The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

A new generation of educational games is harnessing students’ love of video games and turning them into voracious learners — without them even realizing it.

That’s the promise, anyway. Unlike previous educational games that functioned like glorified worksheets or tech-enhanced tests, the latest game developers say they are closer to figuring out how to unlock kids’ passion for gaming.

While some programs still use video games as the primary mode of instruction, other developers think kids’ passion for gaming is so strong that they will want to build their own games.

Educational games
In a file photo, fifth-grader Andrew Riachi, 11, looks through his inventory while playing a game of Minecraft on a computer he built himself, in Pittsburg, Kan. (AP Photo/The Joplin Globe, Roger Nomer)

Nikki Navta, who spent 20 years in textbook publishing, founded Zulama, a curriculum that lets students design and build games, after a conversation with her two teenage sons.

“They were obsessed first with Minecraft and then with World of Warcraft,” Navta said of two popular online games. “I was initially mortified but as I listened to them I could see the possibilities for increasing engagement in the classroom.”

Related: Designing an educational game for kids and adults to play together is harder than it looks

While the course topics are futuristic — for example, 3D modeling and mobile game design — Navta argues that the increased engagement results in academic achievement in more traditional subjects, like English and social studies.

“They are working collaboratively and doing the kind of teamwork that employers are looking for,” she said.

Navta says that Zulama’s hands-on courses moves the curriculum from rote memorization to learning that fosters creativity in students.

Navta was one of several developers at the EdSurge Tech for Schools Summit in Los Angeles in mid-September — an expo that gave over 30 companies a chance to show off their wares to administrators and teachers — who say educational gaming is getting closer to the goal of melding higher order learning with entertainment.

Robert Huizar, a fourth grade teacher who was at the summit to rally other teachers to use Zeal, a math and English game.

Related: What it actually takes for schools to ‘go digital’

Students, who create avatars called Zealots, work through a series of questions. The game has two modes. The competition mode has students race to the finish line by correctly answering questions quickly. In collaboration mode, students earn points by helping fellow students who are struggling.

While the interface is fairly standard, Huizar says that the way the game can be integrated into the classroom is a critical improvement.

“Zeal helps teachers make the Common Core fun by turning it into a game,” said Huizar. “Students earn coins as they do their work. It makes learning cool. They come in the next day and ask, ‘How did you do on that place value objective last night?’”

Huizar, who used Zeal in his classroom last year, teaches at a Rocketship Education charter school in East San Jose, California. Rocketship’s founder left to start Zeal.

Huizar boasts that Zeal gets an accurate reading of each student’s level of understanding right away, allowing for personalized instruction for each student. Last year, he taught a class of 120 kids using Zeal.

“I don’t have to intervene when they are on Zeal,” said Huizar. “That frees me up to pull kids who were either really interested in a topic or that needed extra help into smaller groups.”

Shubha Tuljapurkar, Director of Globaloria, West, agrees.

Like Zulama, Globaloria is a game design program, which sets out to teach students Science, Technology, Math and Engineering material by having them design and code games.

“They don’t know that they are learning,” said Tuljapurkar. “That’s what’s powerful. They are learning how to, for example, code Flash. That’s an important skill. But that’s not necessarily something a kid wants to do, but they do want to create their very own monster.”

Globaloria allows students to play their finished game and publish it to the Internet and holds game design competitions where students can win prizes like laptops.

Christopher Elementary School in southeast San Jose, California, is one of the schools using Globaloria.

“Christopher isn’t a rich school,” said Tuljapurkar. “But we have seen test scores rise and I personally have seen the students’ confidence build up after they won our global game design competition.”

Related: Our goal is to be the first state to fully blend technology into all schools

Despite the hype, there’s still little research about whether educational gaming is improving student achievement.

In April 2012, Pearson, an education company that sells textbooks and other educational products, released a report on the effects of gaming on academic performance. The report found that studies were rare and the results were mixed.

And if the goal is to have students engage with educational games in the same way they engage with games like Minecraft, they still have a ways to go according to Angel Carrasco, a seventh grader at KIPP Sol Academy in East Los Angeles, who spoke on a student panel at the summit.

“You can play games in school and learn but it’s not really the kind of games we play at home,” said Carrasco.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Using the latest games my be a way to break through to kids, but as the article said games we play at home and those used for learning at school are usually very different.

    Still a great approach nonetheless.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *