Game-based learning: it’s not just about STEM

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It seems like games are everywhere in classrooms these days. There are more educational games available now than ever before, and a majority of teachers now report using them to engage and motivate their students.

But it seems that the balance of these games focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. That’s great but it means there are less games out there that focus on areas like language arts or the humanities more broadly. Why is that?

It certainly isn’t from a lack of demand. In the language arts alone the need for new tools and approaches is clear, with only 27% of U.S. high school seniors able to write at their grade level. When we show StoriumEdu to teachers at education conferences their reactions consistently follow a certain progression: surprise that something like it exists, followed by dawning excitement as their minds spin through potential uses in their own classrooms.

So if teachers are interested in game-based learning beyond STEM, why aren’t there more choices available?

I believe the dominance of STEM in educational gaming is at least in part due to assumptions about which subjects can and can’t be “gamified.” These assumptions affect both the kinds of games teachers ask for in the market and what developers ultimately decide to build.

Games are built on rules. Rules tell you how to play and help you understand whether or not you’re winning. For example, if we’re playing Blackjack and you draw a 21 then you know that you’ve won. How? Because there’s a rule that essentially says, “If the sum of your cards equals 21, then you win the round.” If you think that looks something like a math equation, then you’re right. Rules are basically equations that take gameplay data (like the value of your cards) as input and produce an output that tells you what happens next (in this case, the round ends with you as the winner).

Is it any surprise, then, that games — and digital games, in particular — seem naturally suited to subjects that can be clearly quantified, like math and science?

But the truth is that almost anything can be turned into a rule, and thus nearly anything can be gamified! Anything. I mean, we live in a world where there are games about everything from mining to, uh, mischievous goats.

Game-based learning absolutely can and does address subjects beyond STEM.

Let’s take writing as an example. Writing has rules, certainly, in terms of grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and structure. But so much of writing is about meaning, context, intent, and voice — what the writer is trying to say, and why, and how they say it. Evaluation of student writing therefore often mixes the quantitative with the qualitative. It requires comprehension. How do you turn that into rules for a game? How do you get a computer to do it?

The StoriumEdu team has spent a lot of time thinking about game-based learning for the humanities, specifically regarding writing instruction. The trick we’ve come up with is to gamify process rather than content. That is, instead of applying game mechanics to what students are writing, we focus on how they write it. StoriumEdu gamifies the writing process itself, turning the student into a player in a game that has moves and turns, and where the rules provide creative constraints and prompts that make writing easier. This approach uses gamification to motivate student writers and build their confidence. “Winning” therefore is measured by increased student writing output and speed, rather than by assessing “right answers” to specific questions.

While STEM is of course an important area of study (and something I’m personally passionate about) I’m concerned that by focusing game-based learning on STEM we risk widening an already perilous gap with the arts and humanities. Our kids need more than the quantitative in order to thrive. They need the qualitative, too: self-reflection, empathy, expression, culture, and creativity.

Games provide us with powerful, proven tools for engaging and motivating students, and students love them. Our approach with StoriumEdu is just one of many. There’s no reason to limit the impact of game-based learning to just science and math. We can and should employ games in support of literacy, history, social studies, and as many other subject areas as possible.

In addition to StoriumEdu, there are other non-STEM games already in use by teachers everywhere. Here are just a few great examples. Check them out!

  • iCivics: Founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics offers a set of free online games that teach civics and encourage students to become active citizens.
  • Mission US: Uses games to teach American history and develop historical empathy.
  • Walden, a game: While not expressly an “educational game,” Walden is a unique and beautiful experience that brings Henry David Thoreau’s classic novel to life so that players can explore its themes.

Do you have other non-STEM educational games to recommend? Mention them in the comments!

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