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Monday, September 20, 2021

Column: Educating with games

I can clearly recall getting back a math quiz from my first grade teacher that had red marks all over the place. My parents tried to solve my difficulties by tutoring me in their spare time. Unfortunately, they both had work, leaving only a bit of time at night and on Saturday mornings.

One day, my dad came home with a game called Math Blaster and taught me how to play. From then on, I’d come home every day and spend 30 minutes playing through Math Blaster on the computer. The best part for my parents was that I could do this alone. I won’t claim that my math quizzes at school suddenly came back with big gold stickers, but there were definite improvements.

I was learning.

Trying to learn arithmetic sitting in a classroom or being tutored by my parents wasn’t working for me and was just making me hate numbers. Math Blaster, though, was a game — not a quiz or a test. It engaged me and encouraged me to actively try to do well at math.

The funny thing about kids is that they’ll actively engage in almost anything, as long as it’s presented the right way. In today’s public schools, it’s hard to get students engaged and interested. Not all students happily lose themselves in pure learning. But games can engage and teach in ways that sometimes parents and teachers cannot.

Traditionally, classrooms focus primarily on auditory learning. However, games can bring together elements of visual and kinesthetic learning to teach the students who normally slip through because they learn differently. This potential for improvement of learning is especially true for kinesthetic learners, who need to learn by doing.

A game offers the unique opportunity of letting a student experiment without concern for material costs, equipment concerns and sometimes safety concerns. A game could have students design a building while forcing them to keep in mind structural integrity. Upon the design completion, the game can model various natural disasters, allowing the student to test for practicality in an environment where failure is acceptable.

Frequently in classrooms, mistakes are stigmatized. Students know that if they mess up, if they do poorly on one thing — there will be huge consequences. They’ll get a bad grade, or their teacher will be upset or they’ll break something. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it teaches caution and makes students more careful, but too frequently it leads to students being too afraid to try.

Games, however, encourage trial and error. If you mess up in a game, you only have to restart. You haven’t actually lost anything and you are free to continue experimenting.

There are innumerable benefits to video games in an educational situation. Games are designed to engage their players. They can be adjusted to fit people who learn differently. They can simulate cause and effect and encourage experimentation. They provide a safe place for students to learn what it takes to succeed.

People might say that using video games as an educational platform will be extremely expensive. There’s no doubt about that. You’d have to outfit every school with computers capable of handling the programs, while also acquiring the programs themselves. And then the schools would have to deal with the bureaucratic nightmare of incorporating video games into their curriculum and obtaining permission from parents and figuring out how exactly to use the games to teach.

People worry about the costs of education and politicians love to cut education funding all the time, but they don’t seem to consider how important education is as a long-term investment. Of course educating an entire nation is expensive. Of course it’s easier to leave it as is and not fix it.

The basic idea is that in the future, it pays off huge dividends. And it does. And it will. But it needs help to do it.

Tell DERRICK LEU your favorite educational game at derleu@ucdavis.edu.

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