K12 embraces video games

Game-based learning pinpoints special ed as well as core subjects and uses fictionalized worlds to derive real-world insight

Welcome to the second annual game-based learning special report in District Administration.

Games continue to grow in popularity in K12 lessons ranging from science and math to English and social studies. They include alternate reality games that hook students’ imaginations and introduce social-emotional learning lessons to help students process feelings and thoughts.

In a soon-to-be-released study of eighth-graders in seven states, results reveal that game-based learning can not only engage students, leading them to perform better on assessments, but it can be easily incorporated into lessons.

The study, “Substantial Integration of Typical Educational Games into Extended Curricula” was spearheaded by Vadim Polikov, a research scientist. He partnered with Vanderbilt University. The study reveals that short games used in U.S. history lessons helped all students—particularly special education students-—think more critically.

And on assessment tests those who played games outperformed their peers who didn’t use games and just had traditional instruction, Polikov says.

The study covered three weeks of content with five learning objectives, and included 55 games that were built by 16 development studios, says Polikov. Because of the study’s positive results, he created Legends of Learning, a platform that offers educational games.

While many games require hours of activity, a new generation of shorter ones are here, lasting anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes. They’re also easier to integrate into K12 lessons, Polikov says.

And the games allow teachers and students to give feedback on what they like or don’t like about them. Teachers could easily see, via a dashboard, results of how each student is progressing in a game in real time. Teachers can pause the game and re-teach a learning standard that might be tripping up students.

The report offers successful examples.


ACTIVATE, C8 Sciences

Explore Learning


Legends of Learning

KNeoESP, KNeoWorld

Minecraft, Mojang Synergies AB

Mission US, WNET

Operation: Reach, FableVision Studios

Park Pals: Kindness Rules, FableVision Studios

Squishing insects, planting crops bolster ELA, science concepts

Oh no! The city has been invaded by cockroaches, each carrying a letter of the alphabet as they scurry across a student’s computer screen.

The only way to eradicate the insects is to squish the ones carrying letters needed to spell a word missing from an on-screen sentence. “Kids love it” says Barbara Kruger, director of professional learning and partnerships for VocabularySpellingCity (VSC), which developed Splat-N-Spell in part to help K2 students master spelling.

The digital game is one of a growing number being used in schools to help students learn core curriculum concepts in English language arts to science.

Building a foundation

Similarly, Science4Us—named CODiE’s Best Science Instructional Solution for 2016—reaches K2 students through animated characters that demonstrate matter, energy and other science concepts in 30-minutes sessions.

“The games build foundational science skills presented by educators who need a supportive, standards-rich program” says Perri Robinson, the company’s sales and marketing manager.

Many commercial games—those not designed specifically for education— also effectively teach concepts in the classroom, says Lucas Gillispie, director of academic and digital learning for Surry County Schools in North Carolina.

Many online virtual worlds have their own economies, for example, so they can teach students about market demand for items in crafts or trade, says Gillispie.

In addition, players must analyze factors such as distance to travel or a weapon’s damage-per-second rating to determine the best options during combat in a virtual world.

Gillispie developed an ELA curriculum based on the commercial game World of Warcraft and has seen students immersed, unlike with more traditional lessons he has taught.

“We treat World of Warcraft like you would treat any kind of novel in a literature class” Gillispie says. “But rather than reading chapter one or chapter two, we have a shared experience in this virtual fantasy world with rich text and political intrigue, and we treat it as if we read a novel—we analyze it, reflect and tie it to real life.”

Likewise, World of Warcraft lends itself to science, as players must plant crops to survive in a virtual world. “Herbs and plants have their own ecology” Gillispie says.

“They grow in certain spaces and not others. You can ask a student, ‘What’s the natural environment for this organism? Where does it live; what does it eat?’ Then they can look at examples in the real world and make connections.”

Results are clear

A recently released evaluation of VSC shows vocabulary improvements for Florida students in grades 2 through 5 who used the program over a three-month period in 2016.

They saw the following gains compared with a control group:

a 43 percent increase in vocabulary retention mean scores

a 22 percent increase in reading comprehension for native speakers (according to data from STAR Reading assessment, which measures student performance compared with a national sample)

a 48 percent increase in lexile level for text and reading.

Resources (cont.)

Pokemon Go, Niantic Labs

Quandary, FableVision Studios

Re-Mission 2, HopeLab

Science4Us, Science4Us

Spent, McKinney


VocabularySpellingCity, VocabularySpellingCity.com

World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment

WoW Curriculum, Lucas Gillispie

Zoo U, CenterVention

Alternate reality games blur fact, fiction while taking students to new worlds

It looked like a typical English factsheet on Christopher Columbus until the third bullet point.

As the Barnegat High School students in New Jersey wondered aloud why the text looked like gibberish, teacher Chris Aviles just shrugged and continued his lesson on Columbus.

Eventually a student realized the letters were a code, and she deciphered it to reveal a plea for help—but from whom she did not know.

She told her best friend in another period, and that girl told someone else, and soon 150 students in Aviles’ five English sections were down the rabbit hole of “2020”—an alternate reality game featuring “Sammy” a teenager who needed the students’ help to save her dystopian world of the future.

The students would eventually succeed by preventing a popular present-day politician from becoming president, as Sammy explained that if he was elected, he would be corrupted by power and imprison her and others who spoke out against his policies.

Alternate reality games (ARGs) combine digital and real world elements to immerse players in an interactive narrative experience.

To immerse students in a fictionalized world to derive insight into real-world issues, organizers use phony media, false documents and real life elements such as actors and telephones, says John Fallon, who teaches English at Fairfield Country Day School in Connecticut.

To maintain the fictional/factual worlds, teachers typically don’t acknowledge a game is underway, which is why Aviles shrugs when his students ask.

“It’s a different way of students accessing material” says Paul Darvasi, an ARG enthusiast who teaches high school English and media studies at Royal St

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