Angry Birds, Minecraft, and Jeopardy in the Classroom: Serious Games and Learning

My first exposure to serious games started when my kids were young (ages 5 to 9 circa 1998) and I bought an iMac for them to use at home. I started off with a basic logic and language comprehension game, and quickly moved into some Disney Reading and Math games (featuring Aladdin who was popular at the time), Math Blaster, the Zoombinis, Nancy Drew mysteries and of course, the Oregon Trail. A “serious” game is a game that is designed for a purpose (like learning) other than pure entertainment.

Although I didn’t know that these were “serious games” at the time, I quickly became a fan when I saw how engrossed my kids were and how much they were learning in an engaging and fun game atmosphere. [In case you are worried, they also did a large amount of outdoor activities so they weren’t screen junkies.] And, when they tried to solve game puzzles together as a team, the effect was nothing short of completely energizing for them. I remember telling my husband, “They’re learning reading, writing, math, logic, and problem solving and they don’t even know it!”

Fast forward 20 years and I became re-acquainted with the concept through my own involvement in, shall we say, not-serious games. One of my daughters had introduced me to some mobile solitary games on my phone (the player plays alone), and one of these games introduced “guilds” in which players could team together to earn game prizes, and through this I “met” [virtually speaking] players from across the world; some of whom introduced me to, and recruited me to play another popular “team” game. It was this experience that re-invoked my interest in the possibilities of gaming for learning. The sheer fun of working collaboratively as a team to solve “game problems” that had no direct relevance to the “real world” was compelling and intriguing to me. How could we, as educators, harness this energy, collaboration, and devotion to make learning fun? I confess I am not an expert; rather a very interested novice, but I have started to introduce simple serious games into my teaching and I have become sold on the strategy for motivation and engagement. And, for those of you who aren’t digital natives (my husband calls himself a digital Neanderthal), serious games don’t have to be “high tech” – for example, you can create a low-tech Hollywood Squares game by simply re-arranging desks (and coming up with the questions). I use a jeopardy template that I found on the web to create jeopardy games on class material, and my students love it. I even created a dance contest in which students have to teach each other dance moves and then perform them in order to demonstrate principles of social cognitive theory. And, I’ve held reenactment games in which students role-play historical figures (after reading about them). Students love this sort of thing, and it makes learning fun.

For those who are interested in learning more, here are a couple of articles/websites:

How gaming is changing the classroom

Games in the Classroom: What the Research Says

Game-Based Learning: Is it Effective Classroom Instruction?

Pros and Cons of Gamified Learning

Linda Webster is a Professor of Educational and School Psychology in the Benerd School of Education at University of the Pacific.

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