With the widespread access to smartphones, tablets and the Internet, our ways of interacting with the world have changed, and learning styles have changed alongside that. Today’s children and young adults thrive when information is accessible in creative, interactive formats. Electronic and tabletop games tap into the modes of learning that we already employ in our personal endeavors while reinforcing the core skills of a traditional educational curriculum.
Statement of Problem
As evidenced by consistently flagging standards (12th-grade and college textbooks are written at the 7th grade reading level, which is also the gold standard for readability among adult Americans), for many students, traditional school curricula alone are not sufficient. Even those in charge of creating “progressive” curricula were brought up in a world that is fundamentally different from today.
Well-meaning educational reform, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Common Core State Standards Initiative, has resulted in a classroom environment that ignores student difference and values standardized test scores over skill acquisition. Educators have no choice but to tailor their curricula to the standardized tests, since it is upon these tests that the school’s funding and the teacher’s employment will be judged. This leaves precious little room for the acquisition of skills needed to succeed outside of the classroom or in higher education. Although they’ve garnered much political support, many figures within the educational community have vocally protested these reform efforts.
If we wish for the children in our lives to succeed, we must follow a schizophrenic program that prepares children for rigorous standardized testing (the short-term measure of success) while also giving them the long-term, foundational learning skills that public education no longer provides. And when public education becomes more standardized, students themselves are crying out for more direct engagement. “They’re looking to have experiences and then reflect on those experiences rather than…be passive recipients of information,” as articulated by Geoff Gamble of The Long View podcast in his interview with Brian Mayer, designer of Freedom: The Underground Railroad (6:44-7:22). While I was preparing the most recent draft of this article, Gamble released an even more involved and impassioned criticism of the current educational model in the United States (discussion begins at 3:45.)
Plan of Action
Students–no, humans–learn best when they are positively engaged with the subject matter (as opposed to unengaged or negatively engaged, e.g. “I hate this type of work”). Positive emotions and “good mood” improve memory potency and length (i.e. positive memories last longer and contain more detail than negative ones).
Today’s young people experience games of all kinds on a daily basis and appear to have a particular talent for learning when play is involved (not to mention that in other animal species, “play” appears to be synonymous with skill acquisition). I know about a dozen mid-elementary school students with savant-level knowledge of the mobile game Five Nights at Freddy’s. Although many of these students haven’t even played the game personally (they’ve heard about it from older siblings or school friends), they’ve absorbed an encyclopedic knowledge of the characters, setting, techniques and lore involved with the game. The students devote a significant amount of time and mental energy to the game series, watching recordings of gameplay on YouTube and reading up on the game’s Wiki. It’s clear that these students, who are all struggling in school curricula, have the ability and the motivation to learn when their interest is piqued. Don’t even get me started on Minecraft.
Games do not tend to function well as a primary source of educational material, mostly because games designed to be educational tend to forget to be fun. Children are intelligent enough to see through the ruse. (A notable exception to this rule is Twinbeard’s otherwise unremarkable browser game, Frog Fractions.) However, games serve as excellent enforcers of educational content, reinforcing foundational skills and concepts. Even games with no clear educational relevance subtly reinforce many critical skills:
Fluid Intelligence. All games, regardless of content or medium, as long as they contain some modicum of interaction (cf. Candy Land), exercise fluid intelligence, or “the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge.” This is simply endemic to the activity: games are, by definition, a fluid, reactive logical challenge, moreso when dexterity is not a significant factor. Succeeding at a game involves assessing a novel situation and creatively arriving at the best approach.
Pattern Recognition. Furthermore, learning to play a game requires students to comprehend and apply an unfamiliar system of rules and terms, developing skills necessary when confronting any new subject. The more diverse range of games a student interacts with, the more easily they will be able to recognize patterns in new material and acquire new types of knowledge.
Arithmetic Skills. Many tabletop games utilize a numerical model for scoring and determining success. Throughout the game, players may be required to add or subtract one- or two-digit numbers, calculate averages, or apply small multipliers (generally x2 to x10) to specific values. Games featuring currency in multiple denominations frequently require players to “make change”; some games, like the perennial Monopoly, use currency that mirrors the American system.
Reading, Spelling and Vocabulary. Games can incorporate text at various levels. Text might appear solely in the rulebook, or written terms could appear in dialogue, menus, and puzzles in digital games, or on the board, cards, and other components of tabletop games. “Text-heavy” games might include small paragraphs using complex or unfamiliar terms. Furthermore, the genre of “word games” all explicitly reinforce spelling rules and can introduce the student to new vocabulary, especially if played in a group of mixed vocabulary acquisition.
Specific Subjects. Although many educational games fail to engage students, modern tabletop games address every subject matter conceivable. (This is less true of video games, which tend to focus on war, science fiction or fantasy themes.) For nearly every educational subject, a complementary and engaging game will exist.
I firmly believe that all games improve learning. I say this as someone who has never struggled in school, a boon I attribute directly to my lifelong love of games and puzzles, my ingrained sense of joy at figuring things out. (I also credit games, particular first-person video games, for my uncanny sense of direction.) However, not all games are equally appropriate to the classroom environment. As with standard curricula, learning by play should begin at home and continue for the remainder of the learner’s life. If you are an educator who wishes to introduce games to the classroom, though, here is a short list of desirable characteristics, adapted from Robert Marzano’s guidelines to using games in the classroom, published by the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development):
Use Inconsequential Competition. In general, children like to compete as long as the stakes are not high. All students should have the experience of winning and losing. Rewards, if any, should be inconsequential but fun.
Target Academic Content. Understand the games’ relevance to student learning.
Debrief the Game. Do not simply tally the scores and move on. Discuss how the game actualizes concepts relevant to the student’s curriculum.
Be Mindful of Complexity. Learning a game is a significant roadblock to getting any educational benefit out of it. Modern games vary in complexity; games used in education should be accessible but not trivial (i.e. students should be able to begin playing quickly, but the game should demand considered and meaningful students from the player).
Be Mindful of Time. Shorter games can enhance a student’s educational experience without taking significant time away from regular curricula. Longer games can be altered to provide short bursts of activity. Be also mindful of the complexity of setting up and putting away the game.
Be Mindful of Player Limitations. Modern games support various ranges of players, from 8+ all the way down to 1. Be prepared to split the room into groups or teams working collaboratively or in parallel on one or more simultaneous activities.
As students’ daily experiences become increasingly interactive and engaging thanks to Internet and mobile technology, public education trends have counterintuitively begun to cycle back toward rote memorization and a focus on test-taking strategies that have little import in the post-educational world. To provide students the best education possible, we must meet them on their terms, providing a well-rounded range of activities that are both engaging and memorable. Games can and should be a part of this solution.
Tabletop Games Curriculum
I can’t overstate my central thesis that all games, electronic or analog, have educational merit; however, here is a short list of tabletop games, by subject, that I feel are particularly suited to supplement a K-12 curriculum. I’ve chosen to focus on tabletop games for a few reasons, foremost among which being that it’s an area that I currently find intellectually stimulating. Each content area will be released as a separate update.