You’ve heard it before, “I have no time to teach this fluffy stuff.” Is game time in class wasted time? Students will tell you they learn best when instruction is “fun,” but many educators still feel that games take up too much valuable instructional time and require too much planning and effort.
Research in possibilities for learning through games goes back to the 1990s. Researcher James Gee was among the first to write about the possibilities for games as interactive texts for engagement. Scholars have since built on Gee’s work, discussing games as cultural artifacts. Some of this work also considers the design and digital-based processes of game navigating and world building as potential avenues for learning.
Still, there exist many negative stigmas about game-based learning: not rigorous enough, not a reflection of the real world, cause behavior problems, too time-consuming, too “fluffy,” not standards-aligned, the list goes on. However, we believe the opposite is true, and games may actually also help students build the 21st-century skills today’s middle schoolers need, particularly after disrupted learning during the pandemic.
Not convinced? Here we try to debunk 10 common myths about game-based learning.
Note, author names are used throughout when providing examples of strategies we use in our own classrooms. For additional examples, check out our Padlet of curated resources.
Myth #1: Games are a waste of class time.
Games do not need to occur in isolation or during time that is “set aside.” For instance, incorporating a gamified element into a bell ringer, brief group activity, or exit ticket can allow students to demonstrate knowledge in an engaging environment. An activity as basic as having a “gallery walk” during which students look at and give feedback for another student’s work is also a gamifying element.
Examples of games include using Question Trails as opposed to traditional multiple choice questions, Amazing Race challenges as opposed to study guide materials, or brief word sort activities to reinforce vocabulary and other key concepts.
Myth #2: Games take too much planning time.
Begin by gamifying small elements of the existing curriculum. For example, adding an intentional error to the agenda slides each day and encouraging students to find it will promote students not only reading directions but also analyzing them – a task we strive for students to master all year long! Traditional multiple-choice questions can also easily be converted into scavenger hunts and rote vocabulary homework can be used as a breakout activity.
The “perfect game” does not exist, with each having pros and cons. You need to find what works for specific students, specific classes, etc. You do not need to search and search for just the right one. A great starting point is to make sure each day/week has a healthy balance of high-tech/low-tech activities and compiling resources into three different categories (digital games, hybrid games, and physical games). For some examples, check out our Padlet of curated resources. You may also consider staying up to date on blogs and social media, as many teachers share practices on TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube.
Myth #3: Games lead to behavior problems.
Our bodies release dopamine when we feel rewarded. Likewise, students’ bodies produce dopamine when they achieve a goal. This provides students a moment of relaxation after the excitement of the game, as well as feel a sense of release and accomplishment.
While games may, at times, provoke less-than-ideal behaviors, remember that these behaviors allow for teachable moments. When students experience conflict with peers or with the game itself, they better understand the importance of positive interactions and productive struggle. Author Rebekah Stathakis explains, “There are countless skills that students can develop through game playing such as critical thinking skills, creativity, teamwork, and good sportsmanship.”
Taking the class time needed to fully introduce the game, including any mechanics, rules, and equipment that will be used, how scoring works, win conditions, and class expectations is essential to student understanding and buy-in and helps eliminate behavior problems. When a new game is introduced, allow a practice playthrough guided by the teacher to reduce student anxiety and to ensure the rules are fully understood. Additionally, a class debrief after a game is valuable and necessary, especially with collaborative games.
Myth #4: Games do not promote higher levels of thinking.
The digital nature and design of games can promote deeper thinking. For example, think of world-building games that include languages and varied geography in the game design and the connections that can lead to for students. Jason recalls working with a student who suffered from a chronic illness and missed a great deal of class. While away, the student was able to learn valuable skills through engagement with the open-world game Skyrim, including language play and story crafting.
As another example, educator and board gamer Jon Spike recognized the deeper thinking that games evoke and created a board game for the classroom, Gamestormers. In Gamestormers, students design and pitch a game with the end goal of garnering enough votes to win the game. Students apply multiple types of decision-making skills during this game that require their minds to be invested in the end product.
Another resource that can help teachers stimulate deeper thinking through games is Fully Engaged, a book by educators Michael Matera and John Meehan that demonstrates how game-based learning leads to authentic engagement and skill mastery. Their company, EMC2 Learning, also gives educators access to hundreds of games that have the mechanics pre-built, but still require students to think critically and can even be used as summative assessments.
Myth #5: Games are not research-based best practices.
While incorporating game-based learning into the classroom is not a new concept, it may be more valuable now than ever before. The Institute for Education Science (2022) reports that, “A May 2022 survey found more than 80% of public schools reported ‘stunted behavioral and socioemotional development’ in their students because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
One way to support students in making developmental gains is to break up instruction. Research Editor Youki Terada (2022) found that, “Concentrated study of 20 to 30 minutes for middle and high school students calls for a three-to-five-minute brain break.” What if we utilized the “break time” that students may need anyway into intentional and purposeful fun?
Myth #6: Games can only be used at the end of a unit to review concepts or reward students if there is “extra time.”
Games can be used at any point in the learning process. You could use a Kahoot at the start of a unit to see what students already know and to test for prior knowledge. You could assign a Quizizz mid-unit to see what students have retained. You could watch a video and use Edpuzzle to analyze it. You could use Quizlet or Vocabulary.com to preview and review key vocabulary words. You could use GeoQuiz to practice geography at the start of every class. There are so many apps and digital tools you can use to help you weave games (and a healthy dose of competition) into the fabric of your everyday classroom. Joe even has students themselves produce these games for the class.
