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The Game Believes in You – Using video games as instructional tools

During an extensive spring cleaning binge over the weekend, I had the chance to sort through a ton of memories and personal primary sources. And I ran across some ancient artifacts. Yup. Five and quarter floppy disks.

Actual floppy disks.

Yes, I am that old.

I know many of you have never seen such a thing. So a quick overview. Think of an app that you install on your phone. Same basic idea. Except the size of the file on the floppy is smaller than most of the images in your phone’s camera roll, it has minimal graphics or none at all, you have to reinstall it every time you want to use it, and you need a special disk drive attached to your computer to access the software.

I’m not sure why I saved them. Obviously I can’t use them. Even if I could find a 5 1/4 disk drive, there’s not an operating system around that would run the program. Part of it, I’m sure, is that the history nerd in me wanted to save them for . . . I don’t know. It’s just cool saving old stuff.

But the teacher in me flashed back to a couple of classrooms when those floppies did some pretty amazing things. One of the disks holds a simulation called Archeology. Catchy title. But as simple as the title and the actual simulation is, it captured the attention of my 8th grade students like nothing else. The sim was pretty basic – there was a matrix of squares representing an archaeological dig site in a New England field. Each student or group had a piece of paper map highlighting a few geographic features and ruins of buildings. The matrix was overlaid on the map.

Notice the double disk drive on this bad boy

Notice the double disk drive on this bad boy

During their turn at the small black and white screen of my Apple IIE computer, kids would select a square, B7 for example, the floppy drive would spin and eventually kick out the results of their “digging.” If their “digging” revealed anything, the computer screen would flash up a description of what they “found” and how deep the artifact had been buried. Otherwise, the screen simply said “Nothing was found in this square.” Students clicked Done and the next group came up and took over the computer. The group went back to their desks and planned where to “dig” next.

Compared to 2015 apps and games, Archeology was simple, primitive even. But the excitement the sim created in my students was incredible. Kids were sharing information in the hallway. Digging into the library. Asking great questions. I still remember one particular group coming to the computer, selecting a square and getting the dreaded “Nothing was found in this square” screen. Their turn was literally over in less than 30 seconds. But they ran back to their desks

Cool! That’s exactly what we expected. Now we know where we need to go next time. I can’t wait for our next turn.

shogun screenshotLater I used a video game version of James Clavell’s most excellent book Shogun with college World History students. The technology had advanced a bit but it was still basically a simple text-based game. The game gives you a description of the place you are in and you input simple verb/ noun instructions – Enter room, take sword, drink tea, attack samurai. (Yes, you can still play the game online. Yes, I will be busy later this evening.)

Perhaps they only acted as if they enjoyed it because it meant less direct instruction and lecture. But the response was similar – kids engaged in finding evidence, solving problems, collaborating . . . all while learning about Feudal Japan.

But to be successful as instructional tools, I needed to do more than just have kids play Archeology and Shogun. It’s not about simply playing the game – it’s about learning skills and content. So with the 8th graders, we had conversations about why people settle and build in certain geographic locations. College kids compared and contrasted Japan and Europe. All of them learned how to look at evidence and create solutions.

When I talk about using games and sims in the classroom with teachers, I hear the same two concerns:

  • Can games actually be useful instructional tools?
  • What does that look like?

Both great questions. Astrophysicist Jodi Asbell-Clarke shared her thinking about games in the classroom:

We’re not trying to turn your students into gamers. We’re trying to turn your gamers into students.

It really isn’t a matter of games or no games anymore. The question has become how and what works best. So I’ve posted some resources that address these kinds of concerns.

The first, and my new favorite, is a book that just came out called The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. Greg Toppo argues that games do truly “believe in you.” They focus, inspire and reassure people in ways that many teachers can’t. Games give students a chance to learn at their own pace, take risks, cultivate deeper understanding, fail and want to try again – right away – and ultimately, succeed in ways that too often elude them in traditional school settings. You’ll get theory but also some practical ways that teachers are using games in instruction.

The Game Believes in You pairs nicely with a bit older book called Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the SoulPlay explains why play “is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, ability to problem solve and more. A fascinating blend of cutting-edge neuroscience, biology, psychology, social science, and inspiring human stories of the transformative power of play, this book proves why play just might be the most important work we can ever do.”

I know that it’s the end of the year and so you may need a quicker read. Check out these web sites and pdf docs:

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