Education with Games

Why Kids Need Games: A Teacher’s Perspective

The following is something I swiped from the forums at BGG, and I think it’s important reading for game-enthusiasts and parents alike. Thanks to MScrivener, the poster who started this. Enjoy.

I may be sermonizing to the saved here, but I gotta get this off my chest:

I just finished reading a lament about the ever shrinking wall of boardgames at places like TRU (inside a larger thread about hot clearance deals.) Like the poster, I grew up going to a TRU and KB where there was a whole wall or aisle of boardgames, and it was not All Monopoly All The Time. It was Axis & Allies, it was DIPLOMACY, it was games that made me the geek I am today. (This was, of course, long before the present board game renaissance and the ubiquity of so many great FLGS’s.)

But I began pondering this decline of the board game section in TRU and noticed that it was proportional to the growth of the video game section.

That makes me sad.

Not because I hate video games. But because as a public school teacher, I see kids absolutely STARVING for social interaction with adults. And as fun as video games are (I’ve been addicted to WoW like everyone else), they just do not provide even remotely the same level of social interaction as a board game.

The decline of the board game section and the rise of the video game section at the local mega-store is because people have voted with their dollar, and like any sane business the local mega-store has adjusted. Many of those voters are parents. After all, it is so much easier to let Johnny isolate himself in front of the PC or the TV or the portable hand-held than to sit down with him for the time it takes to play Settlers of Catan.

Granted, this is more endemic than just the social versus anti-social nature of board versus video games. I see kids with so many ways to isolate themselves from each other – they are so plugged in, so wired up, that many of them don’t even know how to have a normal conversation. And academically, if you can’t have a normal conversation, you can’t have an intellectual discussion. You can’t write a coherent sentence, much less a compelling analytical paper.

One of my solutions, as a teacher, is to bring out the games.

In my classroom I use games constantly as teaching tools–not just board games, to be clear. We role-play, we simulate, we get down to the nitty-gritty what-ifs, and we compete and cooperate. I think learning is the ultimate act of play, and I think the more playful I can make something, the less it seems like a struggle, the more lasting an impact it will have on my kids. Games create experiences, and experiences are far more profound conduits of new learning than a lecture or a worksheet.

But every year the highlight is when I whip out the Diplomacy (while teaching Art of War and Machiavelli), and it spawns a sudden interest in board games. Then, a chain reaction: all sorts of kids (not just the geeky, socially awkward ones) bring in games from home to play during conference period ( our version of study hall).

“Scriv, I have this great Jurassic Park game where you are chased by Velociraptors, can I bring it in?”
“Scriv, have you ever tried Apples to Apples?”
“Yo Scriv, I’m gonna pwn you in this game!”
“Hey Scriv, my mom got me this Star Wars game a long time ago and I never opened it. Would you be interested in trying it?”

And we play.

And here is the most amazing part. I have been keeping an unofficial tab on those kids who have been gaming with me regularly this school year, and have noticed a marked improvement in their grades.

Now obviously, I can’t attribute this necessarily all to board games… I mean there is not a lot of intellect or academic wherewithal to be gained by playing Sucking Vacuum, (which was out in my room this morning.) But there is something to be said for the SOCIAL impact of board gaming. Because I sit down with them and play too (when I am not giving make-up tests, or conferencing with a kid about his writing.) And suddenly there is this adult laughing and joking with them in a way they had forgotten is possible.

And I hear things like,
“Man, I wish I could get my Mom to try this game.”
and
“Yeah, we used to be a pretty big game family, but for some reason we just stopped when my sister went to college.”

They WANT to play! They LOVE interacting with each other! Kids are social! They don’t want to shut themselves in their room and be ignored! They want to think they can beat their dads at wargames, and get their mom to giggle at silly card games! They want our attention! And every time they don’t get it, they put their little white earbud headphones back in their ears, flip out their cellphones to check for text messages, and withdraw from the world just a little more.

Again, I suspect most of you on here who are parents or teachers get this and don’t need to be told. And I don’t want to be didactic. So consider this more of an overall cultural plea – a very small arrow shot in a larger war for the hearts and minds of the kids of this country. (And I really do only have a bow and a sword in comparison to the mega-arsenals I am fighting against.)

I love my students. I want them to go on to become sane, happy, healthy members of the human race. Wherever they end up, I hope as they become adults they figure out how to face their fears so they can participate in cultural activity that illuminates rather than anesthetizes them. When I play board games with my studets, when we interact socially and playfully together, when we get silly, when we strategize with and against each other, when we analyze and strive for the prize of victory points, when we think, and we frown, and we grin and we toss our cards onto the table in triumph, it is then that we become more than the things we own, the identities we’ve adopted or been assigned by society, the players of a board game, we become more than student and teacher, than teenager and adult.

We become players in a much, much bigger game.

So those of you who have teenagers in your life, here is my challenge: It’s time to play.

Some follow up on this… I mentioned this to a friend who is an anthropologist. She tends to see things in these bigger cultural categories, and so her comment was that all cultures have social rituals and/or traditions that they use to transmit values and social rules and expectations to the next generation, and that board gaming is an example of this kind of social ritual. I thought it strange at first to think of gaming as a ritual, but then I realized there is definitely something ritualistic about it…

She further said that was some recent evidence that, at least in the United States, interaction with technology (watching tv, playing videogames) has replaced many social rituals where this transmission of values and social rules would otherwise occur, and that parallel to this is a widening gap of values between generations (she pointed to the difference in values between Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers.) Her words were, “a generation orphaned by TV, followed by a generation orphaned by computers and videogames.”

Her explanation for the hunger I’ve witnessed in kids to play boardgames was a manifestation of the natural desire of human beings to receive that transmission wisdom from previous generations.

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