Game-based learning was once the realm of board games, card games and Lego.
Now, the widespread availability of technology has mean digital games are now in classrooms around the world.
This post presents what I see as the pros and cons of digital games in the classroom. While they are here to say, teachers need to reflect on how to use digital games in ways that limit the ‘cons’ and amplify the ‘pros’.
To the scholars, the concept of ‘digital play’ is increasingly being seen as a positive.
While many in society see digital games as ‘idle activity’, a growing body of research shows digital play has many of the positive attributes of non-digital forms of play. As Marsh et al. (2016) argue,
“What changes in digital contexts is not so much the types of play possible, but the nature of that play.”
In other words, perhaps we should start looking at digital play as being beneficial for students’ social development, cognitive development, and even physical development in just the same way as we see non-digital play.
Nonetheless, challenges persist – particularly around the potential side effects of spending too much time in our imaginary digital worlds.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons…
The Pros (aka Advantages)
Personally, I think the pros of learning with computers in the classroom do outweigh the cons. Or, at least, I think you can minimize the cons while still taking advantage of the pros.
But, at the end of the day, I feel that students need digital skills – so I’d rather tackle computer gaming in the classroom head-on and see how I can make it work.
So here’s what I see as the major pros of digital game-based learning:
1. Digital Gaming Motivates and Engages Learners
I will start with the most obvious, but perhaps most powerful reason to bring digital games into the classroom: motivation and engagement.
Digital gaming can be a significant motivator for learning. Boys, in particular, appear very much drawn to the world of digital gaming.
Indeed, as a child, I was hooked on computer games. I played them the moment I got home from school and, yes, even in the morning before classes (much to my mother’s chagrin).
One rational explanation for why games are so engaging is their multimodality. They use lighting, movement, sound and images to attract and maintain our attention. As the University of Toronto highlights:
“Games are designed to deliver an optimal experience to the user”
Thus, we can use games as an engagement tactic. Once we have ‘hooked’ our students with games, we can weave learning scenarios into the games to teach our students – on the sly.
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2. Digital Games often require Team Work
20 years ago we were lucky to have one computer tucked away in the corner of the classroom.
I remember in my Year 5 classroom one person at a time would be given the privilege of using the computer to type up a story on the computer’s word processor.
Now, many schools have enough devices for one device per student.
Furthermore, the growth of internet connectivity has enabled the devices in a classroom to talk to one another.
These new technological affordances have meant students are no longer working in isolation online. Instead, they’re playing complex games that require teamwork to complete puzzles.
Thus, much like offline play, online play often necessitates that students learn, practice and apply their practical team-work skills like communicating, coordinating, collaborating and negotiating.
As Anastasia Salter from The Chronicle of Higher Education argues:
“The structures of games both demand and reward teamwork and use systems of clearly-defined roles and objectives to create better outcomes than any individual could achieve.”
3. Ed Tech Automates Feedback and Progress Recording
Something I love about educational technologies is that they do a great job of developing datasets about students’ progress.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is Duolingo. Every time you play a game on Duolingo, it reports your scores and progress toward language fluency.
It also monitors when you haven’t been exposed to a certain type of language formation in a few days or weeks and makes sure to re-introduce those concepts to ensure they’re always fresh in your mind.
However, we still need teachers to interpret data output.
For example, Duolingo thinks I’m 73% fluent in Spanish. I’m certainly not.
Nonetheless, the potential for instant feedback for students and behaviorist-style rewards and punishments for getting problems right and wrong on computers can be a powerful motivator for learning and measuring progress.
4. Digital Play Can Promote Creative and Lateral Thinking
While many parents and teachers tend to look at digital gaming as wasted time, many scholars highlight the incredible amount of creative decision-making that goes into gameplay in modern games.
Online sandbox games are my favorite examples of creative and lateral thinking in digital games.
Sandbox games are … well, let me give you Techopedia’s definition:
“A sandbox is a style of game in which minimal character limitations are placed on the gamer, allowing the gamer to roam and change a virtual world at will. In contrast to a progression-style game, a sandbox game emphasizes roaming and allows a gamer to select tasks.”
The creative element of sandbox games is in its ‘build your own adventure’ feel. Students have to make their own decisions and create their own goals.
Some examples of sandbox games include:
- Grand Theft Auto
Teachers can set rules around how to use the virtual worlds to, for example, build a 3D version of the worlds in their non-fiction stories, to promote imagination and creativity.
5. Learning through Simulation encourages Experimentation and Risk Taking
Simulated learning environments enable students to envisage how their designs and ideas would work in the real-world.
This could be as simple as using student-friendly design software to create bridges and housing floor plans.
But, a nice thing about the use of simulation – even in traditional gameplay – is that students can take risks without significant negative payoffs. Usually, all students need to do is use an ‘Undo’ tool to delete their previous few actions or reset at the previous ‘Save’ checkpoint.
In a world where risk taking seems increasingly under threat from our over-protective culture that bubble wraps children, this is an opportunity for students to extend themselves.
Nonetheless, I would not want children to become detached from reality: there remain significant concerns that gameplay can skew children’s perceptions of what’s real and fake and may even lead to de-sensitization of violence.
6. Computers can Personalize and Differentiate Content
Since Vygotsky’s groundbreaking work on Zones of Proximal Development in the 1920s, we’ve come to learn that differentiation of content is a necessity for learning.
Some students will need easier content than other. Some students will need extension work.
