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I love to play games. As social creatures, most people do as well, as games foster interaction with others. Gaming speaks to the child in each of us, and allows us to engage with others in unique ways. Playing games brings us excitement and happiness, but also encourages competition and sportsmanship. As high school chemistry teachers, we can become so preoccupied with teaching to the standards, focusing on curriculum, and preparing for standardized tests that we may forget that learning should also be fun. For all these reasons, teachers should play more games with their students.

Why gaming?

There is a reason why the offices at Google come equipped with foosball tables, video game systems, board games, and ping-pong tables. Google knows that happy employees are more productive and positive. Why can’t classrooms be more like this? The world of education has become so serious and rigid that it’s easy to forget to teach our students that our content areas are compelling, exciting, and worthy of their passion.

As a content area teacher, there are many types of games you can play with your students. They all have great benefits, but I want to focus on one type that I think many teachers overlook: board/card games. Yes, I know that many educational board games have received a bad rap over the years, and rightly so. Many of these so-called games are nothing more than flashcards or review questions presented as a roll-and-move-your-token exercise in boredom.

Luckily for us, the world of gaming (educational gaming included) is experiencing a renaissance. The board/card games that I’d like to discuss are very different. These modern board/card games go beyond rolling dice and moving a token. Many educational products approach gaming from this new perspective as well. Some drive students to make decisions and then confront the consequences of those decisions. They might prompt students to think critically and make connections with the content. Others encourage collaboration by pitting the students against the board game itself, instead of against each other.

As an avid gamer myself, I suspected that gaming in my classroom could engender the excitement, creativity, and entertainment that my students were hungry for. I went on a search for chemistry-related learning/review games that fall under this “modern” description. To my dismay, I discovered that the gaming renaissance had not yet reached the world of chemistry education. Relatively few of the games I found provided the challenge and intellectual stimulation I wanted for my students. I realized that if my students and I needed a product that didn’t exist, I would have to create it. And so, I became a game maker.

I’ve watched my students reap the benefits of gaming in my own classroom, but maybe you’re still not convinced. On the basis of my observations, here are the five most compelling reasons for you to consider adding board/card games to your teaching repertoire:

  1. Students can overcome intimidation while practicing skills and having fun. Learning something new is often overwhelming for students, and the joy of playing a game lessens the intimidation of learning a new concept. Educational games create an environment where students use content-specific vocabulary and apply subject-specific concepts as they play. While playing an educational game, students have the opportunity to practice lessons taught in the class in a non-threatening and fun environment. For example, in Ion: A Compound Building Game, students score points by creating neutral ionic compounds. Participants practice balancing charges while reviewing topics such as ion nomenclature—all while playing a game! As students play games, they forget they are learning chemistry and focus on using their knowledge and skills to win!

  2. Gaming reinforces that it’s OK to fail. We all have a fear of failing—it’s human nature. But in the artificial world of gaming, failing becomes less scary. For example, look at the game Angry Birds! I failed at that game more times than I can count, but I kept playing because failing actually increased my motivation to win. In academics, failure is often treated as a “worst case” scenario, to be avoided at all costs. For years, I have been battling this mindset with my students. Games teach us that failure is acceptable as long as we learn something and try again. Jane McGonigal, a world-renowned game designer, contends that we are more willing to take chances, rebound after failure, and try again when we play games. If you have not watched her TED talk, I highly recommend that you check it out. According to Dr. McGonigal, games create a safe place for risk-taking and failure.

  3. Playing games reminds us that there are consequences to our actions. As students play a game, they learn that they must accept the consequences of their choices and actions. In one game I designed, Chemistry: An Atom Building Game, players answer questions to gain “quark points” in their quest to build the largest atom. Students use their accumulated points to buy chemistry cards or subatomic particle cards. Both types of cards have a function in the game, but only the correct balance of each card will ensure victory. Players need to decide how many of each card they need to complete the tasks necessary for building their atom. If players don’t strategize and plan effectively, they may end up with an excess or lack of cards. If they buy too many of one type, they have to deal with that consequence and find a way to fix it.

