Win, Learn, or Draw: 5 Knowledge Games you should know about

Want to make some really BIG changes this school year? What about making some changes through games?

That’s right—games, of all things—can help make change and solve real-world problems. A lot of people mention classic educational games like Oregon Trail or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. But there are now games that help us not only learn physics or geography, but also build brand new knowledge. For instance, instead of just teaching us about cancer, can we help create new cancer treatments through a game?

So, why not have your students play games that help them act like real researchers and contribute real data on topics like DNA, bullying, or animals? Here are five games that you can use in the classroom right now.


1.    Foldit:

Foldit is sorta like the grandparent of these change-making games and was first released in 2008. Created by researchers at the University of Washington, Foldit invites players to twist and turn 3-D models of proteins to figure out how they fold. Students can work with others to solve real-world protein puzzles and maybe help make new discoveries—such as one about proteins involved in HIV and AIDs. The group also has another game, Nanocrafter, where players can design new proteins.


2.    EteRNA

EteRNA uses similar principles as Foldit and Nanocrafter, but for a different purpose: designing new RNA molecules. In EteRNA, players help scientists at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford create new RNA molecules that can potentially help fight against diseases. If you are teaching genetics, the game might also be a fun way of helping students to understand which base pairs can get matched together. 

3.    EyeWire

In EyeWire, players help to map the brain by coloring in neurons, or brain cells. Players color in 2-D models of these neurons to help to create the 3-D versions of them. The game has a lengthy tutorial, so while it may be a while before students are contributing to real-world problems, they will have lots of opportunity for practice and instant feedback.


4.    SchoolLife

Giant Otter’s SchoolLife builds on research from Harvard and MIT, and helps to teach kids about bullying. In it, students play through bullying-related scenarios with virtual characters and explain how they would respond in the situation. The hope is that they learn to empathize better with those who are bullied, and can also learn how to help to stop bullying. The designers are also using the game to help learn from the players, too, to more authentically simulate (and help stop) bullying. The game is great for practicing emotional and social skills, but the free version is limited. (The premium classroom version, which enables groups of students to play and even create their own scenarios, is $99 per year and is currently unavailable, but you can sign up on their waitlist.


5.    Pokémon Go 

Yes, you heard me right, Pokémon Go. It might be the hottest entertainment game right now, but it is also being used for real-world science! Tons of people are not just finding fictional Pokémon animals, but also real ones, too. Some players are taking photos and tweeting out about the real-world creatures, using the hashtag #PokeBlitz. This hashtag was created by Morgan Jackson, a taxonomist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Guelph, who explains that it is being used by scientists to help players identify the real animals, and perhaps even to uncover and document new species. Stories in places like The Los Angeles Times and Motherboard explain the movement. 


6.    Honorable Mention. Cancer Research UK and their games.

Cancer Research UK typically has a few different games available—many for the mobile device, which may or may not be convenient for the classroom. Some of the previous games have been the Digital Emmy-award winning Reverse the Odds, where players completed mini-puzzles to help the Odds, and earn potions from analyzing real-world cancer cell samples. 


So get out and play, and make some change! But don’t forget to play the games beforehand and make sure they are age-appropriate and work on the browsers and computers in your school. And, while some of these games come with built-in teacher’s guides and activities, feel free to be creative about how to shape them for your own curriculum.

For more information on games that solve real-world problems, see Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change by Karen Schrier

Karen Schrier is an assistant professor of media arts, the director of the Play Innovation Lab, and the director of the Games and Emerging Media Program at Marist College. She is the editor of the Learning, Education, and Games series. She is the author of Knowledge Games: How Playing Games Can Solve Problems, Create Insight, and Make Change.

The start of a new school year is upon us, and our authors have taken to the blog to discuss the past, present, and future of the education landscape in the United States and abroad. From administrative imperatives, to advice for parents, to student mental wellness, our authors will examine education from every angle. Check back with us for more from our JHU Press back-to-school series.