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Posts tagged ‘video games in education’

Mission US – educational AND engaging

For too long, most educational video games seemed to be of the Reader Rabbit variety – colorfully packaged animated worksheets. Writing and coding quality games with high production values and interesting stories was just too expensive.

And forget about good history games. While the Oregon Trail game was okay, history teachers have long been forced to find ways to integrate off-the-shelf games such as Medal of Honor or Civilization III.

But recent improvements in simulation creation software and internet technology has enabled developers to create some pretty sweet history tools. One I’m falling in love with is Mission US.

Created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mission US

is a multimedia project featuring free interactive adventure games set in different eras of U.S. history. The first game, Mission 1: “For Crown or Colony?,” puts the player in the shoes of Nat Wheeler, a 14-year-old printer’s apprentice in 1770 Boston. As Nat navigates the city and completes tasks, he encounters a spectrum of people living and working there when tensions mount before the Boston Massacre.  Ultimately, the player determines Nat’s fate by deciding where his loyalties lie.

Designed specifically for the educational market and aligned to national standards, the game has extensive teacher materials and resources. Students playing the game will walk away with a solid knowledge of the pre-Revolution period. And for the most part, the tool does a good job of engaging kids in thinking and asking questions.

My pet peeve?

For the most part, much of the action doesn’t involve any of the game’s characters. In future missions, the designers need to provide more opportunities for the player to directly interact with other characters and events.

But even given that, Mission US is a great addition to the history simulation genre. And the best part? It’s free. So play in streaming format or download and play on your hard drive.

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Games for Change

Interested in using serious games in the classroom? You need to head over to Games for Change and check out the over 60 games in nine different categories.

Founded in 2004, Games for Change is a non-profit which seeks to harness the extraordinary power of digital games to address the most pressing issues of our day, including poverty, education, human rights, global conflict and climate change. Games for Change serves as a platform for organizations, individuals, government agencies, academics, journalists and the game industry to share best practices, exchange knowledge, incubate new projects and provide access to those seeking to use digital games to positively impact society.

Some of my favs?

The iCivics collection and Oililgarchy.



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Even more teaching tips from video games

Yesterday I mentioned an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that highlighted five ideas teachers can steal from video game developers as they create lessons and units.

As I’ve worked with teachers over the last few years, we’ve been able to put together a few other teaching tips that teachers should use based on the work of video game research.

Win the “game” by achieving engaging goals

  • All great video games have difficult but clear and achievable targets. We need to do the same as we design problem-based learning units with interesting and engaging problems. One example is a western Kansas government teacher who asked her students to solve the problem of a diminished Ogalla Auquifer. Throughout the semester, the students task was to research the problem and then deliver a solution to the District Water Board.This sort of work requires kids to work through a series of levels to achieve a final goal, just like a video game.

Allow cheat codes

  • The word cheat instantly sends up a red flag to most teachers but to a gamer, a cheat code is simply something or someone who helps them solve problems. We need to use the same philosophy when designing lessons by building into the process a more collaborative feel. Allow kids to work together, especially in the earlier “levels” of the unit, encourage the use of online experts and create student experts that can help with instruction.

Provide power-ups

  • Most games offer ways for players to “level-up” their character by offering extra lives, additional special powers and new tools or weapons. We can do the same sort of thing in our unit designs by intentionally including different types of scaffolding through the use of graphic organizers, Web 2.0 tools and differentiated instruction.

Encourage “modding”

  • Modding is short for modifications. Most games allow the user to modify the game or create additional scenarios and settings through the use of in-game editors. We can do similar sorts of things by providing choices to students. Giving kids the opportunity to design their own end product or travel a different path of research encourages higher levels of student engagement.

Include visual and auditory stimuli

  • All modern games include visuals and auditory components specifically designed to enhance the experience. Some game systems, such as the Wii, even include tactile stimuli. Future games will surely include some sort of smell-o-vision. We need to do the same by purposefully planning for the use of multimedia in our instruction. One teacher I know even set off a bunch of fireworks in a metal can and then brought the remains into his classroom during a discussion on the Battle of Gettysburg. It provided a very specific smell that helped kids connect emotion with content.

As teachers, we need to constantly be looking for ways to hone our skills. And the brain research used by game developers to engage users is the same sort of research we can use to design high-quality lesson and unit design.

Curious what works for you? How have you used game theory to design instruction?

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Five Teaching Tips . . . from Video Games

For the last few years, I’ve been pushing the concept of using video games as part of instruction. And I’ve been especially interested in talking about how teachers can integrate game development concepts into their lesson and unit designs. The brain research and instructional theory used to develop quality games are often the same sorts of things that teachers should be using to develop quality lessons.

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education published an interesting article targeting college professors that outlined similar thinking. It documents some of the conversations that the Games, Learning and Society researchers at the University of Wisconsin are having about the use of video games.

And while it’s written for higher ed, the article contents are very applicable to K-12 teachers. So what can we take away from video games?

Give frequent & detailed feedback

  • Most games provide immediate feedback in a variety of ways – tactile, help screens, suggestions from in-game mentors, displayed data in addition to trial and error. Most teachers are not in the habit of providing the rich sorts of feedback that games do.But we know that immediate feedback is a vital part of the learning process. We need to use more rubrics, more sub-scores instead of a generic grade and employ more assessments that provide kids with specific information about their progress.This doesn’t mean more grades – it means more information.

Beta testing

  • The article talks about having more user input before a online course is actually deployed. Is the course easy to move around in? Do the instructions make sense? Is there alignment between content and assessment? I think we can do similar things with K-12 lessons and units – asking former students and current colleagues to critique the design.But I think the idea of beta testing can also be employed in our lesson / unit design by purposefully allowing students multiple attempts during longer projects. We need to encourage kids to be creative and train them to take risks, knowing that they have the opportunity to correct mistakes and learn from them.

