Games in your Toolbox: Part 1

Games in your Toolbox

When I started my game company back in 2002, I was not thinking about creating educational games. My company’s mission was to “create experiences that help bring people together” and that’s what I focused on. My opinion of educational games was not a good one. I wanted to make games that were fun, not educational.

A couple of years ago, however, things changed for me. I received a call from a teacher asking if I had any suggestions for using SiegeStones in a classroom. The thought that SiegeStones could be educational had never occurred to me, and the idea that I could create games that would be both fun and of use in a classroom was downright thrilling.

I decided that I needed to learn more. I asked a teacher to write me some educator’s guidelines for SiegeStones and Calaboose. I went to conferences, spoke with teachers, and read everything I could find about games in education. What I learned really opened my eyes. 

Not only did I discover a host of fun educational games, but I found that using games in education goes way beyond educational games. The key is to stop looking at games as a goal, and start looking at them as a tool that you can use to solve the challenges you face as a teacher.

Games are a powerful tool in your toolbox, but, like any other tool, they’re only effective if you know how to use them.

For my presentation at the Educator’s Forum at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair, I looked at five different challenges facing teachers:

  1. Direct Teaching
  2. Reinforcing, reviewing, and practicing
  3. Teaching secondary skills
  4. Connecting with kids
  5. Connecting with families

Are those five challenges you can relate to? If so, let’s dive into it. In this article (part 1 of 5), I’m going to focus on the first challenge on the list: Direct Teaching.

Direct Teaching

By direct teaching, I mean presenting and explaining new information to the students. This is, to my mind, the toughest nut for games to crack. After all, you’re the teacher. You know how to teach your students better than any game (or game designer).

So where do games fit in? Two ways. The first is what I think of as “discovery” games. In these games, the students discover the new information on their own. As you know, the thrill of discovery is a powerful motivator for learning. In addition, that feeling of satisfaction that comes from figuring something out can really cause a lesson to stick with a child. 

The second way games can help with direct teaching is by providing a classroom aid to help you present and illustrate your lessons. These classroom aids help generate enthusiasm and tweak the student’s interest simply by being interesting and different from your regular method of teaching.

Whether you’re looking for a “discovery” game or a “classroom aid” game, here are some things to look for:

  • Customizability: If you’re going to be running the game in your classroom, you need to be able to modify it to suit your style and content.
  • High “discovery” or “interest” factor: For discovery games, you want the kids to be excited when they discover what you want them to learn. For classroom aids, the games have to be interesting/exciting enough to get the kids looking forward to trying them. That is, after all, the primary advantage to using them.
  • Are there lesson plans or educator guidelines? Though you may not follow them to the letter, seeing the lesson plans from the game’s designer will probably give you some great ideas – and give you a feel for whether the game fits with your style of teaching.
  • Is it suited for your environment? If you have a class with 30 kids in it, you probably don’t want a two-player game – so check out the basics. How many people can play the game? Will you have to break your class into groups? Does the game work with teams? What is the “feel” of the game? Is it too silly for your style, or too serious? Or can you adapt it for what you want?

In the “teacher’s aid” category, I’d recommend both Zillio and Amuse Amaze. There are lots of other games, of course, but these are two that I saw at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair (and that’s where I gave this presentation).

In the “discovery” category, my StoryTellers game is great for creative writing classes. I’m sure there are other “discovery” style games, but rather than get into listing games, I thought I’d throw out another idea…

You don’t always have to buy something!
I realize that’s a crazy thing for a game designer to say, so let me explain myself with an example.

I went to high school back in the early 80’s, and when I was a sophomore, I had a history teacher named Mr. Hughes. Mr. Hughes’ class, was, to put it mildly, dry (sorry, Mr. Hughes). We read about history. We talked about history. We memorized history. Oof.

One Friday, Mr. Hughes told us we were going to play a game. He brought out a basket of index cards, and we each picked one. On each card there was the name of a role of someone on a ship – captain, first mate, cook, that kind of thing – and a list of skills. Here’s how he explained it to us that first day. Everyone in the class was on an old sailing ship, and we each had to perform the role listed on the card we drew. We were going to play the game for the last 20 minutes of every Friday class.

I drew a conscripted sailor, the lowest of the low when it comes to status on a ship. My skills included useless things like “farming” and “animal husbandry.” Bum draw, I thought.

The very next Friday, as we got started, he announced that our ship crashed on an island – and we had to find a way to survive on the island. Even worse, he gave us reason to believe there were hostile natives on the island. We each had the skills listed on our cards, as well as the supplies on the ship.

Suddenly, my conscripted sailor wasn’t so bad. Farming? Animal Husbandry? Wahoo!

Talk about engaging the students? History class was the talk for the whole next week. What would we do? How would we survive? Who was going to be in charge? The captain? Why the captain? He didn’t know anything about farming…

We not only talked with each other, we also met individually with Mr. Hughes, trying to come up with solutions.

By the time class rolled around, we were ready. After a week of wrangling, we had come up with the perfect solution. As a class, we described it to him: we were going to build a small village surrounded by fields. Everybody would do what they could to work the fields, protect the village, or cook the food… each person using their skills to help the whole village. We’d share the food every night, and build ourselves a place to live until rescue showed up.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re communists.”

What? We couldn’t be communists! This was the early 80’s. Communists were The Bad Guys. We couldn’t be communists. 

Our whole plan got thrown out the window.

Mr. Hughes went on to teach us the difference between economic policy and political policy, about how some economic policies worked well with small numbers of people, but broke down once you got more people – the whole nine yards. He even touched on how impactful a label could be. After all, we had scrapped our whole system just because someone said we were communists.

How’s that for an effective game? It completely turned history class around. We stopped worrying about memorizing facts and dates. Instead, we started examining the problems of history, trying to see why people did what they did. Yes, we learned the facts and dates along the way, but they weren’t the focus any more. We were trying to understand what had happened and why.

And all it cost him was some index cards and a little time. That’s what I mean when I say you don’t always have to buy a game. Sometimes, the best games are the simplest.

Pretty exciting stuff, huh?

I hope this has been helpful for you. Next month, I’ll move on to how to use games to help you with reinforcing, reviewing, and practicing lessons with the students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *