MIAMI – Christian Varona didn’t rely on textbooks and slide shows to learn history. When it came to studying for Advanced Placement tests, he didn’t turn to a tutor, either.
He just logged on to his computer and played some games.
“Ask my son how he passed AP courses in high school, and he will tell you it wasn’t the teaching,” said Christian’s father, Juan Varona, a special education teacher in Miami. “It was historical games.”
Educators increasingly see digital games as a language that many students seem to intuitively understand, so they’re trying to use that language to make playing facilitate learning. This mind-set has propelled popular mainstream games like World of Warcraft and Minecraft into classrooms in recent years as teachers craft curricula that have children engaged and playing. It has also pushed the development of other games designed to teach subjects such as math, vocabulary and AP history without relying solely on textbooks and pencils.
Game designers in Miami are even exploring possibilities outside the classroom by creating digital games that teach players about social issues — so-called “serious games.” It’s a small niche of the booming games industry that aspires to show that video games aren’t all about first-person shooting, like in “Call of Duty,” or sports simulations, like in the NFL Madden series.
Clay Ewing, an assistant professor at the University of Miami’s School of Communications, creates serious games with his students. One example: a smartphone game called “Zoo Rush” that explains to kids what it’s like to live with sickle cell disease.
He said that besides the learning that comes with playing the game, his student designers learn the subject matter themselves. He found that students respond when you try to connect with them through gaming, he said, and teachers at all levels can capitalize on that.
“They’re realizing that games are the cultural medium that the current generation responds to,” he said. “For somebody who grew up on film and would say, ‘Oh, I remember watching “E.T.” in the theaters, and it was like a seminal moment in my life,’ that same moment isn’t going to be described in film. It’s going to be talked about, like, ‘I remember the first time my brother and I played “Super Mario Bros.” It was transformative.’ ”
Educators are tapping into that connection. Results from a 2014 survey by researchers at the Sesame Workshop show that nearly 74 percent of teachers in a survey are using digital games for instruction.