Learning Through (Digital) Play

written by matthew taylor

College students love playing games 
Once when I was a freshman, my roommate and I came back to the dormitory from Introductory Zoology class, unlocked the door, and found four of our friends playing on our Xbox. They had broken in while we were gone to get their “Call of Duty” fix. I still don’t understand why they locked the door again once they were in.

Four years later, I was a teaching assistant for the same Introductory Zoology course. I would sometimes walk around the room during lecture, glancing at the open computer screens across the 550-seat room. There were always a handful of students playing solitaire or other games instead of listening.

Using games in college classes
If students sacrifice study time and class time for their games, then would they show the same motivation to participate in educational games? A recent Google Hangouts discussion, featuring an educational games designer and two college professors (one in marketing and the other in political science) who employ educational games in their courses, suggests that the answer is yes. Jordan Shapiro, a journalist for Forbes who often writes about educational technology, moderates the discussion. It’s long but worth the time to watch, especially if you’re considering ways to flip your classroom. I summarized the discussion below. Each time stamp is followed by the key point made at that part of the video. Jump to the parts that are most relevant to you.

2:30: Why did designers start working on educational games? Games encourage “learning by doing” in a digital world.
3:30: What do educational games look like? A quick look at “Government In Action”
5:00: What do educational games look like? A quick look at “Practice Marketing”
7:30: How do professors use games in their courses? Sometimes students play games in class, working together against other teams. Other times, they advance their game outside of class.
9:30: How can games be used to flip the classroom? Students strategize about gameplay during class, rather than listening to lectures for the duration of the in-class time. They ask “nuanced questions,” indicating that they have given the day’s topic thought before coming to class. Lectures aren’t completely absent, but they’re minimized during the gaming part of the course.
13:00: How do you grade them? One strategy: Part of their grade is gameplay (how successful were the students at the game?). The other part of their grade is an essay explaining what they learned through the game.
25:45: How do educational games change how students interact with the content? According to the professors using the sophisticated marketing and government games, students are more engaged with games, and they are more active learners, than they are with traditional classrooms.
31:00: How does the simulation help students learn? Games allow students to learn through failure. In a gaming environment, the consequences of failure are minor. To ensure that students are willing to take risks, grading needs to focus on the end point of gameplay rather than on how many failed attempts preceded the end point.
39:00: What happens on a typical day during the gaming part of the course? In class, students talk among themselves and with the instructor about the outcomes of gameplay, rather than silently playing.
41:00: What can instructors learn from educational games? Advanced games gather data about student achievements. As an instructor, these data are a valuable look at how well students apply their knowledge and to identify areas where students struggle.
42:30: Do you have advice for those who want to take a games approach to teaching? When making a transition to using games in your course, take it slow.

Are there any good educational games in biology?
I haven’t seen a biology-related educational game with the level of student-student and student-teacher interactivity as the games featured in the video above. However, below are a few ideas for fun and simple biology games that are free on the Internet.

  • Cell craft level completed screen

    Cell craft level completed screen

    Cell craft: In this game, the user is a simple cell. The cell starts off empty, and the user learns how to move around gathering resources like glucose. Pop-up windows explain cell processes, such as converting glucose into ATP. Moving around costs ATP; collecting glucose adds ATP. Then the cell obtains other organelles. When the cell gets a mitochondrion, ATP synthesis becomes more efficient. It’s a great way to learn about cell structures and essential cell functions. Perhaps students could send screen shots to instructors to get credit.

  • CSI: The Experience – Web Adventures: Using the characters from CSI, this game teaches players about DNA and how it is used as forensic evidence in crime investigation. It probably goes into more detail than do many nonmajors biology classes in regard to the actual techniques that forensic scientists use, but students will likely find it entertaining nonetheless.

    CSI the experience

    CSI: The Experience teaches students about DNA and biotechnology.

  •  Immune Attack: Many people seem to like this game, but it doesn’t work on Macs so I didn’t get to try it out. But the YouTube promo video for it (below) makes it look amazing. According to the developers (the Federation of American Scientists), Immune Attack “introduces core concepts of molecular and cellular biology to middle school, high school and entry-level college students.” You have to download this game to play it. Don’t be fooled by the registration page. Registering is not required before downloading.

What’s the drawback of currently available educational games?
Many educational games may have the drawback of being oversimplified or just downright incorrect. This Science article describes the “needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong” biology in the hugely popular educational game, Spore.

Other learning games that I tried out didn’t seem to have any educational value at all. This game, called Laboratory, asks the player to place exploding blood droplets accurately on the screen to move a bacterium into a vial. The name attracted me to the game, but it has nothing to do with appropriate lab technique. It is fun, though!

You could use some of the free, biologically-incorrect games to your advantage. Have students find and try out games that are related to biology. Then, have them write a short discussion about how each game oversimplifies or incorrectly simulates a concept (or if they’re lucky, why it perfectly represents the concept).

Does your course require students to play educational games? If so, how do you integrate games into your curriculum? Do you have suggestions for other fun and free biology games?


This entry was posted in Active learning, Engaging students, Instructional technology, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Learning Through (Digital) Play

  1. Reblogged this on Matthew Taylor: EDTECH Learning Log and commented:
    I wrote this post on another blog that I manage. I’m reposting it here, since its content is also relevant to my Boise State program.

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