Can Video Games Teach Students the Common Core?

We need to figure out the role of educational video games in the Common Core era.
We need to figure out the role of educational video games in the Common Core era.

Teachers are increasingly turning to video games to enhance their students’ learning, but in the age of the Common Core, not all games are created equally.

With the rollout of the Common Core—a set of academic guidelines in math and reading adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia—educational game makers have been racing to align their products with the new standards.

And with nearly 3 in 4 elementary and middle school teachers reporting they use games in their classrooms, the potential profits are huge. A recent report projected educational gaming to grow into a multibillion-dollar industry by 2018. Yet some experts say school districts should be wary of gaming companies slapping Common Core labels on their products. When it comes to the new standards’ emphasis on deeper conceptual understanding in math and formulating arguments in English, some games stand out.

Daniel O’Keefe, North Carolina regional director at the Institute of Play, says that while games, like the wildly popular Minecraft, work well with the Common Core, he warns that not every game on the market can foster the same kind of exploration of abstract ideas that the standards try to foster.

Minecraft is essentially a virtual Lego set that allows players to work together to build almost anything they can imagine. Over the summer, the company behind Minecraft, Mojang—which was acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion last year—launched a website to get more educators interested in using the game in class.

The website not only touts the game’s ability to teach math concepts such as area, perimeter, and volume but also proffers the game’s networking feature as a way for students to learn how to collaboratively solve problems.

O’Keefe said teachers and administrators in the market for games should be wary of Jeopardy-style trivia games that are just about information retrieval.

“With a game like Jeopardy, you are incentivized to be really fast on the buzzer, to memorize things and to think that memorization is important,” said O’Keefe. “In the best games, you are learning a subject like algebra in a way that you don’t really know you’re learning it. Students end up actually enjoying algebra because it’s like a puzzle. You’re untying a knot and there’s something pleasurable about it.”

O’Keefe said even before the Common Core, getting students to understand abstract principles would have been a hallmark of a good game. Shannon Johnson—a former educator and a producer at JumpStart, an educational games company around since the early 1990s—said they’ve enlisted panels of teachers to make sure their games tap critical thinking skills.

“It’s harder with the Common Core; we have teachers working with the game designer, so we are not designing the game first and then shoving the standards into it,” said Johnson. “We needed teachers who really understood the standards to help our developers get it right.”

James Gee, a professor at the Center for Games and Impact at Arizona State University’s education school, says that Common Core’s focus on skills makes it very game-friendly, but he cautions teachers and administrators to think hard about how they are going to incorporate games into teaching before forking over money to gaming companies. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

“The best games are all about solving problems, and they can help move us away from just having kids know facts to pass tests,” said Gee. “But games aren’t good for everything. Big publishers want to bring games to schools as a stand-alone product; just like that didn’t work for textbooks, games have to be just one part of a bigger learning system.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.