“Can you please tell my son to stop playing video games?”
I’ve heard this desperate plea from parent after parent during parent teacher conferences for the past several years. “All he wants to do is play video games and not study,” they say in desperation. So, I do my best to encourage these students to strike a balance between reading and game time. But then the student inevitably says: “But my game involves all kinds of reading and analysis. It’s much more fun than reading The Scarlett Letter.”
It is arguments such as these that have given birth to non-profit educational gaming companies such as GlassLab, which aims to create high-interest computer games for today’s tech-oriented students. With the current state of decline in American performance on standardized testing (41st on the PISA in Math in 2015), it makes sense to find alternative and progressive ways to reach our students.
Not every student learns the same way, and not every student can cope with the monotony of long, arduous hours of by-the-book studying. There are two ways to handle this issue. One way is to lecture our students on the importance of hard work and continue on the same downward trajectory. The other way is to adapt to the reality of the situation and find new ways to target a new type of student who has grown up with the instantaneous satisfaction of technology in a “reality TV” kind of world. Whichever side of the argument you find yourself on, there is no debate that companies such as GlassLab are truly engaging students who do not respond to more traditional methods through their games that marry skills development with highly engaging technology. Is this “giving in”? Or is this differentiation?
I’ll let you decide. But, let’s take a look at 15 computer games that could potentially help struggling students in your secondary English Language Arts classes.
Argubot Academy — grades 6-8 for iOS tablets (GlassLab)
Argubot Academy is a game that is aligned to the Common Core Standards wherein students have to build and govern a futuristic city built in Mars. To do this, players have to construct logical arguments for their choices and settle differences between their assistants, called “argubots,” by equipping them with claims and evidence. This is an excellent game to teach students how to support their arguments with sound logic and reasoning. To help students track their arguments, you can have them keep a log in their journals or notebooks where they explain their decisions and support them with evidence. Afterwards, they can share with small groups or the entire class in order to target speaking and listening skills.
SimCityEDU — grades 6-8 for PC/Mac (GlassLab)
SimCity is a popular, commercial game in which players build cities. In this educational version of SimCity funded by the Gates and Macarthur Foundations, players act as the mayor who tries to solve the real world issue of pollution while meeting the needs of the citizens and simultaneously growing the city. This is a game that targets problem solving within a “real” world context. It comes along with lesson plans, teacher and student dashboards, and student data reporting in order to enable teachers to track student growth since every student’s “city” will be different. With this game, students can also journal about their decisions and experiences—what worked and what did not—and explain their rationales. It’s an excellent way to marry science, problem solving, math, economics, and English Language Arts all into one engaging game.
Battleground 538 — grades 8-12 for iPad (GlassLab)
This game interweaves English, math, civics, social studies, and government all into one highly engaging game. It was developed during the first ever White House Game Jam 2014, and it is a game that demonstrates how the Electoral College works and how a candidate wins or loses an election. “Players are top political strategists, tasked with deciding where to invest a candidate’s precious resources over the final 12 weeks of the presidential campaign. Each in-game week, the player receives cash from their campaign committee; as fundraising increases, players can choose to do a variety of activities, from extra staff training to complete coastal domination.” The game includes four historical presidential elections: Obama vs. Romney (2012), Bush vs. Gore (2000), Kennedy vs. Dixon (1960), and Polk vs. Clay (1844). The game even has the option of randomly generating results in swing states, or leaving them completely up for grabs. I can foresee a fantastic class debate alongside this game and even an essay in which students analyze why their candidate won or lost. Again, this is another fantastic, and highly interactive game from GlassLab that targets the Common Core!
Another non-profit gaming company called iCivics is also leading the way with educational gaming through its civics games that aim to teach students about the United States government. Students learn how the government operates as well as how to participate in civic duties. Their games are supported by free lesson plans, interactive digital tools such as Power Point presentations, and, of course, GAMES! While these games are topically geared towards social studies and civics, they also integrate reading, writing, speaking, and listening—the tenets of the Common Core for ELA! I also really appreciate that these games and corresponding lessons can be completed within a class period whereas the games from GlassLab are continuous and ongoing games that could take up multiple class periods.
Let’s take a look at their award-winning game offerings:
Activate -- grades 6-12 for Internet
In this game, players select an issue and organize a campaign for change. They are tasked with managing their resources and growing their organizations from a small community to a national movement. Players are to elect leaders and raise awareness/support for their chosen cause.
Argument Wars -- grades 6-10 for Internet
This game is an online game in which players get the chance to argue for or against famous, historical Supreme Court cases. Players must find the best evidence to support their arguments while also learning how to identify logical fallacies in reasoning. This game integrates both social studies and English Language Arts in a way that allows students to take part in history. Students can even turn one of these cases into an argumentative essay in which they argue their decision in one of these Supreme Court cases. It also lends itself to class debate—all while targeting essential Common Core skills. Cases include: Bond v. United States, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona, New Jersey v. T.L.O., and more!
