Are games really a viable option for assessing student learning?
The social studies department recently invited me to a meeting to deliberate this question. Lively discussion ensued about how one might really assess learning by asking students to create a game. Among the comments were these:
- There is already a great game out there about trade. Maybe we should just have them play Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan).
- How much time is this going to take? A test will only take part of the period.
- I don’t know how it will look. What do I tell students if they ask me questions about how to design a game? I’m not sure I know how to do that.
- And finally: we agreed to try this. Let’s do it and see how it goes.
I understand the fear. It is disquieting to ask students to do something that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with yourself. But. BUT. Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and you agree to figure it out together. (See Innovator’s Mindset: risk taking.) Here’s the thing: games are a second (or first?) language for our students. They speak game fluently. They know health; they know roles; they know many things about games you’ve never heard of. The most important thing you need to know as teachers?
Students love games, and they can and will take your content and turn it into a game if you give them the time and some guidance.
“I get it,” one teacher said to me when I walked into his room later that week to find groups in deep and eager conversation about their game design. He looked at his room full of engaged–no, empowered–students, looked at me, and said, “I see what you’ve been trying to do.” I’ve been working to help teachers take games seriously over the past couple of years, and it’s a goal often lost in the proficiency/personalized learning shuffle. The real work has been in showing teachers that games aren’t something in addition to the changes they are making to implement Act 77; they ARE the change. Just one piece, but one that deserves attention, because
games and game-like learning are excellent vehicles for meaningful content delivery and assessment.
Take the social studies proficiency that was the focus for this unit: P.I. 9 (Economics): I can analyze how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources have contributed to conflict and cooperation within and among countries. Perfect platform for a game, right? Yes, Klaus Teuber already created something awesome, but let’s see what the students can do with this.
While some students modeled their games after board games we know and love, some embraced their creativity and truly went rogue. One group created a game where Heaven and Hell were the ultimate end–dictated by choices and currency exchange, often connected to churches. (Interesting social commentary, too.) Another group created a game based on settlements and trade routes whose success is dictated by not only the resources accrued but also by luck and happenstance. While I reminded students of the importance of starting any good game with the ultimate learning goal, I also asked that they elect one member of their group to be the “fun police” (originated and coined beautifully by the Institute of Play). They had a great time creating game mechanics that left players “dead” or headed back to start because of plague or other catastrophes.
Sure, the games look good. But are they good?
What are students really learning through game design?
Let’s talk about the proficiency first. I took a stroll around the room of game designers and asked them to tell me how their game would teach players about scarcity, trade, conflict and cooperation. Yes, there were blank stares. But when I prodded a bit further, every student was able to explain in vivid detail how their game play addressed exactly those concepts. Whether it was the act of trading resources of varying value, losing valuables to thievery during the New Age and gaining advantages as the culture shifted, or dictating card values based on resources, the students were able to explain how players would engage with the content.
A quick google form to garner feedback and reflection post-game creation also allowed students to reflect on the proficiency:
That content holds a place in students’ overall education, but in my mind,
the true power of game creation is in the focus on transferable skills.
Here’s what two students had to say about how game design helped them practice communication skills:
And problem solving:
Is it worth the time commitment?
If you want students to delve into deeper learning, you have to provide the time and space for them to do so. While you may not know how long it will take, or how it might look as things unfold, or if you’ll have the answers students seek, I implore you to
give yourself permission for things to get messy
for there are tangible rewards on the other side. Take the risk. Cannonball.
Institute of Play’s Game Design pack : in-depth game design guide brilliantly designed & executed
Game design handout for students : the handout used by the social studies department for this unit. Thanks so Amanda Denison for creating it!