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Erika Phyall currently works in community relations for University of Southern California Rossier School of Education’s online master’s programs. USC Rossier Online provides current teachers the opportunity to earn a MAT Online and an Online Masters in Education . Outside of work Erika enjoys networking, DIY projects, and spending time with her two dogs.

Playing computer games and video games does not have to be a mindless activity. In fact, games have begun to be a staple in many classrooms. What started with simple computer games like Number Munchers and The Oregon Trail has turned into a high-tech way to engage students in the classroom, and teachers who want to incorporate gaming into their classrooms now have many options.

Why Use Games in the Classroom

While not all students play video games or computer games, a good number of them do, making gaming a way to connect something students already enjoy with classroom learning. Beyond simply being something that students enjoy, game-based learning has numerous other benefits. With games, students come to class more regularly and participate more. Games also create a safe place for students to test their knowledge and skills without the fear of failure.

Video and computer games also allow students to work at different levels within the same classroom, providing them with opportunities for problem-solving and critical thinking. According to James Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, many of the games children play are actually difficult and incorporate a new type of learning, helping improve cognitive functions, such as pattern recognition and system thinking.

Even when games do not directly effect a student’s learning, they may affect aspects that can make them better students, such as behavior, motivation and a general willingness to work hard and learn. For example, the After-School World of Warcraft program uses the popular World of Warcraft game to change how at-risk students think about school, making it seem more relevant, building their confidence and giving them a sense of accomplishment.

How to Incorporate Games in the Classroom

There are two main challenges to incorporating games in the classroom: 1. finding appropriate games, and 2. teaching students to play them properly. Bringing video or computer games into the classroom requires time and patience.  Students must be taught how to play the game and learn what the purpose of the game is within the overall scope of their learning. Not every aspect of classroom-based gaming is positive. Before introducing a game, teachers must consider what the particular game has to offer students, if the time it takes to learn the game outweighs the benefits and if students will be able to focus on the applicable parts of the game or if instruction will be lost in the other features the game has to offer.

To find a game for students, teachers should look beyond those that simply have students recall information or focus on drilling key facts. Instead, games should focus on real-world or fantasy-world application of the skills students are learning in class. Games should have students solve problems or complete tasks using the skills they are learning in the classroom. Serious Games, or games built with a focus on learning instead of entertainment, are ideal for classroom use, but games designed for entertainment, such as SimCity and Age of Empires, can also offer some educational value.

When introducing a game, a teacher must clearly explain the purpose behind the game (for example: “We are going to use this game to explore the laws of gravity”) and provide students with clear rules and guidelines to follow while playing the game. Teachers must also provide students with a set of goals or objectives to follow as they play the game, such as reaching a certain level or using the game to come up with a solution to a particular problem. These goals and objectives may vary by student to help differentiate instruction and meet students’ individual needs.

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center and MacArthur Foundation, 97 percent of children and teenagers play video or computer games. Teachers who want to make learning engaging and relevant can tap into this interest and turn games into a valuable classroom tool. However, for games in the classroom to be most effective, teachers must make sure they are used intentionally, instead of just thrown in the mix to make students happy. Like all educational tools, games must be used appropriately.