Starting from Scratch: Using gaming to teach social justice

Dr. George Noblit

The School of Education at UNC is dedicated to preparing educational leaders who are committed to values of equity and excellence. George Noblit, who teaches Social Justice in Education, believes that gaming is a tool that can be used to help students engage these issues.

The Social Justice in Education course examines how education can help create more fair and just societies, ultimately contributing to high-performing educational systems internationally. Students explore multiple perspectives on social justice; examine efforts at local, state, national, and global levels; and learn to articulate efforts in classrooms and schools with wider community initiatives. The course offers a thorough examination of the role of social justice in education. As Noblit explains, “Reducing inequalities requires working across sectors of life, and thus technology is now playing a major role in fostering access to knowledge and its interpretation.”

Students in the course develop knowledge of educative technologies as they work on social justice issues with the expectation that they will be able to use this knowledge to promote learning.

A game, you say?

According to Noblit, “Educational gaming involves both mastery learning and constructivist learning. Students will be asked to use a theory of how social justice-related knowledge, perspectives, dispositions, competencies and/or actions develop. These theories will become the basis of educational games that teams of students create.” Students will also develop games to teach specific content in P-12 curricula using Common Core Standards for use with future students.

The platform for game design is Scratch, a programming language that makes it easy to create interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art. Scratch is a product of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab and receives financial support from the National Science Foundation, Microsoft, Intel Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Google, Iomega and MIT Media Lab research consortia.

Why use Scratch?
Like Dr. Noblit, you can use Scratch to enhance learning in your classroom. Here are some key features that make it ideal for educational use:

  1. The Scratch platform does not require extensive programming knowledge, so teachers do not have to worry about a steep learning curve. Scratch users include both elementary and doctoral students along with many students who fall in between.
  2. Students who create games to teach content are more likely to retain the content themselves.
  3. Teachers and students can connect educational content from internet sources by inserting links into games they create.
  4. Over 2.8 million Scratch projects have been created to date, so users can browse through other projects to get ideas that promote learning. Design tutorials are also available to get new users started.
  5. Scratch is free and available to the public. Users can download the platform (on both PC and Mac operating systems) at

The Social Justice in Education course will culminate in a gaming evening where the games are played by others and assessed on the effectiveness of the game in teaching the content. Also, LEARN NC staff will review the games for possible inclusion as resources for parent, student, and teacher use.

Researcher bio:

Dr. George W. Noblit is the Joseph R. Neikirk Distinguished Professor of Sociology of Education. Since 1995 Dr. Noblit has been the series editor for Understanding Social Justice, Education and Policy (Hampton Press). He studies the various ways knowledge is constructed and how the competition over which knowledge counts constructs powers and difference. Through a study of school desegregation, he began a program of research on the social construction of race, using ethnographic research to study schools and other educational scenes. Dr. Noblit is intrigued with how knowledge—often taken as good in its own right—is implicated in creating the very problems it is asked to solve. He is coeditor of Late to Class: Social Class and Schooling in the New Economy (SUNY Press).

A full biography can be found on the UNC School of Education website.

Immersed online

Both teaching and learning are changing. As our society grows more digitized, so does our education. More digital tools are being promoted and incorporated in K-12 education, and more universities are offering more teacher education programs online. Though we recognize learning as a social act, it is not uncommon for learners in these environments to feel isolated and disconnected. Dr. Stephen Bronack, Associate Professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education and Executive Director of LEARN NC, has been working with and researching digital learning environments for many years. In a recent publication, he explored the role of immersive media in online education.

Immersive media

Immersive media allows for a deep sense of social or physical presence. This sense of presence can allow educators to incorporate powerful pedagogical practices in online learning environments. Some key types of immersive media being used in education are simulations, serious games, virtual worlds, and augmented reality.


Simulations are used to create an experience that is as realistic as possible but may be too difficult, too expensive, or too dangerous to physically experience. For instance, if a class is studying hurricanes, they may use a piece of software that enables them to manipulate weather scenarios to better understand meteorologic factors that impact hurricanes. This type of simulation would make an otherwise impossible experiment possible.

Serious games

These games are specifically designed and constructed for the purpose of training or learning specific content. These types of games are also referred to as educational games. These games may be used to teach the physics of electrostatics, as with the game Supercharged!, or to learn about biological processes of the human body, as with Immune Attack. In a previous post, we explored Dr. Anderson’s research into these types of games.

