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Play Is Learning

 In Recent Articles, Blog, Fun Learning

You may have noticed that we just launched a new initiative at Online G3 to pair tabletop games with learning content. If not, you should go watch the embedded video below:

So, you may be wondering: How exactly is playing a tabletop game educational? I’m glad you asked! Let me start by talking a little bit about my background and the learning philosophies I rely upon in the classes I teach at Online G3 (primarily, history and multidisciplinary science courses).

While I am an educator first and foremost these days, I spent many years building and playing games. When I began my second career as an instructor at Online G3, one of the things I chose to focus on was making our classes more “sticky” for learners, implementing systems that I hoped could compel students forward in their work, like experience point rewards and achievements (in the form of visual profile badges) for completing their homework challenges in a timely fashion. These sorts of game systems don’t work for all learners, but for the learners who find gamification motivating, we have found that these systems are quite compelling.

Over time, and with the success of the systems above, I’ve looked for more ways to bring more play into learning. Think back to the times in your life when you learned the most about a subject. If you’re anything like me, your most satisfying learning memories come from when you were the most engaged and interested in a subject. The great thing about a good game is that it draws you in. It does so by forcing the players to make difficult and interesting choices, often within a context that is historical or has some relevance to the modern day. Even more than that, in order to make a meaningful choice, players then are put in a position to ask questions. This is key from an educational standpoint because my belief is that engaged learning is all about asking questions. (And in this belief, I was inspired by the first historian, Herodotus, who called his work ‘inquiry’, or in Greek, Historíai.) 

Games are simulations of real-world systems, situations, and events. When we drop a player into these simulations, they are, in a very real way, putting learners in the shoes of a participant. We are empowering students to consider how and why certain decisions are or were made and to consider these decisions from the perspective of the moment. Done right, this is an incredibly powerful opportunity for learners. Don’t take my word for it, though. Volko Ruhnke, a noted designer of wargames and conflict simulations, says:

“A [game] puts you into history in a way that no book can…. If I’m doing my job properly, the mechanics of the game will force you to consider the choices that real people had to make. That’s advanced. That’s grad-school history, not grade-school stuff.”

So, I’m all in on this path of learning now. Keep an eye on this space for more announcements of lesson packs like the first one we launched just last week. And if you’re interested, check out that first lesson pack here: Learn About…Slavery with Freedom the Underground Railroad.

EDIT: Our second lesson pack is now available: Learn About…Presidential Elections with 1960: The Making of the President.

Benjamin Smith is also known as Headmaster Galahad at  He teaches history, science, computer science, and social science at G3.

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