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June 25, 2009

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Using Games and Simulations in the Classroom

Using Games and Simulations in the Classroom

[When we started looking into the Software & Information Industry Association’s best practices report on gaming in education with an eye to capturing some of its wisdom in an article for this issue of Multimedia & Internet@Schools, we quickly found a piece by Lee Wilson on his Education Business Blog—and, in one stroke, both an author and an article that exactly suited our needs! So we asked Lee and the SIIA for permission to republish the article so that we could succinctly spread the word about the report and its contents to you, our K–12 library media and technology specialist readers. Permission granted! So, herewith is Lee’s article. If, after reading the article, you’d like more insight into the subject, go back and read "Educational Gaming—From Edutainment to Bona Fide 21st-Century Teaching Tool," by Ntiedo Etuk, in the November/December 2008 issue of MMIS. —Ed.]

A new, free white paper—"Best Practices for Using Games & Simulations in the Classroom"—that tackles the practical challenges teachers face when they use video games was released this past February by the Software & Information Industry Association’s Education Division. I was the author of the paper and the co-chair of the working group that produced the paper.

Barrels of ink and pixels by the gigabit have been spilled trying to answer the question "Do video games work as teaching tools?" We started from a simpler perspective: Assuming that games can support learning, what are the practical tips that teachers can use to boost the odds of success? We interviewed the pioneers in the classroom and at the companies that have developed successful games and summarized their hard-won insights in the paper.

I excerpt the executive summary below. For the complete paper visit the SIIA’s website and download the PDF (see the box).

Most of what we surfaced is applied common sense that goes with any supplemental implementation. There are some key differences with games that we emphasize in the paper.

The paper is organized into three main sections:

1. Selling the Idea—How can you convince your school to try games?

2. Preparation—What should the teachers do to prepare themselves, their students, their classrooms, and the technical infrastructure?

3. Implementation—What classroom management approaches work best with games and simulations?

Each of the points in the summary are expanded upon in the paper.


Summary …

Phase 1—Selling the Idea

The effective deployment of any instructional resource requires the support of teachers. Educators cannot feel threatened, be uncomfortable, or lose control when they use something new. With edugames (educational games), the potential for all three of these issues is higher, so a well-crafted strategy to address them is essential.

Administrators need to understand their unique role and see resources that they can use to explain the project to stakeholders. If an administrator is driving the deployment, he or she needs to be prepared to support a wide range of teacher familiarity and comfort with edugames. Administrators will need to be equipped with research and references that can be shared with parents and the press.

Information technology (IT) groups will prioritize stability, efficacy, network safety, and cost control when they evaluate new products. Advocates for edugames need to earn the trust of IT early in the process, or the project can be shut down before it even begins.

Students should not feel threatened, and they need to understand how it will work. They also have sophisticated filters for good games and won’t easily tolerate poor design.

As with any new instructional resource, gaining parental support is an important part of the political process. Widespread misconceptions about games can stall efforts unless you are prepared to address them. Regularly inform parents of the purpose, scope, and results of the project. Demonstrate the connection to 21st-century skills to earn the support of the community. Where possible, invite parents into the process.

Phase 2—Preparation

A holistic approach that addresses technical infrastructure, installation, support resources, professional development, and lesson planning covers most of the bases.

Because edugames are still largely unknown to most educators, implementation services cannot be optional. In order to reach sustained—rather than experimental—usage, schools and districts need to dedicate time and money to preparing the environment thoroughly.

Districts vary widely in technology infrastructure, the openness of IT to new solutions, and their general policies about games and learning. In general, advocates need to acknowledge that games need extra support and cooperation from IT.

Implementing any new instructional approach requires professional development. Even teachers who are gamers do not intuitively know how to use games in the classroom. Tightly link professional development and initial student use—any delay can lead to problems. For training purposes, plan on a minimum of a half-day on-site with hands-on time in teams.

Teachers need to understand how the activities connect to the standards, what the goals are for the exercise, and which students it can benefit the most. They should also introduce the games at a pace they are comfortable with.

Teachers are the linchpin to success. Get the right teachers on board, and they will inspire their students and the other teachers in your building. Ideally you want people who are leaders—politically, technically, and pedagogically. ­­­

Phase 3—Implementation

The majority of the comments we received on teaching strategies related to blended learning. Mix game play with discussion, lecture, reading, and writing to gain the most benefits.

Panelists encouraged others to tap those aspects of games that make them fun—competition, failure, and transgressive play.

Lessons and game activities should be organized so they can be "consumed" in a 45–50 minute class period. It can be useful to start small in order to accommodate the natural learning curve teachers and students will need before they become proficient with a new resource.

There are pedagogical and practical reasons for having students play in teams of 2–4 rather than alone. Pedagogically, games force collaborative decision making. Grouping helps reduce barriers to learning by grouping proficient gamers with nongamers. Practically, working in teams lowers the technology footprint needed, and it allows students to cover for each other during absences.

Classroom management for edugames is very similar to any hands-on activity.

An actively involved teacher providing content expertise and focus moves things along.

Playing games appears to be particularly helpful at encouraging peer tutoring.

To date, behavioral issues such as bullying have not been an issue.

Back-end integration with the school’s management systems relieves a lot of the administrative burden from teachers.

Given the novelty of game-based learning, many educators remain skeptical of the games’ ability to facilitate learning or to embed assessments appropriately. It is important to provide external validation of the learning that is taking place. Over time, if games deliver as promised, we expect educators to become more comfortable with in-game assessments.

I want to express my thanks to the SIIA and the Games & Simulations Working Group for the opportunity to work on this project. It was fun and informative, and I hope it contributes in a meaningful way to the growth of the edugames market.

Lee Wilson is president & CEO of PCI Education in San Antonio and has spent 2 decades in the education business at Apple, Chancery, Pearson, Harcourt, and Headway Strategies. His blog, The Education Business Blog ( covers strategy, products, marketing, and sales issues for technology and print publishers. Reach him at

The full, 64-page SIIA Education Division white paper is available free as a PDF at

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