Virtual worlds

Virtual worlds are online social spaces where users represent themselves in various ways and interact with other individuals in the online space. Currently, in education, a program called Second Life is being explored and used as a virtual learning world. Whether it is serving as a virtual classroom space or a virtual representation of Shakespearean England, teachers and students are able to explore the created virtual world and interact with each other through avatars — digital representations of themselves.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality combines physical context with network-based information in order to provide an enhanced view of the world around us. New on the scene of education, augmented reality is not yet a commonly used thing in schools. A great example of an augmented reality application is Wikitude. Through the use of mobile devices, Wikitude creates a virtual overlay for the users physical surroundings with information from all over the web. One way to think about it is as curatorial comments for the world, not just pieces of art in a museum.

Teaching and learning in immersive media

While immersive media is exciting and new for education, Dr. Bronack points out that it is not the tools that are important, it is the pedagogical approaches that are used with these tools that are of the utmost significance. Dr. Bronack, along with many other scholars, identifies some of the most compelling pedagogical approaches employed with immersive media, including presence, immediacy, and immersion.

In immersive media, presence is created in multiple ways. There is an environmental presence, which refers to the degree and ways the digital space reacts to the presence of those participating in it. The interactions of those participants with each other through the digital space creates a social presence.

Immediacy plays a key role in creating a sense of proximity and fostering relationships. While individuals may be separated by a great physical distance, expedient and immediate reaction from individuals or software helps to break down the disconnected feeling that can often be associated with digital spaces.

Ultimately, immersion is created by the combination of physical and symbolic cues to create a realistic experience that causes the participant to willingly suspend disbelief that he or she is engaging in a mediated space. The participant simply becomes engulfed in the media.

So what?

With more education programs going online, it is imperative that we continue to explore the best possible ways to teach and learn in digital environments. Dr. Bronack reminds us that when it comes to teaching and learning in digital environments, it is the pedagogical approaches, not the tools in themselves, that are important. As such, it is imperative that we seek and use tools that allow us to employ pedagogical strategies that we know to be powerful.

Tips from Dr. Bronack

Don’t panic.
When it comes to technology in education, campfire horror stories and tall tales of a friend of a friend of a cousin seem to abound. Contrary to much of the folklore and popular news segments, incorporating new technologies into your classroom doesn’t mean changing everything you do. Just as you evolve your teaching style with every curriculum, available resources, and class of students, the same can be done with technology.
Allow yourself to explore.
Through some simple exploration online you can find communities of people who are eager to help teachers incorporate new technologies into their classroom. Engaging with these communities and exploring new technological tools will better prepare you to use technology in the classroom as well as give you some insight into what your students are talking about.
Recognize that students today have different expectations.
Today’s students are highly engaged in new technologies. Through this, they expect to engage in different ways in their learning. Sitting back and passively consuming information is not how they engage in learning in their personal lives and it is typically not what they want in their educational lives either. Today’s students prefer engaging in more self directed learning with constant and regular feedback.

Researcher bio

Dr. Stephen Bronack is Associate Professor and Executive Director of LEARN NC. His scholarship regarding the use of virtual worlds, simulations, games, and augmented reality is helping to guide the development of new educational systems and methods of instruction of the Journal of Virtual World Research and the International Journal of Gaming based on social and immersive media across the educational spectrum. Dr. Bronack also serves as associate editor of the International Journal of Virtual and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and also as a reviewer for journals such as Personal Learning Environments, and the International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Curriculum Development.

A full biography can be found on the LEARN NC website.

Don’t be afraid to play

Ever think of using video games in your teaching? It might seem a bit odd, or even outlandish, but recent studies have shown that using video games as a learning tool can promote higher-order thinking, increase the positivity of a learning environment, and decrease achievement gaps. Dr. Janice Anderson, assistant professor of science education at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, has been researching educational video games — Quest Atlantis, a 3D multi-player game, and Supercharged!, a 3D simulation game — as a resource to develop content knowledge for the past several years. Her research findings clearly suggest that video games increase students’ understanding and engagement with curricular content.

Dr. Anderson’s research

Dr. Janice Anderson

In Quest Atlantis players engage in a wide variety of quests, or adventures, that are focused on a variety of learning standards. Dr. Anderson researched the use of this game platform to support the instruction of water quality and ecosystems in three fifth-grade classrooms. Students in these classrooms engaged in a quest to identify some potential causes for a decrease of the fish population in a Quest Atlantis world. To do this the students had to interview game characters, take water samples, and analyze data in order to formulate a hypothesis about the fish population change. The students engaged in game play during 15-20 class periods lasting 45-60 minutes each. A comparison of pre-test and post-test scores as well as various forms of qualitative data showed significant learning gains. The game provided these students a context to engage and apply the content they were learning in the class.

