Digital Game Play for Instruction: The Why of the Practice

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I recently wrote an article for Edutopia outlining 5 Free Video Games That Support English Language Learners. In this article, we’ll lay some groundwork in terms of understanding the whys and hows of using serious games to drive meaningful student learning. Our guiding question: What makes gamification so appealing, and how can we apply this to our classrooms to increase student engagement and accelerate content understanding?

The Edutopia article explains: “The concept of gamifying learning has been part of practical instruction, in various forms, for years, and for good reason: Research shows that game-based learning has the capacity to motivate students, activate knowledge and enhance critical thinking capacities.”  Additionally, we know that gameplay is a key facet of culturally responsive teaching and is an integral feature of modern ESL curricula. Serious games and simulation games, which invite players to actively solve for real and relevant problems, also expand the ways that learners see and interact with the world. 

Trends in games-based learning continue to lean into technological integration- and data backs up its place in the 21st-century classroom. In fact, research indicates that education-focused video and virtual gaming can benefit all students, particularly low-performing students who demonstrate the greatest need.  

 Video games- including educationally driven programs- follow a predictable structure, resulting in relatively uniform user experience.  If we look closely, we see that video game design takes many of its leads from brick-and-mortar classrooms. In fact, a user’s interaction with a gaming interface mirrors the school learning experience, where instructional best practices are in place.  

Video games are largely successful at capturing users’ attention and driving players toward mastering the content of the game.  In a similar way, it is possible to recognize key features of gaming architecture in our classrooms and to leverage these features to increase student interest and motivation and to drive authentic content learning.

Let’s take a closer look at those components:

·      Play: Play is the cornerstone of video game design and appeal.  Play itself has several requisites: choice, positive peer interchange, and the opportunity to explore, coach and learn in a safe, non-threatening arena.  Schools also recognize the power of play, including the elements of healthy social interaction and cultivated trust, and we cater to it in a variety of ways. 

·      Central goal:  A game is separated from simple play by one defining feature: the presence of a central goal.  Well-designed video games direct users toward a clear and attractive end goal.  Well-organized classrooms lead students toward specific, achievable end goals, usually through a series of identified mini-goals.  We name these standards, student learning outcomes, or Content-Language Objectives (CLOs).

·      Rules: Rules are the skeleton of a game. In a video game, rules-design follows the principle that rule followers will advance to the next stage of the game; and for those who misunderstand or abuse the game’s rules, the process will be delayed or ended.  This pattern applies to most areas of life and is evidenced in the classroom setting. When expectations are clear, students understand what is expected of them and can respond appropriately.

·      Feedback: The feedback loop is central to digital gameplay.  The user voluntarily completes an action, which stimulates a system response (feedback). The user interprets the feedback and reacts accordingly. This process continues until the game ends or the user terminates the loop.

As educational practitioners, we are experts in feedback loops.  The difference is that technological feedback is direct, instantaneous and wholly interactive.  We know that prompt and meaningful feedback has positive implications for intrinsic motivation and accelerated learning.  How can we grow in this capacity to benefit our students?

·      Voluntary Participation: Virtual gaming is rooted in choice.  When personal choice is introduced, productivity, accuracy and motivation increase.  Where can we make room for more student choice in our classrooms?  Interactive station rotations, student-led inquiry and project-based learning, for example, all promote voice and choice.

·      Personalization: Video games are designed to read the user. They must determine the player’s initial level of expertise and projected wants and needs- and then adapt to fit the player.  Well-designed games scaffold learning and progressively increase in complexity.  This mimics optimal instructional protocol for all learners, including linguistically diverse students. 

·      Removed Fear of Failure: In game play, users are afforded an infinite number of opportunities to try again.   Mistakes become synonymous with new prospects- and ultimately, failure becomes obsolete.  The idea of “failing forward” is inherent to the gaming world.   Where and how can we work toward removing fear of failure in our schools?

·      Community Building: Virtual games lend themselves to collaboration and community. This is enhanced within the backdrop of joy, entertainment, belonging, teamwork… and fun.  Positive relationship building is also central to the school organism. It forms the backbone of SEL, culturally responsive teaching, and trauma-informed practice.

·      Assessment: Video games are also assessments: they recognize, evaluate and rank participation- and then adjust the experience accordingly.  In this context, assessments are also malleable. They adapt to the player’s understanding and expertise and automatically push forward (or fall back to re-teach).  Our best site-based assessments look this way, too! 

·      Debriefing: Debriefing is the process of thoughtful, purposeful reflection on one’s experience.  Educational gameplay should include debriefing as a way to complete the circuit of understanding.  In the classroom, this process can be guided and modeled and my included speech, writing or other expressive means.


Gaming is not intended as a replacement for quality instruction delivered by an experienced teacher.  However, educationally purposeful video games can support students’ learning in a host of ways.  And if we take the time to see it, we’ll find that tech-based gaming has more in common with traditional educational structures than we might realize- that the overlap, in fact, is significant.