Cast Your Vote -- grades 6-12
In this game, players take on the roll of voters who get to ask candidates 15 questions, rate the candidate’s responses, and then vote for the candidate of their choice. I like that students are asked to rate the candidate’s responses, and this activity is a great tool to accompany an election unit in either social studies or ELA. I think I would also have my students listen for rhetorical devices and log them in their notebooks as part of their rating process. Another extension activity to this game could be to run an election within your classroom as an exercise in argumentation and rhetoric. These are effective, real-world ways to target reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
Immigration Nation -- grades 8-12
In this game, students learn how an immigrant becomes a citizen of the United States. Players take on the roll of a guide who helps an immigrant become a citizen. For English Language Arts classes, I like that this game could be a great way to discuss American identity and to read diverse texts from immigrant authors with a whole new level of understanding and appreciation.
We the Jury -- grades 9-12
In this game, students play jurors who must deliberate a case by analyzing evidence, reviewing testimonies, and using argumentation to reach a fair and impartial verdict. In the past, I have had my students put on court cases using literary characters, or even using real life cases. This is a long process that takes a lot of coordination and several weeks of school. But in this game from iCivics, students can replicate the same process on a smaller scale in 15-30 minutes of class time. This is an excellent game to pair with a study of 12 Angry Men.
There are even MORE games from iCivics that also target the ELA Common Core. Check out their website for more options!
Word Game Time — grades 6-8 for Internet
This website contains many high-interest games for teaching students how to analyze texts and communicate more effectively while also teaching students new vocabulary words. It is geared for elementary students through grade seven/ middle school. I think this is a great website for differentiation and for ESL students who can play other levels that are more fitting to their needs. Some of the games included on Word Game Time include: Code Breaking, Giraffe Karts—Subject-Verb Agreement, Mouse Trap, Verb Viper, and many more!
Free Rice — grades 6-12 for Internet
Free Rice is a non-profit gaming organization with the dual purpose of educating students about key content areas, including English Language Arts, and feeding the world. Students can sharpen their grammar skills and learn new vocabulary words all while earning rice that literally goes to help feed people in impoverished nations as part of the United Nations World Food Programme. It’s a win-win situation!!
Inklewriter — grades 6-12
Inklewriter is interactive fiction software that is FREE and accessible through a web-browser. It is very user-friendly, and students can create interactive stories without any specific programming knowledge. Interactive stories are a great way to target critical thinking skills of students who have to consider the cause/effect relationships of their characters in various situations. Students could use something like Inklewriter to explore an historical event, recreate a famous literary story in a different genre or historical period, or practice using rhetorical devices/ relationships within an original storyline. The options are endless!
Twine — grades 6-12
Twine is an open-source platform in which people can create interactive stories with variable endings much like “choose your own adventure” style narratives. Students must consider a series of if/then scenarios for the narratives they create in order to lead to particular resolutions and conclusions. Creating these narratives challenges students to use strategy, logic, and critical thinking in order to flesh out the various possible outcomes of a “reader’s” decisions. The narratives are published in HTML, and “players” can do with the text what they wish—even use it for commercial purposes. In English classes, students could use these variable tales to create video games or online comic books. Afterwards, they can either write an explication of their processes and their decisions and/or present their reflections to the class.
Inform — grades 6-12
Inform is another iteration of interactive fiction in which students can design their own interactive stories based on if/then scenarios. Like Twine, this platform is great for exercising problem-solving skills, and it even allows students to develop historical simulations to recreate an actual historical event or recreate a historical period within a fictional narrative.
New York Times Student Crossword Puzzles-- grades 9-12 online
The New York Times crossword is infamous for being challenging and only solvable by the most "learned" readers. But The New York Times also has a collection of 150 student crossword puzzles that focus on topics across curriculum content areas. These puzzle themes include: the 1950s, the 1960s, The American Revolution, The Civil War, The Civil Rights Movement, The Great Depression, The Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, Ancient Greek Theater, Life in the Middle Ages, The Renaissance, Shakespeare, Literary Terms, Mythology, and many, many more! These puzzles are fantastic to use in class as bell ringers or as creative assessments of thematic units. They are effective gaming tools to target critical thinking skills.
BrainPop — grades 9-12 for tablet or Internet
While BrainPop requires a subscription that can be quite pricey, it may be well worth the cost of a license for the entire school since it contains games for all content areas—and it’s an AWESOME resource of games and multimedia content that will engage students while deepening their skills across the board. Specifically for English classes, BrainPop includes multimedia that provides content about famous authors and books, writing, grammar, reading skills, and study skills. Students will find informative video clips, quizzes, notes, and much more! Within each subject area, students can make a map, play an interactive critical thinking sorting game called Sortify, or play relevant games through GameUP. What makes BrainPop even more amazing is that many of the games through GameUP can be used with SnapThought, which enables students to capture up to five images during gameplay. Students can then write analyses, comments, summaries, questions, etc. for their images, submit them to the teacher, and receive them back from the teacher with feedback! It is INCREDIBLE! For ELA in particular, BrainPop contains nine games to target Common Core skills. One of these games is called “Quill,” and students are tasked with correcting someone else’s writing! In another game called “Quandary,” students are presented with ethical issues in a new, futuristic world, and they must make decisions based upon evidence and differing points of view. Needless to say, BrainPop is a fantastic gaming resource for any school!
