacs wrote, “Visual media is a growing field that transcends games, simulations, XR development, multimedia design, marketing, architecture, visualization, urban planning, and much more. When we provide students with experiential learning using widely adopted tools, we set them up for future success.”

Gaming for Good

The future success Isaacs mentioned can lead to incredibly positive impact in communities.
Lisa Gustinelli, a director of instructional technology, design thinking and innovation instructor, and HP Teaching Fellow, used Minecraft: Education Edition as a tool to design tiny house prototypes that would benefit people without housing in her community. Within one learning experience, Gustinelli addressed aspects of social-emotional learning and design thinking. But the learning didn’t end there.

“Our county had a competition called Philanthropy Tank,” Gustinelli shared. “[The students] would go in front of a panel of judges, kind of like in Shark Tank, and they could win up to $15,000.” Gustinelli’s students pitched the idea of using Minecraft to teach design to other students enrolled in a local migrant education program. “Of the five groups [that made it to the final round] they were awarded the most money. They were awarded $13,500!” Getting the opportunity to take what they had learned during their own learning experiences, develop their public speaking and marketing skills, and teach other students design thinking was truly a powerful learning experience.

Scholastic Esports

Games in education are also gaining traction in extracurricular programs. Much like intramural and varsity sports teams and clubs, scholastic esports are exponentially growing in popularity, providing greater opportunities for students to stay connected to their schools and one another while also learning valuable lessons.

Christopher Turner, general manager and esports head coach of Southern University and coordinator of Southern University Law Center’s Mixed Reality Virtual Innovation Gaming and Esports Institute, remembers cramming 70 students into his art room. “I didn’t have the luxury of getting [the] cafeteria,” he shared. But the kids were ready to game.

In addition to fostering healthy competition amongst students while providing authentic learning opportunities for collaboration, communication, and problem solving, gaming clubs and esports teams create opportunities for concrete skills development that are relevant in not only the gaming industry, but throughout the workforce. “We’re able to do design competitions for our esports jerseys or use the talents [of a] student that has a natural gift in photography,” Turner explained.

Chris Aviles, a New Jersey-based STEM teacher and esports coach who is also the founder and president of Garden State Esports, agreed with Turner’s approach to scholastic gaming and esports: “What excites me the most about the esports space is the way we can teach Career and Technical Education (CTE) through esports.” Much like students participating in other extracurricular activities, participation in a gaming or esports club can lead to the discovery of all new passions and potential scholastic pursuits. The skills and concepts necessary for careers in business, entertainment, education, marketing, information technology, audio/visual, and communications can all be taught and developed through scholastic gaming opportunities.

Esports Equity

With any educational innovation, educators and administrators must keep equity of access and opportunity at the center of their work. If not intentionally planned and implemented, scholastic gaming and esports endeavors can exacerbate existing inequities like access to the robust computing hardware required for some esports titles, high speed Internet for online casual and competitive play, and spaces that are not always welcoming to underserved and marginalized communities.

Bradford Harris, director of learning for the Texas Scholastic Esports Federation and education strategist for SHI International, is a Texas-based former public school district leader who has seen firsthand many of these issues playing out. Harris, a Black male educator, explained, “It’s rare to see Black and brown people in this [scholastic gaming] space. When I have students that say that I am doing this because you’re here…that’s what pushes me to do this.”

Aviles added that gaming and esports provides a fantastic opportunity to engage student populations that may not see a place for themselves in many other extracurricular pursuits. Referencing a recent DEI survey he conducted, Aviles noted increased participation by those who identify as female, LGBTQ+, and on the autism spectrum, citing that many of them were not interested in traditional sports and were thrilled to have a place to call their own. He said, “We know how powerful a home-school connection can be.”

Learn More

Learn more about gaming and the HP Teaching Fellows by watching a recent webinar.

HP Teaching Fellows is part of Reinvent the Classroom, an initiative by Digital Promise, HP, and Microsoft. Sign up to learn more about the Fellowship and stay connected with the HP Teaching Fellows on Twitter using #ReinventTheClassroom.

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