Serious About Games

How can educators get the most out of game-based learning?

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Filament Games Lee WilsonInvolved seriously in gaming as education since 2004, Lee Wilson, an executive at companies serving K-12 schools and most recently of Filament Games, has degrees from Wharton and Princeton. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, Filament Games is a game production studio that develops teaching and learning games to engage students in inspiring interactive experiences.

“I believe people lead fuller lives if they have a clear connection to meaningful work,” says Lee (pictured, left). “Meaningful work comes from solving big problems as part of a team. Focused teams tackling big problems are also the most effective way to deploy capital. My

Adding games to the classroom media mix produced a 12 percent improvement in student outcomes. The impact was higher with games designed specifically for classroom implementation.

value is in organizing and motivating teams to drive this virtuous circle,” he says. In this interview, Lee draws on his own success in the field to share his knowledge of game-based learning, its impact on education and its potential for learning.

Why is game-based learning beneficial?

Lee: At root it is the famous saying, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”  Games involve doing, so when you want students to develop understanding, they are a good tool.

That said, there is a set of activities that games do uniquely well compared to other media. We break those down to cost, time, danger, and abstraction.

Cost – We can simulate things in games that would be too expensive for students to “do” – e.g. running a genetics lab or launching full-scale rockets.

Time – We can compress time so that the connecting themes of processes that unfold over months, years, or decades can be observed inside of a single class period  – e.g. running for President or the lifecycle of a plant.

Danger – Students can tackle projects that we would never risk them doing in the classroom – e.g. running nuclear reactors or performing surgery.

Abstraction – Finally, we live in a world of complex systems that can appear abstract from the outside. Games place students inside of complex systems so they can understand the context – e.g. engineering a catapult or navigating using Newtonian physics.

How can teachers get the most out of game-based learning?

Lee: Games engage students with content, expose them to new vocabulary, help them develop new problem solving skills, and encourage them to dig deeper through research. Teachers should look at games as another way to create context for rich classroom discussions and student projects.

Are there certain games that work better in classrooms than others?

Lee: There is an incredibly wide range of games that work in learning contexts. Rather than focus on type of game, we think about the general design constraints of GBL classroom deployments.

First, we have to create a feedback loop for the teacher. Commercial games have feedback loops for the player, but nothing for teachers. Teachers want to know when students are stuck — those are teachable moments. They also need some basic reports that show alignment with objectives and standards (where appropriate). Because we build for formal learning environments, we include a teacher dashboard.

Beyond that, we think a lot about the context of the classroom when we design our games. Given bell schedules, game experiences need to fit within a class period. Schools have a lot more technology these days, but for good reasons they hold on to equipment for much longer than businesses. Bandwidth also remains a challenge in some places. That means we don’t build for the latest bleeding edge computers and tablets.

Are there certain subjects that games work better for?

Lee: We don’t think so. We have built games across all the major subject areas of Reading, Math, Science, and Social Studies. We are also working on career development games for adults and games to help students with special needs. The more important question is whether the game technology is being used to target one of the areas where games add unique value (cost, time, danger, abstraction). Games should not be used where there are less expensive or more appropriate media can tackle it. For example, text is brilliant at delivering large volumes of background knowledge and facts.

What trends are you seeing within educational gaming?

Lee: More of the games designed specifically for classroom use now have companion curriculum materials to give teachers some ideas about how to implement them. We and other providers are also venturing into professional development because we hear from people that they want to use games in the classroom but need guidance on how to be successful with it.

We also have some nice large-scale successes we can point to — with the games we built for iCivics being the largest in the world. To date, those games have been played over 33 million times and they are being used in roughly half the middle school social studies classrooms in the US.

Are there any trends you’ve seen die out?

Lee: Gamification is dying out. We never viewed this as a very good idea — removing leader boards and badging from the context of games doesn’t have long-term legs. Why? Because almost all of it is extrinsically manipulative — trying to force kids to do something someone else wants them to do. Sooner rather than later the kids figure this out and it stops working. These tools work in games precisely because students have an intrinsic interest in playing the game.

Don’t confuse gamification with learning games – they are completely different things.

