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If you think back to your physics class back in high school, you might remember (or conveniently “archived”) a bunch of formulas, calculations and headaches.

Physics can be hard to learn, and until you get up to the level where you’re discovering new particles, might not be the most fun or interesting. But if Oregon Trail can make a whole generation enjoy learning about Conestoga wagon trains, just think what adding a video game element to a dynamic science will do.

Games in the Classroom
Now you’re learning with portals

Some high school students are lucky enough to be experiencing that kind of class right now. Game developer Valve recently launched the “Teach With Portals” program, which is an initiative to bring physics-based Puzzle Game, Portal 2, into the classroom with the aim to teach the science in a hands-on, virtual environment.

The program allows teachers to download an educational version of the game platform Steam, which includes Portal 2 and Puzzle Maker, as well as suggested lesson plans for teachers in other subjects. There are already some crowdsourced lessons in math and physics, with additional categories for game design, chemistry, and language arts. The lessons include activities such as having students perform experiments to explore the nature of in-game gravity, momentum and other physics concepts. Some lessons also call for students to design their own puzzles and challenge each other.

As part of the lesson plan submission process, users have to give some information – including the school they work for, what subject they teach and what education standards the lesson fulfills. Then, each lesson goes through a thorough review process. This means students can’t design a really simple lesson to trick their teacher into giving them an easy grade, but they can finally tell their parents they’re playing video games for homework!

According to a recent Wired article, the program has received immensely positive feedback from educators.”A teacher can use an aspect of the game for demonstration purposes, or have students use it more interactively,” said Leslie Redd, director of educational programs at Valve, who was quoted in the article. “The lesson plans on the website are created by educators and are aligned to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Teachers in the initial beta test have told us that they use the Puzzle Maker to introduce, support and supplement their students’ learning.”

Education Gamification

You might be a little skeptical of a full on trend toward using video games in the classroom. After all, Portal 2 has the advantage of being inherently educational. But Valve’s new program isn’t the only example of innovators using the concepts and structures of video games to motivate or teach students.

ClassRealm is another educational gaming platform that originally began as a KickStarter project, according to an Indianapolis Star article. Rather than help students learn a particular subject, this game focuses on shaping how a student acts throughout their day at school. ClassRealm allows students to create a virtual avatar, which gains levels and earns achievements based on classroom behavior and performance. At the basic level, ClassRealm is a management tool. Imagine being able to level up for doing homework or getting achievements for hardly ever being late to class. On a deeper level, it’s a way for teachers to engage students in their learning by providing immediate feedback for classroom accomplishments.

The concept of “gamification” – the idea of using video game principles for everyday life – is not just a new fad; it’s something that many experts believe has real power to change the way people live. For example, gamification thought leader Gabe Zichermann explained how incorporating video games in learning can make kids smarter in a TED Talk he gave last year. And another TED speaker explained how gaming can create a better world. See? All those online games you’ve been playing may not be as wasteful as you thought!

When you really think about it, this approach makes a lot of sense. Video games provide immediate rewards, even if they’re just virtual rewards. They’re naturally motivational because players can immediately tell whether they’ve done a good or a bad job. That’s not something we always have access to in the real world. Add gamification to the mix, and you get a steady stream of feedback. Submit a resume to a new job and get an interview? Give yourself +1 job hunting. Go on a date and the guy calls you for a second night out? +1 relationship skill. You get the idea.

Just imagine being able to end every year with a list of accomplishments and a splash screen saying, “A Winner Is You.” We could all use a little gamification.

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