Computers can do some of this legwork for you, in two ways:
a) Computers can learn about your Student
When students are given tasks that are too hard, computers can learn to simplify the content. Similarly, when students ace one element of gameplay, the computers rapidly send them on to more difficult levels.
b) Students can go at their own Pace
The classic example of self-pacing through digital media technologies is Kahn Academy. Their gamified videos, available for free on their website, enable students to watch videos before completing tasks. Students win tokens for doing well and – when they fail – will be prevented from moving on to the next level.
Perhaps most beneficial, students can slowly re-watch Kahn Academy videos and re-take the ‘tests’ until they ‘master’ the content.
7. Students Need Digital Literacies for Jobs of the Future
There aren’t many jobs these days that you can do totally computer-free.
This is more than just the ability to check emails.
Students need the skills to use digital technologies in ways that assist them to achieve specific tasks.
My neighbor is a signwriter.
20 years ago he actually wrote on signs.
Now? It’s all done on a computer.
No one is immune from digital technologies. Simply, they’re better at doing many tasks than we humans are. The only question is: whose children are going to get the jobs of the future? The children who don’t know how to operate the machines, or the ones who know how to use digital technologies like it’s second nature.
We need our students to be ‘digital natives’ – people raised with digital skills in every part of their lives – if we want them to get the high paying jobs of the future. (And yes, I’m aware this is a loaded term).
It’s a reality, and the future’s upon us. We need to prepare our students for it.
The Cons (aka Disadvantages)
Okay, now for the cons – and there’s plenty!
The cons of digital play in the classroom are real, and we shouldn’t ignore them. They’re important to pay attention to so we know how to help our student navigate the online world.
But, hopefully, you can also turn the cons into a learning experience.
So here’s what I see as the cons of digital play:
8. The Digital World is Rude!
It seems that the internet has dramatically eroded social etiquette. Anonymous ‘trolls’ have the ability to sow discord and cause significant emotional damage to others with great ease.
Well, here’s Professor Art Markman’s opinion, as paraphrased in the Scientific American:
“A perfect storm engenders online rudeness, including virtual anonymity and thus a lack of accountability, physical distance and the medium of writing.”
While we might see this as a severe negative of the digital medium in schools, we could also consider digital connectivity in classrooms as an opportunity to counter this behavior.
In the safe and controlled environment of the classroom, teachers can model ‘netiquette’ – the art of positive online behavior.
The question remains: at what age should children learn about the realities of our discourteous online world, and what strategies can we teach them to counter it?
9. Digital Play May be a Barrier to Physical Play
At the heart of many of our criticisms is that digital play appears passive.
And while I believe there are many superb learning opportunities that come from playing games, there is one area where it undoubtedly fails: lack of physical exercise. Liverstrong.com gives voice to this concern:
“Although your child may say that he’s “playing” a video game, what he is doing may look more like sitting than other play-type activities. Unlike playing on a playground, playing at the park or playing a sport, playing a video game is largely passive for most children.”
Students can’t spend too long gaming, clearly. Recommendations therefore insist students limit digital play to between 1 and 2 hours per day, maximum. As Lauren Stevens argues:
“The first, and most important, thing you need to do is to model behavior by limiting your own screen time to a maximum of 2 hours per day — practice what you preach, parents!”
My personal policy is to ensure physical play remains a central part of students’ lives.
10. Games are often Designed to be Addictive
This is a huge concern for me, personally.
That’s because I get addicted to games so easily.
Sometimes when playing Candy Crush Saga (a resoundingly un-educational game), I think:
“This feels just like a Slot Machine!”
The flashing lights. The catchy noises. The desire to beat the level just this next time can keep me hooked for hours.
So, the question you’ve got to ask is this: If I can get hooked as an adult, what chance do children have? With their under-developed brains, they’ll be more susceptible than me!
11. Games often aren’t Designed for Curriculum Alignment
We run the risk of giving students computer time to ‘meet that requirement’ on our curriculum documents.
There’s a big difference between using computers for idle play and using them for productive play. As I highlighted earlier, games need to be target to a students’ Zone of Proximal Development. In other words, it needs to extend students’ thinking!
So, we need to ask questions like:
- Is this game actually designed for learning?
- What curriculum outcomes is the game helping the students complete?
- Which soft skills is the game promoting?
If a digital game isn’t helping a child learn, maybe they’re better off doing some non-digital play activities?
12. High Costs of Equipment are a Barrier to Entry and cause a Digital Divide
While the costs of digital technologies are dropping, they’re certainly not free.
This causes significant inequalities and what we might call a “digital divide”.
The digital divide is what occurs when some students lack access to digital technologies, while others can grow up with close access to them. The result is that students in wealthier schools are much more confident with technologies and therefore more prepared for digital jobs of the future.
By contrast, students in poor areas of even developed nations continue to lack access to digital technologies.
This inequality can even be present across students in the same classroom. If we are setting digital games for homework, we need to consider whether all students will have access to digital technologies at home.
13. Technology could take over the Thinking for Students
A significant concern I have is that digital games might be making children lazy.
No, not just because they’re not doing physical play.
But … it’s because technologies can do a lot of the thinking that students in the past had to do themselves!
Calculators, for example, were considered by many to be a negative influence on learning when they were first introduced … who would learn their times tables if they always had a calculator!?
So, today, digital games need to be carefully selected so they don’t ‘give away’ answers. Instead they need to act as cognitive partners, helping students to learn more thanks to the support of a computer. The computer shouldn’t do the work for the student, but help the student do the work more efficiently.
In other words: choose your digital games wisely to ensure learning is actually happening!
Digital game-based learning has a bad reputation – but, as I’ve shown i this post, there are some great benefits of it, too. Try to maximize the pros and minimize the cons.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]