This is a guest post by Lisa Nielsen. She’s in charge of technology and teacher training for the New York City public schools, and she is the author of  the book Teaching Generation Text. None of the opinions in this post reflect the views, opinions, or endorsement of her employer. 

At their most basic level video games are similar to books. Books can be anything—trashy novels, historical fiction, non-fiction, classic literature—each type with varying potential for learning. Likewise, video games offer different purposes and varying levels of usefulness when it comes to learning. Adults should focus on the type of learning they want to support in young people, and then consider if games are a good tool for that.

Here are some of the more popular types of games students use for learning today:

Drill and Kill
This type is a boring, rote memory “game” that is really no fun for anyone. If given the choice, most young people would choose a drill and kill game over a worksheet, but that doesn’t mean they’d like it. For instance Study Island is a drill and kill test prep program and more than 40,000 students came together to unite and discuss how much they hate this learning platform with an “I Hate Study Island” page on Facebook. (Note: the original page was taken down. The new one is here with more than 3500 members and growing.) Drill and kill is a game format is generally tolerated better than an old fashioned worksheet, but in the end it’s still drill and kill.

Health and Fitness
You may not have access to a boxing ring, running track, personal trainer, or fancy equipment, but with the new motion sensitive games available for play at home, all that has changed. There has been an explosion of games in the health and fitness market like UFC Personal Trainer from Xbox Kinect and Nintendo’s Wii Fit. These games deliver personal trainers and professional athletes right into our living rooms, offering tremendous value to players as they monitor their motions and expert avatars offer corrective advice. Player fitness data is stored and available for analysis to measure fitness gains.

If given the choice to learn about Roman history by reading, watching, discussing, or being a citizen of the Roman Empire, which would you choose? With simulation games you are no longer a passive recipient of information. You are an active member of a meaning-making experience where you have been transported to an alternate time, place, or reality.  Simulation games hold perhaps the biggest promise for video game-based learning. Players are completely immersed in their environment and develop a complex understanding of the topic at hand.

“I don’t want to study Rome in high school.

Heck, I build Rome every day in my online game (Caesar III).”

– Colin, Age 16

There are simulation games such as Roller Coaster Tycoon which gives players a sense of what it takes to run a large business, or SimCity where players can develop a deep understanding of city planning and infrastructure. Educators are catching on to this too. The Future City competition gives young people an opportunity to do the things that engineers do—identify problems; brainstorm ideas; design solutions; test, retest and build; and share their results, all within the SimCity gaming environment.

Maybe the most exciting game type for learning today is Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.

Teachers like Peggy Sheehy are learning alongside her secondary students through World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft in School began as part of an after school program for at-risk secondary students to explore reading, writing, arithmetic, digital citizenship, and online safety. After having great success in the first year’s implementation it is now also being used as a fully-developed, standards-aligned language arts course. You can find all curriculum materials here.

Joel Levin joins his primary school students on learning adventures with Minecraft, a game which lends itself easily to science, technology, engineering, and math explorations. Language teachers are using Minecraft to help students strengthen communication skills, civics teachers are using it with students to explore how societies function, and history teachers are having their students recreate ancient civilizations.

The Deicsion
Of course there is such a thing as too much gaming; it would be just as unhealthy to go for days on end without proper food or exercise while studying as it would to do so playing World of Warcraft.

But which would be a more interesting way to learn?

Traditional Learning: Read the chapter and answer the questions at the end.

Game-based Learning: Create your own heroes…battles…encounter…fly.. explore.. take on your friends… master…… perform…