Ten years after he left Zack Gilbert’s sixth-grade classroom, Mitchell Zook ran into his former teacher at the Illinois State Alumni Center. They began talking about Civilization, a computer game Gilbert, M.S. ’07, used for one of his social studies lessons.
“Not only did Mitchell remember the game, but he recalled choosing to make his pyramid out of limestone, avoided building it near the river so it didn’t flood, and even that he chose the western side of the plateau,” Gilbert said.
He was just beginning to integrate gaming into his curricula when he began his master’s program at Illinois State. He centered his research on the effectiveness of games, playful learning, and the potential for knowledge acquired while playing to be stored in students’ long-term memory. Over time, exchanges like the ones with Zook have become commonplace.
Gilbert taught at Parkside Junior High School in Normal for much of his career before joining Metcalf Laboratory School at Illinois State three years ago. His classroom is adorned with science fiction fantasy memorabilia, a 70-inch flat screen TV, 20 laptops, an Xbox one, two Nintendo Switches, and countless board games, which his fellow teachers and preservice interns borrow for their own in-class activities.
The materials are a part of his curricula, and Gilbert also uses them in game club, an after-school program he started at Metcalf. The bimonthly, 90-minute gathering is a great socialization space for students that has served as a mini learning lab for Gilbert.
“Game club has been one of the best places to try out a game’s effectiveness for teaching standards,” Gilbert said. “For teachers who have an administration that is leery of the approach to integrate games, this becomes a safe place to have the students test them out and demonstrate their value.”
Max Miller, one of Gilbert’s sixth-grade students, said he learned to play Settlers of Catan in game club before it was used in class, and he was able to help others during the lesson.
“It’s about learning how to trade and how to use your abilities,” Miller said. “So there’s supply and demand and cause and effect. If you trade a resource, what’s your impact on the other person and what do you get back?”
Assessing a game’s value is determined not only by what the students will learn, but if the game will keep them motivated. Gilbert said that one of the things he is always evaluating about a game is its flow, a concept first introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned expert in psychology.
“Good games are difficult, but it’s important to keep in mind the idea of flow,” he said.
“If it’s too hard or too easy, they’ll quit. How can we do something in the classroom that the student is so enamored with that they are doing and researching outside of the class’ requirements?”
When it comes to assessing students’ knowledge, Gilbert is open to multiple options. His students have used the coding application Scratch, games from the BrainPOP.com website, movies, mind maps, and others to demonstrate what they’ve learned.
“I’m trying to get to a point today where I can put the onus on the students to where I can say ‘Here’s the problem. What are you going to use and how are you going to solve it?’” he said.
Gilbert’s willingness to take risks was one of the reasons Metcalf Principal Amy Fritson Coffman was excited to bring him to the school.
“Zack is an idea person and those ideas are always coming, which makes talking about possibilities in education an exciting conversation,” Fritson Coffman said.
Outside the classroom, Gilbert has published his work on setting up an effective game club and how to thoughtfully select and integrate games in the classroom. He also started the EdGamer podcast, which at one point was the longest-running show of its kind dedicated to games and learning. Though the show’s run ended a few years back, he put together more than 150 episodes. He interviewed pioneers in the games and learning field, including James Paul Gee.
Gilbert’s prominence and expertise has afforded him opportunities to present at over a dozen conferences, including SXSW EDU, Lucas Education Foundation, and the Erasmus Plus professional development initiative in Trani, Italy.
He also is a strong advocate for the incorporation of esports in K–12 education. In addition to coaching several teams through the Illinois High School esports Association (IHSEA), he has served as a mentor and leader in the group’s efforts. After witnessing the success of the IHSEA, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) tabbed Gilbert to serve on the advisory committee of its newly formed esports initiative.
“It’s an exciting development to officially add this to high school sports. However, now we need rules and regulations for each game,” he said. “It’s almost like track and field. All games are part of it, but there are guidelines for each individual category for which you are competing.”
Gilbert said many organizations, including State Farm Insurance Co., are sponsoring professional esports games across the country, and most of the players are age 15-25. For perspective on the size of the industry, the U.S. gaming market includes almost 180 million players who spent over $30 billion last year, making it the world’s second largest market after China.
Ohio State built a dedicated arena in 2018 and implemented a campus-wide, interdisciplinary esports curricula for both undergraduate and graduate students. Gilbert believes Illinois State could similarly benefit from a centralized center for playful learning and esports that engages students from all academic programs.
For example, he said that in the School of Communication, faculty may be interested in connecting esports to social media; in the College of Business, there may be someone who would want to explore the industry as a new business model; and in exercise science, there is likely a researcher who would be passionate about creating a workout program specific to esports athletes. And of course, in teacher education, Gilbert believes there are faculty interested in examining the value of playful learning.
“The after-school thing works, the pedagogy is strong, and the whole enterprise around esports is a booming industry that is growing in higher education,” he said. “There’s a whole field of study that I’d love to see Illinois State adopt. I think we’re primed for it.”