People who worried that the technology boom would lead to children playing video games in class were right.
Around the country, students are playing such games as Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and Angry Birds—and their teachers are encouraging it.
“Video games are not the great evil that people make them out to be,” said Trish Cloud, a technology instructor at Torrence Creek Elementary School in Huntersville, N.C., where she created a popular Minecraft club.
Ms. Cloud is part of a growing community of educators who love gaming and want to share that passion to help students learn. Those educators say that good video games can help students develop an array of skills, from writing and physics analysis to teamwork and problem-solving.
Lucas Gillispie, a former biology teacher in coastal Pender County in North Carolina, is a leader in this national movement. He helped create a language arts curriculum tied to World of Warcraft, and he launched a grant program for local teachers to incorporate Minecraft into their classes.
He notes that the fast-paced, globally connected world of digital learning lets educators build new career paths and emerge as leaders, no matter where they work or what their job titles are. And that is exactly the kind of versatility teachers are trying to spark in their students through gaming.
But what about parents, who may feel clueless and confused about the value of digital games? Ms. Cloud and Mr. Gillispie say the answer is simple: Play the games with your children.
“Just pay attention and be willing to set aside those tired stereotypes,” said Mr. Gillispie, now an instructional technology coordinator for the 8,000-student Pender County schools. “We’ve come a long way since Pac-Man.”
But some gaming experts say educators should be cautious when harnessing commercial games for educational purposes.
“A commercial game is necessarily designed with entertainment as its primary goal,” said Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
While commercial games may make it easy for educators to capture students’ attention, he said, “if there’s too much extrinsic motivation”—that is, motivation that does not come from the learning itself but from the game instead—”in the long run, it can send a message that [the learning] is something that you should always be bribed to do, and it’s not worth doing for its own sake.”
In addition, games like World of Warcraft require a significant amount of time to learn how to play, which may not be the best use of students’ time, said Mr. Dede.
“The results would have to be pretty dramatic for me to say, ‘Wow, this is worth doing.’ I wonder if there wouldn’t be something else … that could engage the student, maybe not in the same way, but just as much, that would be more closely related to the academic learning,” he said.
Pender County’s Mr. Gillispie, 37, grew up playing computer games. He enjoys talking with his high school students about gaming, and it was a student who introduced him to online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, often known as “WoW.”
WoW players create an avatar who completes quests in the fantasy realm of Azeroth. They choose a profession, join guilds, and ally themselves with one of two warring factions—the Alliance or the Horde—then face creatures such as dwarfs, orcs, and trolls. Players interact with others around the world.
Mr. Gillispie’s love of gaming led him from the classroom to the district technology job, where he created a WoW club for at-risk middle school students in 2009. He teamed up with a New York teacher launching a similar club, and the two schools created a guild.
That experience evolved into the WoW curriculum, which is designed to meet some of the Common Core State Standards. For instance, one “quest” requires students to study riddle poetry and share their notes within the guild. They write their own riddle poems based on Azeroth, edit and critique each other, then take their riddles into the wider game world to challenge outsiders.
The free-form nature of gaming creates unexpected lessons, Mr. Gillispie pointed out.
Once, he said, a group of his students figured out how to cheat another player out of gold coins. The students were triumphant until Mr. Gillispie confronted them about their ethics. They agreed to return the money and write an apology—and they were delighted when the other player commended their honesty.
“It was a moment for us to teach some morality in the virtual world,” he said.
While WoW isn’t graphically violent, it does involve battles, which may make it inappropriate for younger students.
Enter Minecraft, a game that pops players into various environments and requires them to construct shelter from roving “creepers,” spiders, and zombies. There’s also a creative mode that lets players build without facing attacks.
“It is an infinite sandbox made up of Lego-like blocks,” said Ms. Cloud of Torrence Creek Elementary, who learned about the game from her students and her own children, ages 10 and 13.
Ms. Cloud, a self-professed “Star Wars” geek, started playing WoW a couple of years ago—at age 50—and grew to love it. A teacher’s assistant, she was assigned to run one of Torrence Creek’s two computer labs. When the PTA bought 60 iPads, Ms. Cloud said, “it was love at first sight.”
When she announced the Minecraft club at the start of this school year, the 60 slots were filled in two days—with almost 40 more students on the waiting list. It’s an after-school club, but she is talking to classroom teachers about ways to use the game in lessons.
For instance, she has her older students research North Carolina landmarks and build them to scale in Minecraft.
Sam Gilbert, a 4th grader, has built a model of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. And on a recent afternoon, 2nd grader Ross Dorfman was tunneling deep into his world, while 3rd grader Maddie Kester built a house of diamonds.
Maddie said that when she’s waiting for dinner at home, she asks to use her parents’ iPad to play Minecraft.
“It makes time go by fast,” she said.
Ms. Cloud calls that “flow,” a total absorption that characterizes people playing challenging computer games. “If we can turn this in a way to take it and make it our own, there’s no limit to what they can do,” she said.
The best games, whether digital or physical, motivate players to master skills, said Tim Chartier, an associate professor of math at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. Classroom math, on the other hand, can seem painfully abstract.
Mr. Chartier taught a session on math and pop culture for the Charlotte Teachers Institute in North Carolina, which brought together K-12 teachers from public and private schools in the state. During one class, he mentioned that Angry Birds, a popular video game that involves catapulting cartoon birds at pigs, uses a parabola without air resistance for the red birds’ trajectory.
Kristianna Luce, a math teacher at North Mecklenburg High School in Huntersville, N.C., seized on that remark and started working Angry Birds into her algebra classes. Mr. Chartier built on her work to create a blog and a webinar on Angry Birds and algebra.
The dynamic nature of video games entices students in a way that simply working toward a grade may not, Mr. Chartier said.
“Self-motivation does a lot to keep people moving forward,” he said.