In Supercharged! players propel and navigate a spacecraft by controlling its electric charge. Dr. Anderson researched the use of this game in teaching electrostatics in an undergraduate physical science lab for pre-service elementary teachers. In this research Dr. Anderson studied a total of six laboratory classes: three that used Supercharged! as a learning tool and three that used more traditional laboratory experiments and observations. There were a total of two lab periods, of two hours apiece, devoted to electrostatics.

As with the fifth-graders, the pre-service teachers who engaged in learning with the video game showed greater gains from their pre-test to post-test scores than the students who had a more traditional lab experience. Additionally, the students who played Supercharged! demonstrated a greater qualitative understanding of electrostatics than the students who did not have the opportunity to engage in the video game. Interestingly, however, when asked how much they had learned, the students who played Supercharged! rated their learning lower than the students in the traditional lab. Even though these students did demonstrate greater learning gains, they may not have seen the video game as a learning experience.

In Dr. Anderson’s studies, the students’ content learning was enhanced by the use of immersive video game environments. The students who used the video games as a learning tool showed a statistically significant increase from pre-test to post-test scores. In addition, the students’ conversational and conceptual understanding of the topics was enhanced by the use of the video games. Dr. Anderson’s research clearly suggests that video games can lead to higher learning outcomes.

Tips from Dr. Anderson

Video games work best as learning tools when they are coupled with inquiry-based, hands-on experiences.
Dr. Anderson’s use of these games was coupled with inquiry-based learning. The games create a context for the content to be engaged. It is the content instruction that the games are embedded in that give them meaning. The games are just one piece of the learning experience. It is important not to think of video games as a primary mode of instruction; they are instead a potentially powerful learning tool.
Don’t base what your students can do with video games on your own experiences with video games.
When many educators think about video games, they may think about early video game systems, such as Atari or the first generation Nintendo. The early video games, such as Pong or Mario Bros, were more skill-based, while more modern games rely more on critical thinking. Modern educational games can give students a type of hands-on experience that games of the past did not. Additionally, they can play a critical role in engaging students in classroom content.

So what?

Video games are in no way the magic bullet for teaching 21st-century students, but the research has shown that they can be a powerful teaching tool. There are more educational video games being developed every day, so don’t be afraid to play.

Web resources


A Vision of K-12 Students Today
Students today are unlike any previous generation. It is imperative that educators understand the uses and motivational potential of technology in the classroom. This Youtube video was created to inspire educators to think about how they might be able to harness technologies in their own practice.

General information

Wired blog posts
Archived posts on education from Wired’s video game blog.
Scholarly articles on digital games
From Digiplay Initiative, the blog of prominent video game researcher Jason Rutter.


The Education Arcade
The Education Arcade’s mission is to promote learning through game play by demonstrating the social, cultural, and educational potentials of video games and by initiating new game development projects, coordinating research efforts, and informing public conversations about the uses of video games in the educational setting.
Learning Games Network
The Learning Games Network is a network of scholars, teachers, producers, and game designers focused on the development and distribution of new games centered on learning sciences across content areas.
Digital Game Research Association (DiGRA)
DiGRA is dedicated to advancing the study of digital games fostering the development of research practices and standards in the field.

A few popular educational games

Immune Attack
Immune Attach is a 3D game where players navigate through blood vessels and connective tissue to retrain the immune cells of an ill patient. In the game, players learn about the biological process of the human body to detect and fight infections.
Quest Atlantis
Quest Atlantis is a 3D multi-user gaming environment that focuses on a wide variety of curricular standards. Each quest within the game is focused on a different standard. Quest Atlantis has partnered with North Carolina to develop quests that are specifically tied to North Carolina curriculum standards.
SURGE is a 2D game where players navigate a spaceship and apply physics principles to achieve an objective.

Researcher bio

Dr. Janice L. Anderson teaches elementary education science courses in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Dr. Anderson’s research interests include the use of educational games to teach science content, the impact of gender and race on students’ construction of scientific knowledge, supporting students in scientific inquiry, explanation and argumentation and the design and enactment of science curriculum materials.

A full biography can be found on the School of Education website.