The Intersection of Games, Simulations, and Learning

The intersection of games, simulations, and learning (taken from Martens et al 2008, p.174)

This Venn diagram, by Alke Martens and his colleagues, is helping me refine my game idea. The game takes place in an interactive environment that is specifically directed. Players have some choices, but they are limited. The purpose of the game is to provide instructional opportunities in math based on a player’s current abilities. So the game has to be a bit scripted, making it a simulation. Unlike a pure simulation, there will be game play and mechanics involved. So the combination of pedagogy, game play, and activities directly related to those in the real world, my game idea sits in the middle of this Venn diagram.


Educational Games and Simulations

One of my first quests for Edtech 532 involved watching this TED talk.  I have seen much better videos about gaming and how to use their mechanics in education. But this video is a good introduction if you haven’t read much about gaming. It starts with some staggering statistics on how much we are spending on games. The speaker, Tom Chatfield, eventually explains 7 ways in which games engage us. It’s a bit dry, but informative.

During the video, I found myself musing about creating a game-based learning math course. There are so many resources on the web (mostly low quality, but there are a few gems) that it seems like it would be easy enough to pull together a set of activities to create at least a mini-math quest. Without creating a few of my own tools or using offline materials, I could not cover all of the skills expected by the Common Core State Standards for any grade. But I could definitely create a game that could be used as a component of a math course. The teaching would happen offline, in the classroom. The game would be a way for students to maintain math skills they had learned. It would be the “spoonful of sugar” that would make homework more enjoyable.

Eventually, it is my goal to create a math game that does teach, in addition to provide practice, in a game-based format. This game will engage students, put them in the drivers seat of math in way that helps them understand it in a meaningful way, not just a memorization of rules. Students will learn math by doing math in situations they find interesting. Doing so will require a team of software developers, math education whizzes, and all sorts of creative types, just as game developers do. I am certain my ideas for this game will continue to morph this semester. I’ll be throwing out what doesn’t work and pulling in more of what works. It’ll be an interesting process of refinement that I am curious to see develop over the coming months.


AECT Standards

1.1 Instructional Systems Design — Viewing and reflecting on this video gave me the opportunity to analyze elements of game-based learning. These elements, when combined thoughtfully in gaming applications, can be key to engaging and motivating students to go beyond the effort they may normally put towards their learning.

2.3 Computer Based Technologies — The mechanics of game-based learning are best managed and most effective when they are incorporated into computer-based technologies. Computers allow us to analyze bits of data and tailor education in a way that’s just not possible in a non-digital format.

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Horizon Report Tech Trend

The 2011 Horizon Report, by the New Media Consortium, identified game-based learning as a trend that will gain significant popularity in higher education within the next 2-3 years. There has always been a lean toward game-based learning in elementary and secondary education, but I see the trend changing there, too.

Notes taken by Derik Badman during a Tech Trends panel in 2008. Check out his Flickr page for more notes.

At both the elementary and secondary levels, I see technology-based games used more frequently and sometimes as a substitute for equally effective non-tech versions. At the high school level, I am hearing more teachers talk about using a “level up” system for projects as well as a heightened interest in simulations, though I don’t know that implementation of either of these types of game-based learning is very widespread yet.

As I look more closely at technology, I am more convinced that tech tools can have the greatest impact when they allow students to communicate and collaborate. This is one area where tech can take us farther than traditional, non-tech, teaching methods.

One such game-based technology that assists students with communication and collaboration is virtual manipulatives. The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives has an amazing range of manipulatives available for free. These manipulatives help students from Pre-K to grade 12 build concepts and skills in mathematics. The manipulatives are flexible in that they can be used to help students visualize a new concept but can also be used to practice skills and play games helping to solidify a recently-learned concept.

Coordinate Grid Virtual Manipulative

Using one of the virtual manipulatives, I developed a lesson plan for grade 6 students titled  Catch a Thief! The game utilizes a four-quadrant coordinate grid as a model of a city map. Student use coordinates and time data to determine where a thief may have hidden a briefcase of stolen money.

This lesson plan purposely does not require students to use the virtual manipulative during group work. Most classrooms do not have access to enough computers for groups to work at them simultaneously. The more we incorporate technology into the classroom, the harder it will become for a teacher to manage group time on a single computer. This lesson plan utilizes the technology when it can serve the greatest purpose — at the beginning of the lesson to introduce a new concept and at the end of the activity to help students communicate and display their solutions and their reasoning. In both cases, the technology is being used by the entire class.

I believe there will come a day when all students in every classroom will have a computer. For teachers and students who are lucky enough to have 1:1 access today, students can use the virtual manipulatives individually for greater practice. Since 1.1 access is not the norm, I created this lesson so that it is just as effective for the one-computer classroom as it is for the 1:1 classroom.


Johnson, L., Smith, R., Willis, H., Levine, A., and Haywood, K., (2011). The 2011 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

National Library of Virtual Manipulatives

AECT Standards

3.1 Media Utilization — When designing the lesson plan, I kept in mind the media available and the time constraints of the average classroom. The lesson plan was designed with flexibility so it works just as well for the 1:1 classroom as it will for the classroom with a single computer.

3.2 Diffusion of Innovations — Research has shown that students who are engaged in and can relate to a topic of instruction will not only learn but will retain what they have learned. Learning can be improved by constructing lesson plans  that use innovative tools like the virtual manipulatives in combination with engaging topics.

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