Video games ‘revolutionary’ in leveling instructional playing field

In Sydney’s World, a role-playing video game, a player reads dialogue between characters before deciding what to do next. There’s a lot at stake. The character, Princess Sydney, either advances to the next level or fails to save her father from an evil wizard.

Children are naturally drawn to games and research shows that playing helps children learn and practice problem-solving and social skills.

There are several reasons why video games are even more engaging to children than traditional games, said occupational therapist Ivan Kaltman, who developed the game Sydney’s World. One reason is they require minimal input for a large output, Kaltman said. This is called “amplification of input,” a term coined by James Paul Gee, presidential professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University and a prominent researcher on video games as educational tools.

“In a video game, everyone gets the same output — either you die or don’t move on to the next level — regardless of your input,” Kaltman said. “The game isn’t going to look or sound different if someone else plays it. This is one of the reasons why it’s so vital for students in special education. It’s a revolutionary leveling of the playing field.”

Cognitive gains

In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a meta-analysis of research on digital games as learning tools. Digital games produce a 12 percent higher rate of improvement in cognitive competency outcomes versus traditional instructional methods.

“Any educational content you’re trying to teach you could incorporate into a digital game. The difference is that the digital game itself can have a lot of advantages that traditional instructional materials don’t have,” said Kaltman, who works in Rockaway Township School District in New Jersey.

Kaltman developed Sydney’s World for his daughter to practice reading and also uses digital games with his students, many of whom have dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Digital games can lead to gains in several areas, he said, including:

  • Reading fluency. In a video game, dialogue and other text is typically displayed in one to two sentence chunks. For students who struggle with scanning, having the dialogue broken into smaller chunks on the screen is easier than scanning words across sentences with multiple paragraphs in a book, Kaltman said.
  • Reading comprehension. With traditional text, a student might skip a word that he doesn’t understand without much consequence. In a digital game, a student’s ability to comprehend what he reads is crucial for game play, Kaltman said. Being able to complete a mission or quest motivates students to find out what every word means, he said.
  • Vocabulary. For students who aren’t ready for novels, the alternative is often books at a lower grade level. With digital games, students are exposed to higher-level text with appropriate scaffolds, Kaltman said. In small groups, students take turns reading dialogue aloud for different characters. “I can identify which characters have higher or lower Lexile level text and assign those out to specific students,” he said. Those students still benefit from hearing higher-level text being read aloud with graphics and sound as additional context. It’s often easier to understand the meaning of a word when it’s placed in the game-like scenario, he added.
  • Social-emotional skills. Digital games also help students develop communication and problem-solving skills, Kaltman said. Only one student can control the computer at a time. “The group members must communicate and make decisions together,” he said. When the group fails or loses a quest, they must analyze what went wrong, Kaltman said. “You have a lot of self-correcting to figure out what to do next time.

Beware ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ in video game-based learning

The 2013 meta-analysis of research on digital games as learning tools also found that game design influenced learning outcomes.

“What they found was that the ‘true games,’ those that were more [like] real video games and less like educational games,” result in a higher gain in cognitive learning outcomes than basic digital games, said occupational therapist Ivan Kaltman, who developed the game Sydney’s World.

What defines a “true” video game is obvious to gamers but not always to school administrators, Kaltman said. Adding graphics or sound to a traditional lesson is not enough to engage students, he said.

“The term is ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ because it might look like a game to the layman, but it’s not fooling the student; they’re not enjoying it,” Kaltman said.

To avoid buying digital games that aren’t engaging, Kaltman recommends seeking out educators who are already exploring the use of digital games in their classrooms.

“There’s bound to be someone in every district who has already found digital games on their own and started innovating,” he said. Lean on these early adopters and look for additional resources on Twitter under hashtags such as #Games4Ed, Kaltman said.

Kaltman presented Digital Game-Based Learning to Improve Literacy Skills at the National Future of Education Technology Conference® in Orlando, Fla., Jan. 27-30.

Jennifer Herseim covers technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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