Serious Play School

A critical look at the use of games as educational vehicles to advance learning.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Games4EdThere’s a lot of excitement brewing in the area of games and education this year, to wit, over 25 representatives from different sectors of gaming and education came together to examine the possibilities and issues regarding the use of game-based learning back in January of 2015, and there’s more to come in coming months. At that first gathering, higher education, K-12 education, game developers, publishers, policy makers, and others converged for a unique opening dialogue between leading edge stakeholders. Chaired by Mitch Weisburgh and Larry Cocco, the result is the Games4Ed (G4E) collaborative. Mitch is a partner at Academic Business Advisors, co-founder with Steve Anderson and Tom Whitby of Edchat Interactive. The goal of G4E is to establish collaborations between educators, researchers, game developers, publishers and policy makers to further the use of games and other immersive learning strategies in schools to help the education sector fulfill the mission of preparing all children to become successful 21st century learners and citizens. Here, Mitch answers some basic questions about what’s underway in this interesting area of education.

The Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Smithsonian are investing tens of millions of dollars into developing and testing games.

Victor: Most teachers already use games, why are you talking about expanding the use of games?

Mitch: Yes, surveys do show that over 70% of teachers use games. But they also show that by far the majority of game use is supplemental to learning. Many times, games are used as drills or as rewards.

There is this really interesting body of research that indicates students are very engaged when playing games, and that when they are engaged in games they are operating at a much higher cognitive level, and that they are willing expend more time and effort. When kids are in the zone like this, they are unstoppable.

Add to this that all games are tracking what the players are doing, assessing their abilities, providing feedback, and suggesting next actions. In traditional teaching, we teach, we practice, and then we test. What if it were all rolled into one? How much more time could we spend teaching and learning if we didn’t have to stop for three plus weeks a year to test?

Finally, additional research shows that games use is tied to growth in 21st Century skills, like problem solving, perseverance, creativity, and collaboration. Aren’t these the skills that are most in demand?

That’s the type of transformation we’d like to see in education.

Victor: If games are such good pedagogical tools, why aren’t they used more?

Mitch: Originally I thought that the problem was the cost of marketing and selling games. That all you’d need is to consolidate the efforts of a few game developers, perhaps create a portal, and bingo, problem solved and games would proliferate.

But I’ve found out it’s a lot more complex than that, and that’s why I teamed up with Larry Cocco to create Games4Ed.

There are parent (and teacher) attitudes, that time on games is wasted learning time.

There are the technical problems with students having to remember user names and passwords, and teachers having to look for student competency information in many different places.

There is the issue of trusted sources, schools and teachers want an easy way, from a source they trust, to find the game that’s going to teach the lessons they need to cover.

We started Games4Ed to get educators, administrators, policy makers, researchers, and game developers collaborating to solve all of these issues and a few more. We want to make it easy and productive for schools and teachers to employ game based learning, really engage their students, and know when to some type of intervention would be helpful.

Victor: Teachers are already overworked, how can they use games to improve student learning and continue to raise test scores without further increasing the stress and time they already put into teaching?

Mitch: Game-based learning is a different type of learning. Using games requires different teaching techniques. And today, with very few exceptions, you can’t substitute play for everything you would normally cover. These are all issues.

The first time you use a game in your classroom, it’s going to require more time. You really have to play the game yourself and experience it. You often have to think of some pre-game activity, and some post-game activity.

But there are places that are starting to address this. It’s not as onerous as it was a few years ago. GlassLab Games, and Graphite are two places that can help. And probably my favorite time saving place is the Game Based Learning group on edWeb, where experience game educators are dying to help newbies master game based learning.

At Edchat Interactive, we sometimes have sessions on Game Based Learning. You can learn a lot by watching the archives of Ryan Schaaf, for example. Ryan also has incredible links to articles on edugames in an Evernote folder.

Victor: Won’t parents object to their kids using games instead of doing “learning” activities?

Mitch: Not if it’s handled right. It’s all in the way you communicate with parents.

First of all, we need to acknowledge that parents generally start off feeling that Video Games have a negative effect on their children. This has been documented in surveys, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We don’t want kids in school playing shoot ‘em up, or see how much you can steal games. And if you just go about and start having students play games to learn, you’re going to run flat into that argument.

But parents also want what’s best for their children, and communicating with parents about the positive results that games have will have a dramatic effect on changing their perception. The Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Smithsonian are investing tens of millions of dollars into developing and testing games. Games are an effective learning tool, and we just have to communicate that to parents before they come to an erroneous conclusion that their kids are wasting time playing.

Victor: Is there a way schools can pilot and try out games in my school or classroom to help advance education?

Mitch: Yes.

Oh, that wasn’t just a yes/no question?

First of all, the GBL community we referred to earlier on edWeb has about a request a week from a game company wanting schools or teachers to pilot. If you are a member, you can always respond.

But if you are concerned and want someone screening the requests, our process at Games4Ed is to screen the game, determine the results that the game developer believes will happen, make sure the school has the proper support, and then write up the results. We are rolling out our first pilot study now, and we have a signup page for schools, educators, or game developers who are interested.

Victor: What’s next?

Mitch: For us, there are a few really cool initiatives we are talking about for the 2015-16 school year. We are looking into creating a free online conference offering professional development around game based learning. We are working with researchers at CUNY and NYU to devise a framework for evaluating games. And we are discussing providing Game Days in schools across the country.

It’s very exciting.

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


  1. I think there is enormous potential and more than a few bumpy roads and problems in terms of implementing game-based learning. First of all, games have been used in schools for a lot longer than the computer industry has been around. I’d point to spelling bees and geography bees as long-standing motivational games to engage students. With technology, there’s the opportunity to do all sorts of things. Examples: use casual game and game-based techniques to engage students in learning. The most widely useful for this is probably (and app) – (Disclosure, I’m the “mayor” of that service. There are also indepth persistent games like World of Warcraft and Simcity where students learn complex trade-offs and analysis. In our company, we explored for awhile a game that would teach the algebra curriculum as well as programming and computer graphics by playing a game. Very ambitious. Actually, too ambitious.

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