5 Questions About Videogames in the Classroom

Sandra Schamroth Abrams is a thought leader in the area of video gaming in the learning environment and author of the recently published Every year, video games find their way into more and more classrooms around the world. However, not every classroom teacher — especially those who are not necessarily digital natives — is comfortable with the idea of allowing their students to play games as part of the learning process. Even those who can get used to the idea wonder how to get started and, almost as importantly, what to tell their students' parents when they ask why their children are playing videogames at home AND at school.

THE Journal asked Sandra Schamroth Abrams five questions about the use of videogames in the K-12 classroom. Abrams is a thought leader in the area of video gaming in the learning environment, an assistant professor of adolescent education at St. John's University in New York and the author of the recently published "A Layered Literacies Approach to Multimodel Meaning Making."

THE Journal: Why and how do videogames enhance learning?

Sandra Abrams: There are layers of learning that occur in gaming.

First, video gaming is a highly social activity. There's nothing passive about watching and learning from others. Video gamers typically tell one another when to make specific moves and provide specific information online to assist with game play. They see the combined value of competition and collaboration.

Gaming also involves iterative learning, which relies on experimentation and learning how to advance by making mistakes. Playing a game more than once is essentially applying newfound knowledge to advance in the game.

Gaming situations can lead to other forms of learning. In one of my studies, a student taught himself Croatian because he wanted to know what his Croatian team members were saying to each other.

Gaming can create a context for academic material too, including new words and historical information. For instance, the Normandy Invasion wasn't something one student I know read in his textbook. The setting became tangible because he felt like he was there on the Normandy beach and because of his game playing. He didn't just close his book and forget about his history class.

Alternatively, students can apply their academic knowledge to games. One student who was studying Greek mythology created Greek-style architecture in her Minecraft world. This was an important creation and extension of her knowledge.

One student was playing Rise of Nations as Napoleon and he thought of the historical context. He strategized and, at one point, he explained that he tried to follow what happened in real life, up until the point that Napoleon failed. That's when he altered his plan.

THE Journal: You have written that gaming helps students gain "social capital." What do you mean by that?

Abrams: Gaming enables youth to extend certain social boundaries that perhaps were never perforated before.

One thing about gaming that I find so fascinating is that students will play a game sometimes because they have their own interest in learning something. But other times, they'll play because their friends are playing. I've spoken to students who will need to switch their platforms from, let's say, Xbox to PlayStation because their friends are playing on one or the other and they want to be with their friends.

I've been around students who say they can't wait to show other people what they've achieved or accomplished. There was one student who I interviewed who didn't talk about himself as being very popular, but yet he was the videogame guru. People would go to him to find out what games to play.

THE Journal: What is your advice for a teacher who wants to incorporate gaming into the classroom but doesn't know where to start?

Abrams: The first thing we need to do is look at how students learn by gaming and make modifications. The first question we need to ask is, "Why am I using these games and what do I hope to accomplish?"

It's understanding that, in gaming, learning takes place through a feedback loop, and then incorporate that into the classroom.

THE Journal: What kinds of obstacles can teachers expect to come across as they approach this?

Abrams: We can't assume students will know how to use all the platforms or programs. The "digital native" moniker suggests that all students will easily and automatically understand and learn from technology. This is not always the case. Issues of access, experience and interest come into play.

THE Journal: Finally, what do they tell parents who are skeptical of seeing videogames in the classroom?

Abrams: We need to show them up front why we are choosing games and what we hope to accomplish. Involving parents in an example of what a teacher would like to see in the classroom will help them understand the academic, emotional and social benefit of playing games in the classroom.

Also encouraging parents to engage in conversation with their children will help them see the value of gaming. Typically, kids like to talk about what interests them and what makes them excited. A classroom teacher I've been collaborating with uses Portal 2 in his STEM-plus classroom. He said the parents came back to him telling him the students were raving about it.

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.