Louisville Educators Use Games for Learning

Louisville Educators Use Games for Learning

Written by Squire Greene

When we hear about gaming in mainstream media, most often it is either being pitched as a commodity or used as scapegoat to explain larger, more complex societal problems. Games have been stigmatized by many people over the last few decades as a corrupting influence on young people, whether it be the fictional link between Dungeons &Dragons and demonic worship or the explicit content of video games like Grand Theft Auto. Gaming is rarely treated in popular culture as more than a waste of time, a leisure activity for children, or the obsession of a basement-dwelling momma’s boy. However, that is beginning to change. Both video and tabletop games are increasingly being accepted socially as evidenced by a growing number of gaming events and game-centric entertainment, but even more interestingly games are finding their way into other parts of our modern society as well, including education. Surprisingly using games for learning is not a new idea.

Tabletop games have always been used as educational tools. Arguably, their primary purpose in our culture is not only leisure activity, but a tool for socialization and education. Children in the ancient Middle East and Africa played a game we now call Mancala. This game, originally played on the ground instead of a board taught children to plant parallel rows of crops and to avoid placing too many competing seeds in the same hole. Likewise, the game Morabaraba taught children of ancient pastoral communities how to herd sheep. However, we don’t need to look to the past for examples of how games are being used in education. Gaming clubs and after school groups are growing in popularity in our community, and some local teachers have even begun to integrate board games into their lesson plans.

Patch Con at the Cabbage Patch Settlement House
Children play games on a field trip to a local game store during Patch Con.

Recently, I was privileged to take part in a Spring Break Game Camp at the historic Cabbage Patch Settlement House in Old Louisville. This program, the brainchild of Patch employee, CJ Duffett, took CJ’s love for gaming and integrated it into a camp where the kids were exposed to all types of tabletop games. Ten kids, from ages 8-12, were taught a wide variety of games, exposed to industry professionals, and instructed on how to build their own games.

“From it all, they learned good sportsmanship,and the difference between cooperative and competitive play,” said CJ. “It reinforced their math and reading skills, and challenged their logical and strategic thinking. All under the guise of fun.”

Cabbage Patch’s Spring Break Camp was such a success that they are planning a larger, expanded Summer Camp in July where the kids may even be challenged to design a game of their own. 

Don Bacon
Don Bacon, a teacher at Iroquois High School, in the art room with the closest thing to a D&D monster he could find.

However, Cabbage Patch is far from the only place using gaming to connect and educate children in our community. Don Bacon, a Social Studies teacher at Iroquois High School, has a rotating group of 15-20 students that stay after school on Fridays to play in his 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons game. He has had so much success and connected so well with these students, he even occasionally has graduates come back for a session or two. Don  stresses the positive socialization that takes place in his D&D group. He noticed when he started his campaign his students thought that “they were all individual characters that were doing their own things,” but they quickly had to learn to work cooperatively as difficulty ramped up deeper into the game. He said veteran members of his group now take new students aside, help them build their characters, and learn the rules. These students have become “social ambassadors” and integrate new members into the group.

Greg Korchnak
Greg Korchnak, a science teacher at KCD, uses Power Grid in the classroom to teach students about energy, consumption, and supply and demand.

After school gaming programs are also available at other local schools as well. Greg Korchnak, an eighth grade teacher at Kentucky Country Day, also runs a Tuesday afternoon gaming club. His game club consists of 3-9 students between fifth and eighth grade and focuses mainly on board and card games. Greg said the students in his club have learned a whole variety of vocabulary and agrees with Don that gaming provides a safe environment for children to experiment socially. Greg’s passion for games as a teaching tool is evident; he seems unable to contain his excitement for the topic. He is even taking gaming education one step further and bringing it into his classroom. He has designed a unit for his students around the game Power Grid. In this game players are in charge of running a power company, which opens the door for many educational opportunities about the nature of fossil fuels, economics, and planning infrastructure.

Power Grid
A setup for Power Grid in the classroom.

These educators all have one thing in common: they understand the opportunity games can provide for both social and academic development. Tabletop games reach a different crowd of kids, maybe not talented in sports or music, but with the exception of chess, rarely get serious consideration. Gaming clubs, like the ones Don, Greg, and CJ run, allow students to build a positive bond with their institutions. This is important. Young people who have positive experiences at school tend to show up more often and get better grades. They also remember the positive experiences they’ve had and take them into adulthood. Personally, my vocabulary would be much smaller without the games, like D&D and Magic: the Gathering, that filled my youth. I learned a lot about percentages from a 20-sided die, and tabletop gaming helped this shy kid connect with his friends. Games do not deserve the stigma they often receive in some media, but instead a place in our culture as tools for both socialization and education.

Nerd Louisville spoke with Don and Greg during Episode 12 of our podcast. You can hear them talk about gaming & education directly by using the player below. 

Squire Greene

Squire manages Book and Music Exchange on Bardstown Road. They carry a wide selection of used and new board games. He also runs a weekly board game meetup at Kaiju, Mondays from 8pm-12am.