What does research say about using games in the classroom?

Lee: We encourage folks to read the SRI meta-analysis of the research on game-based learning that came out about a year ago. Basically, adding games to the classroom media mix produced a 12 percent improvement in student outcomes. The impact was higher with games designed specifically for classroom implementation. The study walks through the various components that have an impact on outcomes. Some surprising insights include things like the nature of competition. It turns out that head to head competition is negatively correlated to improvements but team competition or solo play are positively correlated. Teachers looking to implement GBL should be aware of these kinds of issues.

How has game-based learning evolved?

Lee: In many ways, we have gone full circle from the early days of Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. Those games were deeply immersive and the things you did in the game were directly associated with the learning objectives. We then went through a period where cheap quiz and practice software drowned out everything else. As teachers’ sophistication about what really supports learning improves, we are returning to richer games where the learning objectives are embedded in the action.

We see a lot of work these days connecting games to the larger context of the curriculum rather than having them be an isolated activity. For example, we just completed four games for McGraw-Hill that are deeply embedded in their new K-5 science program, Inspire Science. We worked closely with their instructional design team to identify areas where games could make a unique contribution to the broader scope and sequence.

How do you see game-based learning impacting education over the next few years?

Lee: As teachers build familiarity with the current generation of learning games, we expect them to become more discerning about what good design is. Things like Classroom Jeopardy and Cool Math will hopefully fade away and projects like The Radix Endeavour (MIT) and Inspire Science will become more popular.

As implementations become more widespread, we are looking forward to the things teachers are going to push towards — more sophisticated and challenging games that take kids deeper into the content and which encourage them to write, to talk, to code, and to take the lessons learned into the world at large.

Ten years ago, when you mentioned video games in the classroom, you got a lot of skeptical side eye. Now, we hear consistently that people see the benefits of using games, they just don’t know how to do it — hence our focus on PD. As implementations become more widespread, we are looking forward to the things teachers are going to push towards — more sophisticated and challenging games that take kids deeper into the content and which encourage them to write, to talk, to code, and to take the lessons learned into the world at large.

What would you say to a teacher who’s considering implementing games in their classroom?

Lee: Start by playing some games yourself. Games are about doing – so go do. You do not need to become “a gamer” but you do need some background experience. Pick something you are interested in personally, not something you expect to use in the classroom. Go online in the forums and wikis around those games and see how knowledge is crowd sourced (you may be surprised at how rigorously scientific most of the inquiry is). Once you have some comfort with games and some appreciation of the culture you will have a better sense of what students already experience with games they play at home and how you might leverage that in your classroom.

Do some research. We recommend Gregg Toppo’s new book, The Game Believes in You as the perfect place to start. There are more scholarly dives into the content, but that should lay a solid foundation for further exploration. You might also get some ideas about games to play in there.

Use the students as the game experts – don’t be intimidated by the games yourself (easy to say, sometimes hard to do). You are the content and process expert who can help them construct meaning from the game experiences – you don’t need to know the arcana of the crafting system.

What are your thoughts about efforts to bring together various sector representatives such as here with G4E – Games4Ed?

Lee: There are lots of opportunities to collaborate and work together. Games Learning & Society is over 11 years old. The Serious Play conference covers all the sectors that are using games (schools, corporate, indies, higher ed, therapy, military, etc.). G4E is tackling some of the implementation issues we all face in schools. SXSWedu has had good learning game tracks and expos. Even the White House held an Education Game Jam this past year – which was a hoot.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

  • iMagine Machine™ (@iMaginemachine)


    The big challenge is how to get teachers to implement games in the classroom. It’s about the tools they use (iPads ? Chrombooks?) , it’s about their willingness to try new games, it’s about when are they exposed to new games, to games that can really make a difference. Sometime games can enhance the learning in such a way that a year of learning a specific subject can be shorten to a month or better so, to a subject that kids love to come back to over and over, playing games that are REAL games and not disguised educational apps.

    We have created an award winning math app games for kids 6-11. Tower Defense games meet geometry and math facts.

    Here is a review with another great geometry game –

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