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How to recognize video games that engage kids of all ages in learning

June 29, 2021
Father and daughter playing video games

Parents and educators alike may wonder why a child can spend hours playing Minecraft but can’t engage with an app that runs through multiplication facts with the same focus. Why are some games more “fun” than others?

“What’s really motivating about a good learning game is the learning,” says Louisa Rosenheck, researcher at MIT’s Education Arcade Lab and a an adjunct lecturer at HGSE. “Humans like to learn, and we like to get better at things.” But, she observes, many games used in classrooms or that are deemed “educational” tend to focus on content and procedural skills, and don’t necessarily encourage learning that sparks intrinsic motivation and genuine engagement.

With this in mind, Rosenheck and a team of other researchers at the Education Arcade Lab developed a series of design principles that inform the development of what they term “resonant games” — games that are open ended, exploratory, allow learners to make connections to bigger systems and concepts, and promote deeper learning overall.  

Choosing a Good Learning Game

Parents and educators need to be able to navigate a tremendous amount of content and options when selecting games that will engage children in authentic learning. While not an exhaustive list, Rosenheck notes that good games will:

  • Give players agency or choice in the way they play or their goals in the game.
  • Spark curiosity, making players ask more questions and wonder how things work.
  • Provide “hard fun” — an appropriate level of challenge that is engaging and satisfying.

Importantly, games with structures that promote these features avoid the trend of “gamification” — a superficial way of spicing up a learning task with extraneous elements like points, badges, and leaderboards. But these features are often separate from the learning experience, serving to “trick” kids into learning. Instead, games that put authentic learning first focus on deeper concepts, exploration and experimentation, and developing a sense of accomplishment by building skills and applying them to real-world contexts by:

  • Spending time on playing and figuring things out for themselves, rather than instruction or explanation. 
  • Providing feedback to a player so they can form their own understanding of the game’s systems.
  • Helping players make connections with real systems and authentic problems — for example, focusing on conceptual math, rather than drilling addition facts.

Going Beyond Entertainment

Many adults have a tendency to truncate or limit game time, but it’s important to understand that fun and learning can often be one and the same. Instead, the challenge may not just be to find a high-quality game, but to find ways to support kids in making meaningful connections between their play and the world around them. Adults can also add structure and depth to games by providing opportunities for reflection and conversation. To better support game-based learning, educators and caregivers can:

  • Talk to kids about what they’re playing on their computers. A great starter question is “what have you figured out?”
  • Emphasize skills like persistence or working through frustration. Games provide a valuable opportunity to reinforce social emotional learning in addition to academic competencies. 
  • Recognize that these games provide children with a chance to build social connections and that during the pandemic, online games have been a major social support. Cutting out computer time isn’t just cutting back on screen time but could also limit social interaction.
  • Let go of some control. Instead of devoting time to explaining how a game works, let kids explore and carve out time for reflection and sharing instead. 
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Key Takeaways
  • A good game puts the learning first and doesn’t rely on bells and whistles to motivate kids to engage with its content.
  • Leave room for kids to explore and solve problems independently, as figuring out the rules is half the fun. The teacher or caregiver shouldn’t feel they must have all the answers.
  • Encourage conversation and reflection to connect the game with the real world. This could take the form of parents talking to their kids or kids talking about the game with their own social networks. 
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