Choosing the Right Game for Your Lesson

The CUNY Games Network’s own Joe Bisz has put together a lean yet content-rich introduction to game-based learning. This guide bypasses the jargon and cuts to the heart of the matter: how can you use games and simulations to help your students learn better?

This guide will help you decide on the kind of game you’d be comfortable using for your classroom lesson, or the kind of game you’d like to design yourself!

We’ll highlight 5 categories of games — keep your lesson in mind as we discuss these categories.

1) Trivia and Quiz Games

Definition Trivia and quiz games test a student’s recall knowledge. The knowledge tested is usually facts but if a student gives a subjective answer (for example, a short argument) the instructor can judge the answer. Trivia and quiz games are the most common games used in the classroom, perhaps because they are the easiest to design. But they can still be quite entertaining!

Popular Game Examples The board game Trivial Pursuit, the television show Jeopardy.

Strengths Trivia and quiz games are best used when the instructor’s lesson calls for an intense review of much information (such as for a final exam), or the quick practicing of problems (what we call “skill and drill”).

Weaknesses Imagine teaching students how to build a car engine by playing 20 questions. That’s right, you can’t. Trivia and Quiz games must be used for practice and review, not to actually teach the concept for the first time. In Mathematics, most digital math games fall into the Trivia and Quiz game category.

2) Board and Card Games

Definition Often called “tabletop games,” these games are non-digital game and require a surface to be played on. It includes miniature games and would also include games from the Trivia category above if they could be played on a board (like Trivial Pursuit) or with cards (Flash Cards with fractions).

Popular Game Examples Monopoly, or playing card games like Poker.

Strengths These exploratory games promote critical thinking, and can teach complex concepts by scaffolding the information learned over the course of the game.

Weaknesses These games can take much longer to set up and play than quiz/trivia games, and they do not practice or teach information quickly, although the students are usually learning problem-solving skills on the way to understanding the particular class skills you are trying to teach. Finally, some board and card games require a significant physical set-up, so you will have to consider the classroom’s capabilities; for example, are there extra desks that can be positioned between teams of students to hold the cards/board?

3) Video Games

Definition Any digital game, which includes games played on a computer, on cell phones, or online games and simulations. Video games are characterized by quick button-pushing actions (e.g., shooting, jumping, maneuvering pieces quickly), illustrative graphics, or hyperlinked information.

Popular Game Examples Tetris, World of Warcraft, the playful, online design environment Second Life.

Strengths Graphics. Information-storing. Because of their immense and immersive graphic capabilities, video games can be used for their ability to simulate the world you’re trying to immerse students in. The simulation could allow history or literature students to maneuver a character through the noisy, horse-and-buggy streets of Victorian England, or for Biology students to dissect the various skin layers of a virtual patient. Many simulation programs have already been adapted as curriculum instruction by professional graduate school programs. But even for a low-graphics vocabulary quiz game, students will enjoy the visual interface more than a textbook. Additionally, digital games can store so much information that they become like interactive textbooks, where pop-ups and hypertext can explain the material more deeply just when a student needs it.

Weaknesses Cost. Availability. Of every category on this list, this is the most difficult (often impossible!) type of game for an instructor to design by herself. This means you are dependent on finding already existing video games, which may require software licenses or faster computers than your school has available. We should point out that digital games are considered extremely “hot” learning tools right now, perhaps because of the development money behind it. Still, the CUNY Games Network feels that because of their weaknesses, you (the average professor) should only consider using them if you really desire their unique characteristics which cannot be easily duplicated by non-video games. Hence the Network’s preference for listing so many paper-based exercises on our games page that any instructor can use right away!

4) Scavenger Hunts

Definition In a scavenger hunt, the instructor or librarian creates a list of items that students must find. The hunt could take place in reality, with a student interviewing neighborhood storeowners for a paper about one’s community, or visiting different offices on a college campus to learn about college resources. Or the hunt could take place virtually, with students examining internet pages in the library, searching for the perfect article to use as a research paper citation. These hunts can be broken down into tasks that must be accomplished for the student to progress to another point in the scavenger hunt, and the students could check off each completed task on a paper list.

Popular Game Examples See above. Also augmented reality games, for example, using a cell phone to find secret locations in the library/campus where the instructor has stashed notes with further information.

Strengths Locating Information. Long-term Skill Acquisition. Scavenger hunts are excellent games for when you literally need the students to… find something! Longer scavenger hunts (such as over a few class periods, or as homework) are also good for projects where you want students to slowly acquire skills and knowledge that leads to new skills and knowledge. Some students have compared their exciting, quest-like feeling to video games–who among us wouldn’t love to locate items in response to given “challenges”?

Weaknesses Scavenger hunts do require some careful thinking by the instructor so all your tasks and directions are solidly set-up, as well as an appropriate ‘hunt space’ for you to conduct them in.

5) Role Play and Debate

Definition In Role Play and Debate games, students might research a literary character or political figure, then act out this character’s identity and beliefs in the classroom. The game might require them to respond to their peer’s or professor’s questions, or actually debate rival student characters. (You can have just the immersion of “role play” without the arguing that happens in “debate,” and vice-versa.) After Trivia and Quiz games, this is probably the most common type of classroom game played in college and high school.

Popular Game Examples Debate teams like the Model United Nations or Mock Jury clubs in high schools and colleges, Barnard College’s Reacting to the Past book series, the role-playing game (with twenty-sided dice!) Dungeons and Dragons.

Strengths These games teach communication skills and argumentative thinking. Communication skills are one of the general education outcomes for colleges, and for good reason: it is the number one skill employers feel new hires are lacking.

Weaknesses Unless teams are debating each other, the value for other students in the class who are listening to the presenter would likely be similar as with any lecture given by the instructor.

Educators coming together to explore how the principles of games promote learning