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Video games in education doesn't have to mean educational video games

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Play is one of the fundamental ways in which humans learn. Video games, like games in general, are inherently educational, but they still haven't quite taken off in the classroom. Many teachers remain dismissive of video games, or outright hostile toward them. They don't recognize the value of video games as teaching tools. But according to the three individuals on the "Educational Video Gaming for the Millennial Generation" panel at PAX East 2014, there are plenty of ways to bring video games into the classroom and use them to augment the traditional curriculum.

Erin Ryan (above right), a master's degree candidate at Boston University and a history teacher, discussed The Oregon Trail as a prototypical educational game: It allows students to play a role in a historical story and get invested in characters, and teaches them about the hardships that the travelers on the Oregon Trail actually faced.

there are plenty of ways to bring video games into the classroom

Her husband, Andrew Ryan (above left), a business analyst at Boston University, noted that educational gaming remains a small segment of the game industry. That's partly because the business of gaming is focused on making titles that prioritize gameplay and story above all; the industry doesn't excel at incorporating education into traditional games. According to Andrew Ryan, it's not enough for a game to be educational; educators need to be involved in every step of the design and production process.

"There's sort of a tendency among people who don't play games to put [playing them] in the same category as watching TV," said Michael Astolfi (center), digital strategies producer at Carnegie Corp. of New York and a game developer. According to Erin Ryan, that's a problem because it means that some teachers are dismissing their students' interests — and thus, ignoring a way that they can connect with those kids.

Incorporating video games into a school curriculum doesn't necessarily mean teachers have to play games in class or assign them as homework. To illustrate the point, Erin Ryan spoke about her experience last summer teaching at-risk students with disabilities. She had her class of 10 to 14 middle school and high school students design a video game as a project, and she showed examples of their work to the panel audience.

some teachers are dismissing their students' interests

One student pitched a game about the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. The title would feature action, adventure and stealth gameplay, with the player taking the role of a nonviolent activist. The protagonist's weapon in the battle for civil rights? A camera.

"This is a way to bring in video game culture and the topic of video games" to any classroom, said Andrew Ryan. You just have to be creative.

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