Games that teach: It’s not just about scaffolding

One of the workshops at the recent Sandbox Summit@ MIT parsed the process of creating a good game for teaching. I sat down with Barbara Chamberlin, from the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State, to discuss the developers' playbook
April 15, 2014

One of the workshops at the recent Sandbox Summit@ MIT parsed the process of creating a good game for teaching. Like most things Sandbox Summit, it was a collaborative process, led by Barbara Chamberlin, from the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State, Peter Stidwill, from the Learning Games Network, and Allisyn Levy, from BrainPop’s GameUp.  In this interview, Barbara adds another layer to the developers’ playbook.

The three of you (Barbara, Peter, Allisyn) come at gaming from different angles.  What do you have in common, and where do you differ?

BC: Allisyn, Peter and I share an interest in helping teachers use games in classrooms. We each worked on our own projects, and then found that we had a lot of similarities in what we learned. We all work extensively with teachers — in focus groups, one-on-one, in classrooms, and with teacher advisors. Peter and I have developed games. Peter and Allisyn (through Playful Learning and BrainPOP’s GameUp) also work in creating materials that work across several games. What’s nice about our differences is that among the three of us, you’ll find perspectives of a game developer, teacher, gaming outreach advocate, and professional trainer.


Your workshop broke down the steps of creating a game that not only teaches, but is fun to play. What are the top three “musts” for creators?

BC: First, let go of the idea that a game can only be “for the classroom” or “for individual learning”, and not both. That would be as unfair as to suggest a game is only “educational” or “entertaining”.  Ideally, any game is valuable for an individual learner, and is also then enhanced by classroom use, support and reflection. It’s like a great work of literature: I can read a book on my own and benefit, and when I read that book with a learning group, I get even more from the discussion, supplemental activities and reflection.

Second, set a goal to prepare some learning support materials for teachers of parents, and make these accessible through your game. It could be a teacher guide with sample guiding questions for discussion, or a list of complementary learning activities. It doesn’t have to be extensive, but they should be created with input from teachers and tested in classrooms. We found teachers want help using games in the classroom, and not just specific info onyour game.

Finally, when you are doing user testing, test both in a classroom and with individual learners. You will likely find simple changes you can make to your game interface. For example, we often give the user a chance to mute the sound. However, in a classroom, when sound was turned up, players collaborated with each other. But sometimes all of the noise was too much. So, we created the ability to mute just the music, or just the narration, or both,which helped in the group setting. We also found that small changes (such as showing what level is being played) didn’t impact the individual user, but really helped teachers as they walked around to assess how far kids had progressed.


A teaching guide seems to be a key component in creating a successful experience. Why do you think this is so?

BC: We found teachers became much more comfortable once they realized the game wasn’t a replacement for their instruction, but yet another tool which required their expertise. As students are playing, teachers should be walking around, asking questions, encouraging kids to work with each other, and monitoring where kids are having problems.

Teachers also find comfort in knowing they don’t have to be the gaming expert. It’s okay to let kids guide the process, explaining the game to others, finding best strategies, etc. Teachers don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person about the game to use it with students.

A good guide offers ways that discussion can encourage learning, helping students share strategies and ask questions. It should also suggest complementary activities that extend the learning, such as creating an offline version of the game, changing a rule or modifying a level.


So often we hear, “Let the kids figure things out for themselves.” How do you balance that advice with a teachers’ guide?

BC: My favorite games are those in which kids have to figure things out for themselves. So, we can help  teachers facilitate this in their classroom. For example, when a learner is stumped (in a game or in real life), the most powerful questions from teachers can be, “What are you trying to do?” and “What have you tried?” When observing gameplay, teachers can encourage  collaborative learning by posing a challenge to the class and asking students to help each other. “Has anyone figured out level 13 yet?”. Students are more likely to voice their thinking and consider different perspectives in order to problem solve.

Many adults see games as a form of assessment (“Let’s quiz you to see what you know”) or practice (flash cards, Jeopardy, etc). But some of the most exciting games are really designed as a way for students to learn, not just practice or drill. The best games support teachers in facilitating that learning.


Can you give examples of games you think are great in terms of fun and teaching?

BC: Of course, I’m partial to our games! NMSU’s Math Snacks suite of games all have extensive teacher support materials, and our research is showing some significant impacts on math learning.  The Learning Game Network’s award-winningQuandary is really wonderful for looking at ethics and critical thinking, and their teacher videos are fabulous. Finally, I can’t say enough good things about the games on BrainPop’s well-curated GameUp site, with consistent learning materials for all of the games..

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