National Video Game Day was celebrated on September 12, which leads to the question: Why would something that’s so much a part of modern life need any extra promotion? Unfortunately, video games get a bad rap, often from teachers and parents who worry that kids are spending too much time shooting at bad guys and not enough time hitting the books. A recent studyfound that 36% of parents say they argue with their children about screen time on a daily basis, and the image of zombie-like teens staring at their screens looms large over the conversation about kids and technology.
While nobody wants children and teens to disengage from the world in favor of their devices, video games can actually be an effective way to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. The power of video games in this area is twofold. First, gaming is highly engaging, so teachers and parents can harness kids’ interest and steer it toward math and science learning. Second, video games require a tremendous amount of STEM knowledge to develop, which makes them a natural hook for teaching coding and other computer skills.
What Makes Gaming So Engaging?
Well-designed video games keep users coming back for more. While there’s an ongoing debate about whether they can be addictive or not, there’s no doubt that games are highly engaging. There are several reasons that popular games keep players hooked into trying to “beat” them, according to Citrix’s Marc Sasinski:
- They put the player in control. Players get to move around imaginary worlds however they like and be in charge of their own experiences. Compare this to sitting at a desk listening to a lecture, and it’s easy to see why kids love games.
- They offer incremental levels of difficulty. “Leveling up” by accomplishing a task provides a rewarding sense of accomplishment. It also keeps the player from getting bored by something too easy or frustrated by something too difficult.
- They provide instant, ongoing feedback. Players can tell right away when they’ve made a mistake, and they have the opportunity to start over if they fail. Many games also have prominent timers and/or “health” bars that show how players are faring and help them make adjustments to their strategies.
- They create community. Many games allow for multiplayer participation, and even solo players can chat with others about their experiences to compare notes and solve problems collaboratively.
Notice that the most engaging features of video games are ones that great teachers employ in their classrooms. Self-directed exploration and pacing, regular feedback and collaborative problem solving are already part of effective teaching and learning, so why not take advantage of the way video games bring them all together to pique kids’ interest?
Building Games Around STEM Subjects
With gamers poised to spend $137.9 billion this year, it makes sense for educators to capitalize on the popularity of video games to help students reach learning goals. That’s why researchers created Geckoman to teach middle school students the basics of nanotechnology. The game tells a story about a scientist who must journey through different worlds to recover pieces of his notebook. Each level requires students to learn something about physical forces and nanotechnology in order to solve a problem and move on to the next level.
It’s the one-two-punch of engaging storytelling and problem-solving that makes STEM games as successful as their more commercial counterparts. As teacher Shawn Cornally writes for Edutopia, “Modern gaming has given us fantasy worlds with malleable parts. When I play games, I wonder how the programmers make the characters move. What’s more, it’s not that difficult to get students to think and ask these questions, too.”
Not every video game is useful for teaching STEM concepts, of course. In addition to meeting the criteria for engagement outlines above, they should be thoughtfully designed by subject experts and developmentally appropriate for the age group they target. Ideally, they’ll also provide what Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, calls “the ability to simulate complex systems and allow people to interact with those systems.” As students learn the rules of the system and apply them to problems, they internalize their learning — along with the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation.
Behind The Scenes With Video Game Coding
In addition to playing games built around specific STEM topics, video games are also a powerful way to introduce students to coding and the complex thinking that’s required to design a system — or, in video game lingo, a world. Because children are already so invested in video games, it’s easy to use their established interest to “lift the curtain” to show them what it takes to put a video game together.
The National STEM Video Game Challenge seeks to do just that. According to Mark German, the president of E-Line Learning, the contest encourages students to develop “twenty-first century skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and design-system thinking.” There’s big-picture work in coming up with the story, characters and challenges in any game, not to mention the problem-solving required to build the game from the ground up.
Creating a game also requires the ability to code, a critical skill for programmers and developers. Like any language, it’s dull to memorize it in bits and pieces from a book, but it’s highly effective to learn by doing — in this case, by using code to put together a new game. Interactive educational programs like Code Ninjas make learning to code rewarding and fun for kids by teaching skills in the context of developing a game or app that students would want to use. It’s this type of real-world experience that brings STEM learning alive for students of all ages.
Whether STEM skills are taught through the content of a video game or by building one from scratch, one thing is clear: Video games are a powerful force in young people’s lives today. By connecting these video games to the world of STEM learning, we can make sure they’re a force for good.
This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on October 9th, 2018.