Games don’t have to be digital, either. With a set of dice, a few containers of Play-Doh (or LEGOs), and a timer, meaningful, content-related games can be added into the classroom as formative practice with the essential question dice game, allowing the teacher to give instant feedback during the game. Solo play is even possible with designing chance cards where a student blindly chooses a card, rolls a six-sided die, and then perform whatever is listed by that number on the card. The possibilities are endless!
Myth #7: Games only reward the most highly-achieving students.
Many game structures actually allow students to “level up” at their pace. Additionally, using collaborative games is a great way to ensure that all students have an integral role in the activities. For instance, Cait will create groups of students with mixed abilities for breakout activities or Amazing Races. Knowing her students’ strengths, she will assign students different jobs such as facilitator, recorder, mediator, and fact-checker. Within different roles, students learn to rely on each other and contribute to the shared, desired outcome.
Keep in mind that all people fall into one of four gamer types, as illustrated by the Bartle taxonomy of player types. Originally used to show how players approached multiplayer online games, it now is used to develop games that offer something for each type of player. These player types are like a personality test for how an individual approaches gameplay, and none of the types require being a high-achieving individual. You can take the test here. Each gamer type can find fulfillment in a game.
Myth #8: Games are fun, but they inhibit teaching 21st-century skills.
Games actually encourage 21st-century skills: multitasking, thinking, productive communication, problem-solving, quick decision-making, adaptability, and more. For example, in Kristen’s ELA classroom, she has students engage in Lost at Sea, a collaborative activity that promotes decision-making, divergent thinking, and logical reasoning. Students are asked to individually rank 15 items in order of importance that they feel would be essential to have during a scenario where they are stranded on a burning yacht. Once individual ideas are formed, students come together in teams to defend their rankings and collaborate to create one master list. While this activity contains competitive elements with a points system and a time limit, the nature of the game fosters the skills students need to be successful in high school and beyond.
For more information on how game-based learning incorporates 21st-century skills, we recommend Andrew Miller’s article for Edutopia, “Game-Based Learning to Teach and Assess 21st-Century Skills.”
Myth #9: Games make kids feel bad if they lose or games make kids feel like losers.
Megan’s students were quick to debunk this myth when she asked them about it. Her 7th to 9th grade advisory students told her:
“I don’t feel like losing is a very big deal if it’s something small and not very important to me. If my team lost in the regional soccer tournament, I’d feel sad, but if it’s just a Kahoot in class, it’s no big deal.”
“Some games have nice ambiance and music and they help you relax. For example, Celeste and Minecraft both have great music. When I am playing these games, I feel calm. I love the soundtracks in terms of helping me get my mind straight.”
“I think it’s good for kids to play games in class because it gets all the kids active and gives them a break from doing a bunch of “regular” work. Playing a game is more like fun work and so I enjoy it, even if I don’t win.”
Based on Stefanie’s experience, even adding a weekly lunchtime or after-school board game or D&D club can result in improved student confidence, ability to handle a loss, and strengthened trust between students and the teacher. For neurodivergent students, especially students with autism, immersive game experiences like D&D allow them to have a social experience they aren’t always comfortable having outside of the game. For example, a student playing a role-playing game doesn’t have to read conversation subtext, make eye contact, or read facial expressions to navigate the game. Instead, the player can roll dice for a perception check. We recommend the articles “How Autism Powers my D&D” and “15 Ways D&D Can Help Autistic Individuals” (both written by adults with autism) for more on the positive impact of role-playing games for neurodivergent people.
Myth #10: It’s just a game.
Even brain breaks can be intentional and purposeful. Megan is reminded of her 7th grade science co-teacher who begins every lesson with a community-building activity. Besides being fun, these activities help students get centered in the classroom, burn off excess energy, wake up if they are sleepy, and form connections with each other. Starting each class with a little bit of socioemotional learning (and team bonding) can go a long way in fostering positive relationships and an inclusive classroom.
Conclusion: Stay Tuned!
While we can talk to students endlessly about respect and empathy, empowering students to collaborate through games allows them to explore and practice these essential character attributes firsthand – all while enjoying success as a result of their interactions.
If students become tired of playing the same games, try out new ones to keep them coming to class excited. Following teacher blogs and social media accounts will keep you fresh with new ideas! We recommend hashtags #gamebasedlearning, #gamesintheclassroom, #xplap, #games4ed, and #emc2learning as great starting points.
Perhaps Roald Dahl said it best when he said, “Life is more fun if you play games.” Yes! Absolutely. Don’t we all need a little more fun in our lives?
As mentioned above, we have created a Padlet of games and ideas for gamifying your classroom to get you started. Feel free to add your ideas to it – let’s crowdsource! And stay tuned for future articles from the AMLE Teacher Leaders Committee where we will share some of our favorite game-based practices from this school year.
What do you think? How have you used games in your classroom? We welcome your questions and thoughts in the comments section below.
This article was authored by members of AMLE’s Teacher Leaders Committee. Keep the conversation going and connect with Cait Burnup, Stefanie Crawford, Jason DeHart, Kristen Engle, Joe Pizzo, and Megan Vosk on Twitter.