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Gamification in the Social Studies

What are the characteristics of a highly effective learning environment?

Yeah, I know. It sounds like the sort of question you’d find on your last college ed final. But it’s still something that’s good to think about, no matter how long we’ve been teaching.

And here’s the answer:

The characteristics of a highly effective learning environment are very much like the characteristics of a highly successful video game.

I started messing around with video games as teaching tools way back when. During my very first month teaching 8th graders in Derby Middle School in Fall 1986, I used a turn by turn game called Archeology.

Catchy title.

We played it on an Apple IIE desktop, with groups of 4-5 taking turns to “dig up” artifacts that eventually revealed a 18th century New England farmhouse.  The game ran on a 5 1/4 floppy disc that I protected with my life because we couldn’t find a way to create a useable backup. But it worked.

Kids were engaged. Conversation was happening. Stuff was being learned. Of course, I didn’t know why. I just knew something good was taking place. It wasn’t till much later that I started connecting brain research to what happened back at Derby.

What exactly was going on? Today I can think back and describe what happened as a result of playing Archeology:

  • increased literacy skills
  • improved problem solving skills
  • simulated authentic situations
  • encouraged collaboration
  • engaged students in content
  • lead to sophisticated research

There was a merging of brain research and effective learning environments.

I didn’t call it “Gamification” back in 1986. (If you would have asked me then, I would have called it “They’re so busy learning that they’re not setting stuff on fire and that’s a good thing-ification.”)

But we’re calling it Gamification now. It’s the idea that we can take video game concepts and apply them to our classroom instruction. This could mean we actually use games and simulations or it could mean we begin to re-structure our lesson and unit designs using gaming concepts.

What exactly are those gaming concepts?

  • Players get to modify the game environment and make individual choices.
  • Players become the experts.
  • Creativity and problem solving skills are encouraged.
  • Players receive immediate feedback.
  • There’s always an answer / always a way to “win.”
  • “Cheating” is supported.
  • Trial and error works best.
  • Game play is almost always better in groups.

Okay . . . now start thinking about these concepts in a social studies unit design. Let’s say we’re designing a unit on the causes of the Civil War.

  • Students get to modify the learning environment and make individual choices.
    Differentiated Instruction allow for students to research using a variety of tools and develop a variety of final products.
  • Students become the experts.
    We provide an engaging problem or over-arching question and allow students to find the answer on their own. This is instead of  just giving kids the answers and asking them to memorize them.
  • Creativity and problem solving skills are encouraged.
    The unit problem or question is the key. It has to be hard enough but not too hard. Challenging but doable. For example – ” Using primary documents as your main source of information, prove the following statement true or false: States Rights was not the cause of the Civil War.”
  • Students receive immediate feedback.
    You will need to constantly monitor progress. This doesn’t mean grading. This means providing information in a way so that leads to the desired end result.
  • There’s always an answer / always a way to “win.”
    This relates back to the idea of differentiating the learning. Game designers call it “flow” and most current games will automatically adjust the difficulty level based on how the player is doing. If a player is struggling, the game will make the current task easier. If a player is having lots of success, the game will make the task more difficult. We need to do the same thing with students.
  • “Cheating” is supported.
    Almost all games provide cheat codes, walkthroughs and in-game help. This is not seen as cheating by players in the same way that we define academic cheating. So during learning, you need to provide scaffolding – this might be giving more time to finish things, suggesting different tools or web sites and even designing activities that encourage student / groups to share information.
  • Trial and error works best.
    We know how powerful mistakes can be in the learning process. So we need to provide opportunities for failure. Never grade first attempts, require 1st and 2nd drafts of work and design problems and questions that can’t be Googled.
  • Learning is almost always better in groups.
    We need to connect kids with other kids and adults. This could be permanent groups throughout the life of the unit, temporary teams to solve problems, hooking kids up with adult experts, using technology to join your kids with someone else’s kids or simply asking kids to reflect with a partner after an interactive lecture.

Games and simulations can and should be part of our instructional tool kit. But the brain-based research that is the basis for their design should be part of our kit as well.


Get on it. I’ll be here when you’re done. Let me know how it goes.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Christopher #

    I’m just about to play Mission US with my class… it’s by far the best teaching game I’ve used. The more games like that we have, the better! The kids really get immersed in it.

    September 8, 2011
    • glennw #

      Cool! I love Mission USA.

      I agree . . . we need more games like this that incorporate quality game play with high levels of content and history application.

      Thanks for the comment!


      September 8, 2011
  2. I have some history simulations you might find interesting:

    October 4, 2016
    • glennw #


      Thanks for sharing! They look great – will plan on exploring the site.


      October 4, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Gamification in the Social Studies « History Tech | BBGUniverse
  2. Brush off the Dust – Best of the Web, 9/5-9/9/2011 | Brush off the dust! History now!
  3. Suppose knowledge is not the goal of education « History Tech

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