When talking about games or playing, we don’t often immediately think of the classroom or learning. The first thing that comes to mind is often frivolous activity that both kids and adults engage in for fun. And yet, it is not uncommon for games to be used in education.
In the English language learning classroom, games can be used as fun warm-up activities before diving into the meatier parts of the lesson, or throughout the lesson itself in order to practise the bits of grammar or vocabulary introduced earlier. In rarer instances, full lessons can be transformed into a game – an extended role-playing activity with scenarios full of opportunities to practise the language in a simulated ‘real-world’ environment.
The role of games in education goes far beyond their entertainment value, and this is why the New Product Development team at Cambridge English now seriously explores the benefits of video games in learning and assessment.
There is extensive evidence that with the use of games, digital and non-digital alike, students of all ages show increased engagement (Auman 2011), improved retention through an active learning environment (Jones & Bursens 2015), better learning outcomes (Merchant, Goetz, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt & Davis 2015), and higher participation and achievement rates (Nadolny & Halabi 2016). Games are also known to facilitate learning and cognitive development (Bork 2012), and could even promote well-being and mental health (Granic, Lobel & Engels 2014).
For kids, play isn’t frivolous. It is serious stuff.
While games are well documented as being beneficial for learning at any age, their presence is non-negotiable for learning in young people. Cognitive psychologists, doctors and educators agree that games are key to healthy development in childhood, starting as early as 1896 with the work of Karl Groos who argued that, through play, kids practise the skills necessary for survival in adulthood. After all, play lets children demonstrate and practise not only what they know but also what they don’t know. It helps them to:
- find solutions to problems as they arise through trial and error
- negotiate meaning
- investigate social interactions
- work out the best timing, movement and strategy
- build new skills and confidence.
The ability to do this is key to success in every area, including language learning in early childhood and beyond. ‘Play is the highest form of research,’ said Albert Einstein, and he wasn’t wrong. Einstein isn’t the only one known for his remarks on the importance of play, storytelling and creativity in childhood. My personal favourite is by Benjamin Spock, an American paediatrician author, who said ‘a child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.’ This nicely captures the delicate balance of enjoyment and challenge that makes games such an effective tool for learning.
The term ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ is sometimes used to describe unsuccessful gamification – when elements of gameplay are bolted onto serious learning, without fully integrating the game and learning aspects of the experience. One example I’ve observed as an English teacher is a ‘digital darts’ game, where kids get a chance to ‘throw a dart’ onto a target displayed on a smartboard, but only once they’ve correctly answered a grammar question displayed just below.
While there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of gamification to help brighten up an otherwise dry lesson, it becomes problematic when it is used to mask the true purpose of the lesson in hopes kids won’t notice what you’re doing. They will. The problem with chocolate-covered broccoli is that kids can smell it from millions of miles (or even pixels!) away and will immediately resist it for what it is – broccoli. ‘I like games, but not the boring ones,’ said my 8-year-old nephew after getting excited about a language learning app only to realise that while it looked like a game, all it had was boring words and sentences.
While boasting an array of fun and interactive features, educational games that have little connection to the actual purpose of learning miss out on the truly powerful benefits that are abundantly present in immersive educational games. The key to delivering these benefits, and avoiding the broccoli in your chocolate, is authenticity.
At Cambridge English, we talk a lot about authenticity in exam task design – the larger the overlap between the task and what a learner is required to do in real life, situationally or cognitively, the better. In educational games, authenticity relates to the context in which a task is performed – is it meaningful? Is the task fully embedded into the wider narrative or is it an irrelevant add-on that is jarring and interrupts the flow?
This is exactly what we aim to achieve with our exciting collaboration with Microsoft and our new Minecraft game. Here the tasks are fully embedded into the wider narrative. Whether this is following directions, finding an item or completing broken signs by placing the missing letters correctly, all the tasks are part of the game.
Our goal is to forge a meaningful experience completely integrated into the context in which it is happening, as both evidence and personal experience suggests learning is most memorable, enjoyable and effective when delivered this way.
Explore our Minecraft world!
Adventures in English with Cambridge is our exciting new world created by world-leading English assessment experts in collaboration with Minecraft. Inspire your young learners to develop their English skills beyond the classroom in a way they will never forget.
Auman, C (2011) Using Simulation Games to Increase Student and Instructor Engagement, College Teaching 59 (4), 154–161. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2011.602134
Bork, P (2012) How Video Games May Enhance Students’ Learning and Cognitive Development, International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society 8, 43–55. https://doi.org/10.18848/1832-3669/CGP/v08i01/56257
Granic, I, Lobel, A and Engels, R C (2014) The benefits of playing video games, American Psychologist 69 (1), 66–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034857
Groos, K (1985) The play of animals: Play and instinct, in Bruner, J S, Jolly, A and Sylva, K (Eds) Play: Its role in development and evolution, Penguin Books.
Jones, R and Bursens, P (2015) The effects of active learning environments: how simulations trigger affective learning, European Political Science 14, 254–265. https://doi.org/10.1057/eps.2015.22
Merchant, Z, Goetz, E, Cifuentes, L, Keeney-Kennicutt, W and Davis, T (2014) Effectiveness of virtual reality-based instruction on students’ learning outcomes in K-12 and higher education: A meta-analysis, Computers & Education 70, 29–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2013.07.033
Nadolny, L and Halabi, A (2016) Student Participation and Achievement in a Large Lecture Course With Game-Based Learning, Simulation & Gaming 47 (1), 51–72. https://doi.org/10.1177/1046878115620388