What Happens When Students Play (and Design) Games

Not everything we do in schools can be fun and games, but much of what we do in the classroom should be…especially when it comes to science instruction. I was visiting a school recently where I found a number of students outside, chasing each other and working to accumulate red and blue bracelets. But it wasn’t recess or a physical education class that I was watching. It was a science class.


This chase/survival game was actually a simulation designed by students…not by teachers. The learning objectives for the activity were simple—students were to collaboratively design and refine a game that allowed their classmates to experience and understand concepts of predator/prey relationships, natural selection, and animal adaptation. As the game was played, students also collected (and later on interpreted) data on potential relationships between predators, prey, water scarcity, survival rates, competition, and the reproduction of animal species.


In research, five claims are commonly made about the potential benefits of serious game playing in schools (McClarty et al. 2012). First, games are built on sound learning principles. In other words, game designers have to ensure that their players are successful without making it too easy for them to become successful. If players aren’t successful in a game and become too frustrated, they quit. Likewise, if a game is too easy, players lose interest. In other words, game designers have the same challenge that teachers have—a need to orchestrate and scaffold success at perfect levels of difficulty.


Second, games tend to provide personalized learning. By personalized learning, we mean that students are being taught in a manner (and at a level) suited to their abilities. As a result, one student’s experience might look quite different from that of another student. But personalized learning also implies that students are gaining the skills needed to be successful in subsequent and increasingly difficult challenges.

Third, games teach 21st century skills. While the development of fundamental knowledge in an area such as math or science is an essential component of education, one of the greatest challenges faced by schools continues to be how to best prepare today’s young people for their future. The seemingly abstract skills needed to do so are what we collectively call 21st century skills; they include the ability to think critically, collaborate, communicate, and to formulate creative solutions to problems. Many of these skills, if not all of them, are utilized simultaneously in collaborative games such as Minecraft, Clash of Clans, and Settlers of Catan which are played so widely by today’s young people.


Fourth, games often provide more engaging learning experiences than do traditional learning activities. Well-designed games seek to engage with individuals through a variety of techniques. According to research, extended effort in game play is the result of a dynamic interplay between (1) initial interest in and desire to solve a problem, (2) the level of challenge, and (3) degree of enjoyment, fun, and satisfaction associated with the experience of the game (Schoenau-Fog, 2011). It should come as no surprise, therefore, that game-play in schools often results in higher levels of engagement amongst students.


Finally, games provide an environment for authentic and relevant assessment. Medical schools and military training facilities, for example, regularly employ realistic simulations and games to evaluate the proficiency of their students and trainees. The use of such games for learning and assessment in healthcare and in the military is expected to increase over the next several years (Bredl & Bösche, 2013), but what about in education?


Big-time game designers have already created educational versions of Minecraft and Sims for classroom use. But as I visit schools, rarely do I see these (or any other) games being utilized. Perhaps that is why I was so excited to see these science students out playing, learning, and designing games. If anyone knows about game-play, it is today’s young people.


So, just how do we utilize games to take classroom learning to the next level? At present, few teachers seem brave enough to make regular use of games. The first step is likely to help educators use game-play as an opportunity for students to explore and interact with classroom content.  The second—and more powerful—step would be to do what this teacher did…to place students at the heart of game-design so that students are creating better learning experiences for themselves and for their classmates.




Bredl, K., & Bösche, W. (Eds.). (2013). Serious Games and Virtual Worlds in Education, Professional Development, and Healthcare. IGI Global.


McClarty, K. L., Orr, A., Frey, P. M., Dolan, R. P., Vassileva, V., & McVay, A. (2012). A literature review of gaming in education. Gaming In Education.


Schoenau-Fog, H. (2011). The player engagement process–an exploration of continuation desire in digital games. In Think Design Play: Digital Games Research Conference.



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