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Hard Fun: Q&A with Greg Toppo on Educational Gaming

What do World of Warcraft and Henry David Thoreau have in common? In his new book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, Greg Toppo, a K-12 education journalist for USA TODAY, explores the educational gaming movement. Toppo highlights different types of gaming used in the classroom, including a video game simulation of Thoreau’s Walden and a World of Warcraft humanities curriculum.

Game Believes in YouWhile skeptics might think this is just another book about the “next big thing” in education, Toppo makes an effective argument for why games are a powerful tool that help students learn while keeping them engaged. He explains the cognitive science behind gaming and dives into less commonly explored ideas, like how gaming might benefit students with ADHD.

I recently chatted with Toppo to learn about his book and hear his take on the potential of gaming.

Let’s start with the basics: How do you define educational gaming? And what distinguishes an educational game from instructional software?

I would define educational gaming as using game principles to teach pre-determined content. Students have direct access to the material and can learn the material at their own pace. A good game can teach content really well so that it’s “sticky.” Something else that’s key is that games give you the ability to fail and try again right away without any judgment or audit of your worth as a person.

I would maintain that a good game doesn’t rely on bells and whistles. It relies on getting you into the material, keeping you in the material, and giving you satisfaction when you get through it. Whether it’s a game or not, it doesn’t matter. If it’s instructional software—and not a game—and it’s keeping the user on the edge of their ability, then great. I just haven’t seen a lot of examples of that working well.

What role can gaming play within classrooms? Can teachers use games to supplement, or even improve upon, their existing curriculum?

A principal once said to me that games are really good at helping people figure out what machines can do and what people can do. Smart teachers are not afraid of that distinction. They’re not afraid to ask the question, “Is there something a computer tool can do better than I can?”

I want to be crystal clear that we’re not talking about replacing teachers with machines. This is about helping teachers refine what they’re good at and giving them more of an opportunity to do that. Continue reading