Lori Takeuchi
Sarah Vaala
Publication Date
October 21, 2014

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

"Teachers are showing a surprisingly strong receptivity to using games and acknowledging their power for student engagement. The growing momentum has been largely fueled by bottom-up professional development. Teachers are telling us that they are eager learners and ready for more in-depth professional experiences with games." - Milton Chen, Chairman of the Games and Learning Publishing Council and Senior Fellow at the George Lucas Educational Foundation

A national United States (US) survey of 694 US kindergarten through 8th grade teachers conducted in Fall 2013 by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and the Games and Learning Publishing Council reveals that almost three-quarters of K-8 teachers are using digital games for instruction. Four out of five of those teachers report that their students play games at school at least monthly, and 55% say they do so at least weekly. Digital game-using teachers also say they are using games to deliver content mandated by local (43%) and state/national curriculum standards (41%) and to assess students on supplemental (33%) and core knowledge (29%). Gender does not predict digital game use in instruction, but younger teachers, those who teach at schools serving low-income students, and teachers who play digital games for their own pleasure are more likely to use games with their students.

Four out of five game-using teachers say their students primarily play games created for an educational audience, compared to just 5% whose students most often play commercial games. Eight percent of game-using teachers say their students mostly play a hybrid of the first two options: entertainment games that have been adapted for educational use. Few teachers are using learning games of the immersive variety, the kind that lend themselves to deep exploration and participation in the types of activities that set digital games apart from more didactic forms of instruction. Most teachers instead report using short-form games that students can finish within a single class period. While lack of time is a likely explanation, teachers may also find shorter-form games to be easier to map to curriculum standards. 80% of digital game-using teachers wish it were easier to find curriculum-aligned games, and just 39% believe that a sufficient variety of such games even exist.

Teachers who use games more often found greater improvement in their students' core and supplemental skills across subject areas. However, the study also reveals that only 42% of teachers say that games have improved students' science learning (compared to 71% in math), despite research suggesting that games are well suited for teaching complex scientific concepts.

As bring your own device (BYOD) and one-to-one computing policies gain prominence in classrooms, it is of note that 37% of game-using teachers report digital games as being effective in improving students' social skills, which is low compared to other skills queried. Teachers whose students primarily play together (in pairs, small groups, as a whole class) were more likely to report improvements in student social skills than teachers whose students play alone.

The survey also reveals that teachers would benefit from more comprehensive training to take better advantage of digital games. Of the teachers surveyed, just 8% said they received formal training on digital game integration. Teachers are learning to teach with digital games via more informal means (i.e., from fellow teachers and by self teaching). As a result, teachers may not be getting exposure to the broader range of pedagogical strategies, resources, and types of games that can enhance and facilitate digital game integration.

This survey can trace its origins to a long history in the design of games for learning at Sesame Workshop. As early as its first television season in 1969, Sesame Street incorporated a classification game for preschoolers. A later segment, circa 1987, from the Workshop's Square One TV, used a game-show format to display a panel of shirts and slacks, and asked, "How many outfits can be created?" Mr. Chen, quoted above, notes that, with the "exponential increases in multimedia capacity and dramatic decreases in price, today's digital games offer much more than an occasional game for reinforcement or reward alongside the 'basic curriculum.' Immersive and complex games are demonstrating their potential to transform that curriculum and launch it on a new trajectory that harnesses story, simulation, and stimulation, along with competition and collaboration, to achieve higher standards and deeper learning."

Recommendations include:

  • Establish an industry-wide framework for describing and evaluating educational games.
  • Elevate awareness of alternate means of integrating games into instruction (e.g., students play longer-form games for homework and spend class time discussing key lessons.
  • Invest in the creation of innovative integration models for classroom digital gameplay.
  • Provide universal technology training for pre-service teachers.
  • Create and promote online training resources.
  • Conduct follow-up research and share widely with stakeholders.

Email from Michael Levin to The Communication Initiative on October 20 2014; and Games and Learning website, accessed March 10 2016.