Playing Around at Games for Change 2015

| By Tatyana Dvorkin Associate Director of the DigitalJLearning Network

By now, most of you are probably aware of the growing trend towards using games in formal education. Our own Associate Director, Tatyana Dvorkin, has a background in just this field. Her graduate work centered on using digital games in educational settings to improve student achievement in literacy and mathematics. To keep up with what is going on in educational gaming, last week, she went back to her educational roots by exploring, learning, and playing at the Games for Change (G4C) conference here in New York City.


The Games for Change Festival is the leading event for bringing together game creators, designers, and gamers with an interest in using games for more than entertainment. The attendees come from all over the world to connect over a mutual belief in the power of games, digital and board, to not only provide fun, but also to improve our world.


While games are not always synonymous with blended learning, there is a lot of room for them in blended classrooms. Many online adaptive programs like Khan Academy and iReady use some games as part of their formative assessment and practice techniques. Furthermore, games provide an opportunity to add a new and exciting medium to rotational models to help scaffold material for struggling students, or provide more of a challenge for those who are advanced.


One of the major benefits of using games in a classroom is the chance to capitalize on students’ positive epistemological beliefs about their ability to learn through playing. Research shows that students surveyed in math classrooms often believe that if they do not understand a concept the first time it is explained that it will be very difficult or impossible for them to learn it through practice. Gamers, on the other hand, overwhelmingly believe that if they practice a skill and put effort into it that they will eventually be rewarded with success. These beliefs are one of the reasons that gamers are willing to devote much more time to practicing the same skill repeatedly to the point of proficiency. Combining the mechanics of games with formal education can draw on the power of play to help give students confidence and help them engage with difficult material.

Here are a few of the exciting takeaways from this year’s G4C:


1. Never Alone (Kisimi Ingitchuna) began as a project by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) - a non-profit that provides educational services to Native Alaskan people. Developed and Published by Upper One Games and E-line media, the game aims to connect the young Inupiat audience with their people’s language, culture, and oral tradition. The game itself is a beautifully drawn puzzle platformer that guides the player through myths and stories told by Alaskan Native elders, community members, and storytellers. The game has become popular with the Inpupiaq teen community both at the CITC community centers and homes, as well as with the G4C audience. It won the Most Significant Impact and Game of the Year awards at G4C2015.


The Jewish world stands to learn from games like this for their power to connect young people with history and oral tradition. Creating similar materials centered around our own traditions has the potential to take Jewish learning past the walls of the day school classroom and the congregational school. There have been a few recent efforts to make Jewish digital games, like the Torah Game, but they have often fallen short in terms of game mechanics and graphics. In order to be engaging, these tools need to both convey information and be successful as games. This is definitely something that our community can and should explore as a way to engage teens and children in ways meaningful to them.


2. In another exciting presentation Rami Ismail, the head of business and development at the indie game studio Vlambeer, spoke about the lack of language diversity in the gaming industry. In his discussion, Ismail explored the ways we can work to increase awareness and access to game-making in underserved international communities, especially those of non-English groups. He focused on the difficulty gamers and game designer hopefuls who are non-English speakers have accessing games, tools, and communities in their native languages. For instance, games that accurately represent and address the Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, or Chinese speaking populations are incredibly rare. When languages like these are encountered in the game community at all they are often poorly translated. This means that young people in non English-speaking communities are less likely to engage with games in a meaningful way and therefore less likely to develop an interest in game design and programming. The other issue for Hebrew specifically, is that the difficulty in working digitally with right-to-left text means that creating Hebrew language games and tools becomes more cumbersome and problematic and skilled designers are less likely to take up the task. Ismail’s point was that this lack of language diversity in the tech and gaming industry’s needs to be addressed if we are going to see an increase in high quality games and applications in foreign languages.


3. Dan White, the CPO of Filament Games, gave a talk called From Concept to Market: Building Games for Schools. Filament Games is a Madison, WI based company that works solely on the development of learning games for the K-12 market. Historically, their games are incredibly popular in the games for learning community and successful at addressing the challenges involved in producing high quality education games. Filament’s products are a wonderful addition to many general studies blended classrooms.

One great example is Reach for the Sun, a science game about plant structure and processes that can provide a simulated science lab for a biology classes. The company’s latest game is Planet Mechanic, a learning game about planets for Middle Schoolers. Both games are aligned with Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core, and Benchmarks for Science Literacy and come with a supplementary curriculum guide which includes discussion ideas, labs, and assessments, as well as a student guide that connects lessons to gameplay.


Aside from these specific presentations, G4C2015 was chock full of games for learning history, biology, communication skills, and much more!


Have you used games in your classes before? If so, let us know in the comments! We’d love to hear about your successes or challenges!