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Games are beginning to make an impact on the economy and also beginning to change the way we work, play and learn. However the impact on schools, teaching, and learning has been much more restricted. Many will still react negatively to the idea of games in the classroom (in post-primary at least).

This limited impact can primarily be identified as technology is being been used to replace analogue tools. There is not much thought being given to how we can utilise technology’s comparative advantages. These comparative advantages, relative to traditional “chalk-and-talk” classroom instruction, include helping to scale up standardised instruction, facilitate differentiated instruction, expand opportunities for practice, and increase student engagement. When schools use technology to enhance the work of educators and to improve the quality and quantity of educational content, learners will thrive.

Are Games Tools or Toys?

Are games a tool to enhance or improve learning outcomes, or they merely expensive toys?

What do we do when a pupil disengages in a lesson? Dr Mazur from Harvard University measured student brain activity throughout a day and found that the brain was less active than when the student was asleep.

As teachers what do we make of this? How do we improve this?

student brain activity

When we compare this to playing games – students are very attentive and can focus for long periods of time.

So what do we do with this? James Paul Gee (2013: Good Video Games and Good Learning) has commented:

"Current research in cognitive science has proven that games incorporate good learning principles."

When playing games, the brain makes connections and looks very similar to how it does when we a re studying. It is engaged and it has the ability to understand very complex rules while taking enjoyment from what it is doing.

Three Types of Games

  1. Simulations
  2. Gamification
  3. Game-based learning


flight simulation technology image

Companies use simulations to train their employees. Airlines use flight simulations to train pilots and the US army use simulations with their soldiers.

In education, we have used simulations in accounting and it does not always go well with students.

With iPads, students can now simulate running a hotel. They are in control of what investments are made, what profit is spent on, what wages are to be set at, and they see the results (or consequences) of those decisions.

These scenarios are no longer theoretical – to the student they are real because the consequence is real. The rules of the market economy here can be a harsh teacher. A student may decide to economise on spending to maximise profit, but customers may then decide to visit other hotels because they off a better experience. The lessons of managing a business, and the fine line between success and failure is easy to cross because of a simple, but innocuous decision.


gaming leaderboard

This is a type of play that gets us motivated to achieve certain goals. These can be badges, leader boards or competitions.

Gamification is within our fitness trackers – we move to earn points that helps us beat our friends because we have taken more steps or exercised more. Sometimes if we are near our goal, we may go out for a walk just to get over that finish line, but the real achievement is improving our health.

Kahoot! is a quiz app that uses gamification to get students motivated. With time limits, students get higher scores based on how quickly they answer the questions. The competition against their peers sets in very quickly and students will try to answer the questions more so that they can win – especially when set against a normal quiz.

Traditionally, when we ask our classes a question, it will be the better students who will always offer an answer, or if some are motivated to get to lunch quicker, there may be some different students offering an answer. But with Kahoot!, everyone is motivated to play the game and try to win.

Gamification is about winning the game, but it also about the motivation to win, and the knowledge needed within the game, to win.

Game-Based Learning

In game-based learning, there is a game to play and the pupils learn by playing the game. Games like Farmville, Age of Empires (from the 90s) and Sim City all teach pupils skills through playing the game. It might be managing a farm and the skills and knowledge needed to do that, or developing city – managing finances to encourage growth while being able to expand a city through the profits made, while equally not taxing the citizens too hard. Or in Age of Empires, controlling a civilisation, developing their culture and knowledge to a point where they can win wars against other nations and become stronger nations.

In all these examples, one of the biggest lessons is strategy. How do we develop a long-term plan and see it through to completion, which will hopefully see us win the game. The application here to a students’ life is obvious-to get a certain job, they will need a certain number of GCSEs; and relevant A-Levels, undergraduate study and then any post-graduate study to enable them to work in a certain field or specialise in a certain area.

This type of plan takes most of us many years and the motivation to keep to the plan can be difficult and we can encounter setbacks. How do we react to that – in a similar way maybe, to how we react within a game when something goes wrong: we try to fix it, refocus our efforts and try harder. In real life there is no restart button.

What Makes Games so Engaging?

Quite simply, the pupil is engaged with what they are doing! They are actively involved in their learning, making decisions and seeing the outcomes of those actions. Gameplay, regardless of the type (as listed above) can be used to teach children about historical battles or how to expand a business empire.

The lessons are the same as in real life – they have to overcome obstacles; analyse complex problems and come up with a solution.

The game does not make education different or harder, it makes us think about how pupils learn and if there is a way in which we can leverage this game-based model and help pupils achieve learning in a way that includes them in the process.

Concluding Thoughts

As an IT teacher, there are many ways for me to teach programming. Through game based learning (like one platform called that I have pupils using) I can certainly use pupils’ natural interest in games to teach programming, but using pen and paper is also an extremely strong method as it forces pupils to remember the code and its structure.

Gaming is not the only way to engage pupils in learning. It may be an effective way that is coming to the fore as more children become interested in games and there are many ways in which skills can be taught by using games. As teachers, we must and do evaluate every tool that comes our way as to how we could use it in class teaching.

Thanks for visiting again and feel free to leave a comment!

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