4 Myths about Using Games for Learning

Technology has become a fundamental part of everyday life, whether we are checking emails, using GPS to navigate, or scrolling through Twitter, we engage with technology in order to easily accomplish everyday tasks. However, if technology is such an integral part of life, why are schools hesitant to embrace technology to improve academics? Interestingly, computer games in particular could be an asset to meeting the needs of all learners but are often forgotten in the shadow of Common Core and curriculum goals in spite of their ability to improve academic performance.

However the horizon is bright.

In his book, The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, Greg Toppo writes:

“After decades of ambivalence, suspicion, and sometimes outright hostility, educators are beginning to discover the charms of digital games and simulations, in the process rewriting centuries-old rules of learning, motivation, and success.”

Toppo touches on the apathy and reservation toward using games for learning, and as a former teacher, I would speculate that he is not wrong.

There are several fallacies circulating about the use of  computer games that simply are not true. Below I expose four common myths about using games for learning that are circulating among educators. And while I cannot speak to all computer games that are intended for learning, I show you how these myths are easily dispelled through one specific example, Zoo U, a web based computer game that assesses and improves kids’ social and emotional skills.

Myth #1: Computer games don’t encourage positive social interactions

It is rational to think that computer games would not promote social development. How could they when children are not interacting with humans, but with fictional characters in a game? It may be difficult to believe, but studies show that children who play computer games are actually more sociable. An Oxford University study found that children who played computer or video games for up to an hour daily had the “highest levels of sociability” and “fewer friendship and emotional problems.” 

Zoo U is a computer game created specifically to promote social interactions among students in grades K-4 by improving social and emotional learning. Zoo U places students in a school for future zoo keepers where they face social situations as they would in school but with a fantasy-like element of conversing with animals. The game places children in a secure environment where they can practice social skills with a safety net, since there are no consequences in real life. Students are free to make good and bad decisions and experience the outcome of those decisions without it affecting them in real life. When children face those similar situations in school, they will be prepared to make good choices because of the practice they have received in the game.

Myth #2: Games only promote negativity

Over at least the past decade, there has been a backlash in the media about how games predominately promote negative ideas like violence, substance use, and breaking the law.  Video games in general have been linked to violent behavior, and whether this link is founded in research or not, it is a connection many people make.

However, not all games promote these negative ideals. For example, Zoo U seeks to do the opposite as students face social challenges, but zero negativity. Instead of being taught how to steal a car, student learn how to show empathy to a peer who was left out of a game. Kids face the same challenges that they would in real life, but instead of solving them with criminal behavior, they learn to solve them by regulating their emotions or cooperating with others. Zoo U helps children practice positive, real world skills that will develop the child’s character in a meaningful way, thus positively impacting academia.

Myth #3: Games seek to replace teachers’ instruction

As technology becomes more pervasive, many fear that it could replace the need for teachers. Online classes are becoming more popular while meeting in an actual classroom with a teacher is becoming less common. But while the value of a teacher is irreplaceable, that value can be enhanced using games for learning. In a recent interview, Jessica Berlinski, Chief Impact officer at Personalized Learning Games, noted that, “We know real-world instruction, a caring instructor and deep relationships are the core to SEL, but games can buttress that work.” For example, using Zoo U’s assessment, all students can be objectively measured. This helps teachers ensure that no child “fall through the cracks,” and instead of making a claim about a child’s social weaknesses based on observations alone, Zoo U’s assessment gives teachers data to support their claims.

Myth #4: Games make it difficult to measure learning

Educators are likely to wonder how well a game enhances learning especially when it comes to something as complex and subtle as social skills. But again, using Zoo U as an example, we can see what is possible. Students playing Zoo U take a 20-30 minute pre-assessment, then they practice their social and emotional learning skills through a different set of game challenges called the skill builder. Game play is personalized so that students start with their weakest skills and progress to their stronger skills over the course of weeks or months.

With Zoo U, there is concrete evidence that its teaching maps to real world social skills competence. As Jim Thomas, Chief Technology Officer of Personalized Learning Games explains,

“Zoo U was developed in phases over several years, using multiple field tests with students all across the country, allowing us to continually refine and adjust every element of the game to correspond to real student behaviors. Our third field test alone included 239 students in 27 classrooms across 12 states and found that the scores students earn in Zoo U are statistically strongly predictive of their real world performance as indicated by teachers on standard social skills measures.”