Gamification has long been a buzzword in education but studying the ways to make games truly useful is becoming more and more compelling. Dr. André Denham is an educator and academic administrator who has been interested in this subject for a bit.

Dr. Denham completed his Ph.D. in educational technology at Arizona State University and has since led the launch of a new master’s degree program in Instructional Technology at the University of Alabama, serving as its program coordinator and advisor until he was promoted to the Associate Dean for Graduate Academic Affairs. He understands the promise of engaging students in learning  in the same way that video games draw kids in is a dream of many educators. But there are huge obstacles to creating these kinds of games.

That is because, as Dr. Denham knows well, transferring that kind of energy to educational games is harder than it might look on the surface, because there are only a few really good games that are actually aligned with learning objectives.

(Educational games) were more like edutainment or chocolate covered broccoli.”

Dr. Denham repeating a phrase that he credits to Dr. James Gee, one of the pre-eminent learning game scholars

Dr. Denham has been involved in Digital Game Based Learning (DGBL) for since its origins, when it was touted as the thing that would save the world (just as so many things were in the early 2000’s), to its current state, where there is a lot more realism about what games can actually do in the classroom. 

According to Denham, learning games started with people who knew how to make games but didn’t necessarily know how to educate, leading to edutainment. Later, educators started making games, but they didn’t really know how to make compelling games that kept kids engaged.

As the reputation of DGBL slid from savior to just tool, some of the energy slipped away from it, but the promise of an engaging game that actually teaches students is still on the horizon.

But even still, there are very few games that fit the promise and expectation that DGBL can provide. When Dr. Denham teaches teachers how to integrate games into their class, he starts by asking them to find a compelling and useful game. As often as not, this turns up no results and can lead to him showing them how to create a game from scratch that has the mechanics of the game aligned with the learning objective.

But there are good games out there. If the teachers find a good game, the lesson plan often goes like this:

  1. Find a game
  2. Play the game all the way through – This is sometimes a harder sell than you might expect. Teachers aren’t always the best at working with something that they don’t feel comfortable with.
  3. Design a curricular activity around the game
  4. Have the students play the game and then perform the curricular activity
  5. In class discuss the game and connections between it and the curricular activity.

One interesting feature of the timing of playing the game and the curricular activity. The evidence compared doing the curricular activity before the game, after the game, or interspersed within the game. And the results were clear, the curricular activity should be done after the game.

But there are a few products which he does really recommend. He likes Ratio Rumble, many of the different games produced by Filament Games, who make simulation and Roblox games along with a wide variety of other content, and especially DragonBox Games, which focuses on games for Elementary and Middle School children working on reading, math, and chemistry. 

But these games are more the exception than the norm.

One of the hardest tasks that Dr. Denham identifies, when it comes to games, is making sure that implementing the game doesn’t increase teacher workload. It is important to subtract something from teachers’ plates when adding a new technology product into the classroom. But that is not always possible when you’re looking at introducing good games into the classroom.

The key here seems to be twofold. First, Dr. Denham suggests that you make sure the game is just “Plug and Play” into a lesson, meaning that teachers can simply add it into the course content before having to completely learn a new technology product. The second is professional development. Giving teachers peer accountability so that they come to a collaborative space having used a game and tried it out in a classroom so that they can report on the results.

This also gives teachers a space to commiserate. One of the struggles with having teachers integrate games into the classroom is that they often don’t have many instincts in how to use them. They wind up feeling like novice, first year teachers again and generally feel really uncomfortable with that sensation. It makes it even scarier to stand up in front of a class and showcase something that you don’t feel especially confident in. Making sure that teachers hear other teachers having similar struggles and feelings, and hearing ways that teachers overcame those feelings, is one of the best ways we can help teachers navigate towards more well implemented games with teacher buy-in.

But the best way to combat that feeling is to turn some of the lesson planning over to the students. That sensation of not wanting to be “uncomfortable” in front of their students is understandable, but is not always desirable. Reminding teachers that they can be learners too from the students, who are often much more technology literate than the teachers, means that we can ensure continued teacher growth at all times.

It is a hard sell to get all of that across in a couple of PD sessions on DGBL, but starting small, with ways to actually implement games in lessons, and with teachers who are motivated to try it, is a good place to start.

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