  4. Gaming creates a collaborative environment. Many modern board games require students to work together to defeat the game. In most of these games, a player assumes the role of a character with special abilities, and one of the secrets to winning is that all players must learn how to work together to succeed. Games like Pandemic and Forbidden Island (both designed by Matt Leacock) create a collaborative gaming experience — all the players share the exhilaration of victory or the disappointment of losing. Meltdown (another game I designed) is a cooperative chemistry game in which students adopt the roles of nuclear power plant employees (nuclear technician, nuclear scientist, etc.). By correctly answering questions, they gain control rods, which are used to control the rate of fission by absorbing neutrons in the reactor core. Players must work together to keep the core under control and avoid a meltdown. Success or failure is shared by the team.

  5. Playing together improves social interaction. Games provide much-needed social interaction for this generation of students. Adolescents and young adults are very comfortable with text messaging and using social media for communication and sharing life events. In contrast, this type of gaming requires students to interact with others in a face-to-face setting and communicate effectively. Playing games reinforces vital social skills such as taking turns, winning or losing graciously, treating others with respect, and in some games, working together. In addition, as students prepare to enter the world of post-secondary education and work, any opportunity to practice eye contact and respectful debate is valuable!

Where do I go from here?

If you’d like to “get your game on” in the classroom, check out the great chemistry-themed games listed at the end of this article. You can find most of them on Amazon or in educational supply catalogs. Before bringing a board game into class, I recommend that you try it out at home first. Get your colleagues or friends together and have a chemistry game night. If you don’t find a game interesting, fun, or easy to play, then chances are that neither will your students. Not every game is for everyone, and some people don’t like to play board games. As many teachers know, one particular teaching method may not reach all students.

As you begin to integrate games in your classroom, you will probably realize that students are using gaming skills during many of the activities you already do. For instance, during group work, teachers encourage students to take turns talking rather than interrupting, speaking respectfully to group members, and using time wisely. While playing games, these skills are also helpful, as students socialize, take turns, speak respectfully to other players, and keep the momentum of the game moving forward.

You will discover that other classroom activities and skills you teach (or could teach) are helpful stepping-stones to gaming. Many of the critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills required during lab work translate well during board game play. As you lead discussions or conduct lectures in your classroom, you might consider discussing the biographies of any scientists who are featured in classroom games. Emphasizing the positive qualities these scientists exhibited while persevering in their pursuit of excellence helps to make chemistry more “human” and also reinforces character traits that our students will need as adults (and as game players).

What if I have a difficult, boisterous, or lower-ability class?

If the suggestions above sound too demanding for the abilities of the students in your class, don’t lose hope. If your students require more remediation in social etiquette, you might help them list the qualities that make others enjoyable to be around (of course, these qualities are needed for successful gaming sessions, well-run classrooms, and success in life). You might consider starting them off with more simplified board games (perhaps ones from their childhood) to reinforce game-playing skills. They can also create checklists for self-monitoring or monitoring their peers as they play — or you could supply a checklist for them to use. Once you present your class with the possibility that their good behavior and manners might lead them to longer gaming sessions that will not only be fun, but also potentially improve their grades, many students will be more than cooperative!

Modifying the rules and/or structure of chemistry board games lessens pressure on lower-achieving students as well. You know your students best. If you believe a particular rule or element of the game will create frustration or annoyance, make changes or simplify what you don’t like. Remember, the idea is to encourage risk-taking, social skills, and collaboration. However you introduce gaming in your classroom, the most important message you will impart to your students is that learning can be interactive and fun!

Great chemistry-themed board games

I hope that you will give board/card games a second chance. They have much more to offer than just a way to pass the time. While students will not learn chemistry by playing a game, they can definitely reinforce subjects and skills covered in the classroom. Allowing students the time to be themselves and play a game can go a long way in creating a positive and productive class.

Here are some games that are worth checking out*:

  • From Elementally Fun Games, LLC
    Chemistry: An Atom Building Game
    Meltdown: A Cooperative Chemistry Review Game
    Molecules: A Chemistry Card Game

  • From Dice Hate Me
    Compounded—Better Gaming Through Chemistry

  • From Genius Games
    Ion: A Compound Building Game

  • From Inside the Box Games
    Molecular—A Strategic Chemistry Tile Game

*AACT does not officially endorse the games listed here.

Photo credits:

Game Cards and Game Board - Laurie Dulek