Game narratives answer the question “Why are we doing this?”

  • Games like World of Warcraft, Rise of Nations and Legend of Zelda all employ different types of story lines that drive inquiry and decision making. As teachers we often get questions from students who don’t see the relevance of our content. This happens when we focus more on details rather than the big picture of history.Stories can be incredibly engaging and motivating when used to provide the foundation for specific details. Textbooks like Joy Hakim’s History of US do a great job of telling stories rather than recounting events. We need to use these sorts of tools and become better story tellers ourselves.

Don’t be afraid of fun

  • There is a traditional belief that having fun while learning is a bad thing. And for whatever reason, it seems like the higher the grade, the more ingrained this belief becomes. Elementary kids can enjoy learning but at the high school, we have to be very serious for “real” learning to happen.Brain research seems pretty clear – the brain learns best when it’s having “fun.” The skills learned while playing in a rich-environment like World of Warcraft are exactly the type of skills required to succeed in the current business world. We need to be more willing to build fun into our instructional design.

Not all content works as a game

  • In many video games, players must go through basic tutorials or data collection before actually “playing” the game. Players understand that they need to go through this low-level processing so that they can be successful later on in the game.As social studies teachers, we often focus just on the low-end data collection (when was Lincoln elected sorts of things) rather than how that data helps us understand the past and present. We need to design instruction in the same way that games are designed – go beyond low level Bloom’s and incorporate high-end kinds of thinking in our lesson designs. And, more importantly, we need to let students know that the low-level data collection are the building blocks needed to think critically at high levels.

    This can also help with the question – “Why do I have to know this?” The answer? Because it helps you be successful later in the game.

More and more of you are using video games as actual instructional tools. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the next step is to go beyond simply incorporating games as teaching tools and begin using game theory to help us design more effective lesson and unit design.


Get more tips here!


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Constitution and other law related games

Deb Brown, former president of the Kansas Council for the Social Studies and current K-12 Social Studies specialist at Shawnee Mission School District, sent me this web site review several months ago. I asked if I could post it and she agreed.

I’m just now getting back to it. Christmas, the Super Bowl, several ice storms, winter high school sports, March Madness and a couple of books by the fireplace all got in the way.

I’m easily distracted.

But Deb’s review is too good to leave behind so . . . here ya go.


I am absolutely enamored with this website for interactive games and simulations dealing with Law Related Education. This website is from Law Focused Education, a branch of the Texas Bar Association.  You really need to explore and take part in a couple of the activities.  Great classroom review and can be used for instruction.  Some of the activities are specific to Texas law but I have included application to our classrooms below.

Who can use this?

  • Appropriate for High school: Foundations of American Law, Legal Studies, American Government or even United States History
  • Appropriate for Middle School: Many of you may be beyond your Constitution, Government and Law units but check it out and bookmark it for later.
  • Elementary Teachers: A variety of activities for you as well.
  • ELL students and teachers: Some activities are appropriate

I went through all of the following activities:

  • Bill of Rights Match Game – Has an elementary and secondary version.
  • Pick Six – Geared toward legal studies and street law. (High School)
  • Constitution Relay – Wow . . . great review for all things Constitution including the Constitutional Convention. (Middle or High School)
  • Pirates of the Preamble – This was not easy. (Middle School)
  • American Symbols – Good click and drag of symbols to clues. (Elementary or ELL)
  • Preamble Scramble – Wasn’t working when I tried it.  Looks like another click and drag.  (Upper elementary and Middle school)
  • Pick Twelve – Interactive Jury game with a downloadable printable version.  (High School)
  • Federalist Anti-Federalist – This is a tough one, you would really need to know your stuff. (High School, challenging even for AP classes)
  • Pledge of Allegiance – Click and drag the pledge into the correct order of the words.  (Elementary and ELL)
  • Declaration Clarification – Click and drag the Ceclaration into the correct order. (Middle School)

A more detailed synopsis about a couple of the activities I checked out.

The Pick Six Game
A case is presented dealing with a juvenile alcohol issue.  In addition to selecting whether to be the prosecuting attorney or the defense attorney, participants must go through the jury selection process (voir dire) and will be scored on how well they selected a jury for their side.

The Bill of Rights Game
I really like this one. Situations vary each time you play.  Students must determine if the situation is constitutional AND determine which of the 10 amendments applies to that situation.  There is an elementary version and a secondary version.  If students miss a question they do have the opportunity to try again.   Students’ final time appears on their certificate of completion that can be printed out.  Did I mention students can print out a copy of the Bill of Rights to assist them if they need it?

Pirates of the Preamble
Incorporates history, geography with questions about the Constitution.  If you miss a question you have to swab the decks!

Thanks Deb!

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Great Games, Better Brains beta

Okay. Be gentle. We’re gonna get better.

Together with Jaime Hendricks, I’ve started a semi-regular video cast called Great Games, Better Brains that talks about video games and how parents, families and teachers can use them appropriately.

The idea is that we create and post five to six minute clips online that people can access whenever / wherever. Our target audience right now is parents and grandparents who have questions about how games work, which games to play and how to monitor what their kids are doing. Great Games, Better Brains is part of larger effort to connect with parents and teachers called My Kid’s Turn.

It’s still very rough. Jaime and I are slowly getting used to the idea of the whole video thing but we’d like some useful feedback. You can check out a single episode we did on Wii games and setting parental controls here but be sure to browse around and see what else My Kid’s Turn has to offer.