How I Changed my Stance on Gaming in Education
I will be the first to admit that I enjoy video games, and I understand the attraction to them. But, as a teacher, I have typically discouraged any game playing, and as a parent, I swore I would never allow my children to play video games. But that all changed with my two-year-old. I attempted to teach her the letters of the alphabet over and over again, and I tried many different strategies from painting to singing, to playing, etc., but she would ultimately wander off after a few minutes and lose interest. That’s when I discovered a Monstessori game on the iPad that teaches phonics called Phonics island. I let her play it just to see what would happen. She LOVED IT! She was laughing and playing and showing me the stickers. It all clicked for me later on when we went to the store, and she pointed at a letter and pronounced its sound! I was sold! And that’s what drove me to modify my stance on gaming.
Educational Games v. Mindless Games
I truly think there is a place in education for educational games—not mindless games. Let me explain the difference between the two. My daughter initially wanted to play a game that involved hitting the space bar on the computer in order to make a character jump over obstacles. That was it. She just had to hit the spacebar. Nothing else to it! Now, this game may help with hand-eye coordination, but I just couldn’t see anything about it that required critical thinking or challenged her to acquire a new skill. I would much rather her play a sorting game that we found where she has to figure out the relationships between the objects because this kind of game involves critical thinking. To put it in terms we adults can understand—it’s sort of like the difference between thumbing through mindless Facebook posts versus reading The New York Times. One of these involves a whole different level of critical thinking and awareness. Of course, we all need a brain break at different points in time, so I have zero guilt scrolling through Facebook at the end of a long day. But when we want to use games in order to teach skills, there are high quality games out there that can encourage critical thinking. Not all games are mindless. It’s important as a teacher that you understand the difference between mindless games and critical thinking games so that you are able to select high quality material for your students. We already do this as teachers, right? We already make sure that what they read in school is mostly* academic or literature with a CAPITAL L versus mindless pop-fiction, beach reading.
Our job as teachers is to challenge our students to read critically and to encourage them to do things they wouldn’t normally do on their own. Selecting games is the same. It’s important to select games for our students that will challenge them and be open to the idea that there are higher quality games and lower quality games out there.
Gaming as Assessment
According to Shute and Ke who co-wrote a piece about gaming for the Marcarthur Foundation that led to the development of SimCityEDU, gaming can be used as a valid form of formative assessment if the game contains the following key tenets: interactive problem-solving, specific goals/ rules, adaptive challenges, control, ongoing feedback, uncertainty, and sensory stimuli (Shute, Ke). Games that meet these criteria, Shute and Ke argue, have the potential to act as “transformative learning tools.” They draw a parallel between the qualities of an engaging classroom and gaming: “Instructional environments should thus be interactive, provide ongoing feedback, grab and sustain attention, and have appropriate and adaptive levels of challenge—i.e., the features of good games (Gee, 2003 ; Laurel, 1991).”
Therefore, if games and classrooms can replicate some of the same quality of educational experiences, then why can’t gaming be a valid tool for teachers to assess student progress and to practice skills? Of course, the piece I would add here is that one should never put all of one’s eggs into one basket. Just as our classes should not be 100% lecture or 100% group work, they shouldn’t be 100% gaming either. Integrating video games into any curriculum is about striking a balance between traditional methods and progressive methods. Where and how to strike that balance entirely depends upon your students, the grade level, the curriculum, access to technology, and the teacher’s level of comfort with gaming. But if your students have access to technology, gaming is definitely worth a try. In fact, I think you will find that students will ask to play the games all the time because they will truly enjoy the experience.
There’s even a school in New York City called Quest 2 Learn that is a game-based learning school. They have adopted an approach wherein educational games are the core curriculum of every content area. Such a curriculum crosses the boundaries of content dividing lines and synthesizes learning in a way that is difficult to accomplish through other means. And at the core of every “game,” students learn crucial problem-solving techniques and strategies that target deeper levels of cognition. Knowing how to find information, analyze it, process it, and synthesize findings are often the key ingredients to success in school and career—above and beyond specific content knowledge. Gaming gets at the heart independent learning by helping to encourage independent thinking and self-assessment.
So, why not give some of these games a try in your ELA classes and see how it goes?
We’d love to hear from YOU! Are you using any of these games listed above? If so, what has been your experience with using them? What other games would you add to this list?
About the Author
Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA. She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas. An avid tea drinker and anglophile, Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.