High School Teachers Make Gaming Academic

As parents try to rein in video game usage at home, some teachers are including it at school.

By SHARE

Parent groups have long advocated limiting the amount of time children spend playing video games to make sure the activities don't get in the way of their social life and school work.

So what happens when the video games are the school work?

[Read four tech tips for parents to embrace digital education.]

Increasingly, video and online games are making the transition from extracurricular to educational activities. Teachers are using the popular game Angry Birds in physics lessons, and others are using games such as SimCity to show how systems interact.

The immersive and complex nature of today's gaming world allows teachers to guide students through a variety of lessons using video and online games, says Matthew Stevenson, a teaching associate earning his master's in mathematics at California State University in Los Angeles.

"Games have sociological, religious, psychological, and ethical implications," Stevenson writes on the gaming forum GameSpot, using a game series called Mass Effect as an example. "It's a huge universe, complete with political, social, and religious systems. It has themes of war, peace, and even genocide."

But not everyone is sold on the potential educational benefits of gaming. While some say video games can encourage collaboration and build problem-solving skills, others argue that games are a distraction with little learning value.

"I don't send my kids to school to play video games," says Sara Sroka, who has three video-game loving boys in her Iowa home. "There are better ways to learn."

Video games are a distraction that should be used on a limited basis at home, Sroka says.

[Find out how teachers are using cell phones in the classroom.]

When second-grade teacher Joel Levin brought video games into his classroom last year, he had the same concern. Levin teaches computer classes at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, a private school in New York City. Last year he began teaching lessons with Minecraft, computer game with more than 15.5 million registered users, where players construct and maintain an imaginary world.

"There was a part of me that was scared. I didn't know if the kids would be able to grasp the game and what I was trying to do with it," Levin says. "I just thought it would be too much of a distraction."

But the opposite happened.

"It really all clicked," Levin says. "I was incredibly pleased with the results."

Levin took advantage of the game's open nature, removing monster characters and other content not suitable for second graders. He assigns specific tasks­—such as building houses, finding items, or solving challenges­—for students to complete within the game, and then weaves in lessons about online etiquette, Internet safety, teamwork, and conflict resolution.

"Games are where these kids are living," Levin says. "If you can drive these lessons home within the context of a game they really enjoy...I feel like I'm reaching these kids in ways I never was able to before."

This year he took Minecraft to high school students by starting an after-school group, an experiment that got off to a shaky start, Levin says.

[Learn more about universities offering online high school diplomas.]

"The first class was absolute anarchy," he says. "Every single kid had a certain way they liked to play, and we had all these competing interest about what our game should look like."

In four weeks, the group went from chaos to structure, Levin says, with the students spearheading the change. They held elections, selected leaders, and divided into exploration, research, building, and farming teams. The group works together to ensure their fledgling universe survives through droughts and disasters.

"Minecraftian society itself is very primitive, and without strong leadership or drive, the whole thing falls apart," says Charles Yoshimura, a senior at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School and one of three people elected to lead the group. "Being the leader has been teaching me, and everyone else as well, the importance of societal structure and the way communities work."