Guest Blog – Video Games for Education

March 25, 2010 at 6:52 am 8 comments

This is a guest blog written by my 16-year-old son. He’s a sophomore, and currently plans on majoring in Game Design. He’ll be back from time to time to offer the perspective of a high school student on education. Please leave feedback by commenting on the post – we’d both love to hear what you have to say.

I know, it’s pretty unusual to see the words video games and education on the same line. Many people see video games as murder simulators that cause shootings, lead to unsocial behaviors, and the main cause for the loss of interest and effort in school and work, turning the young-male gamers into a bunch of zombies. This is pretty much as far from the truth as possible.

In truth, games are all about learning, and the once teenage-boy dominated area is now almost split between female and male gamers, with everyone from toddlers to senior citizens playing games.

The main purpose of playing a video game is to have fun. But what is fun? The definition of fun, given by Raph Foster, is, “positive feedback given by the brain for cognitive learning, the process of building schemata for coping with the world.” So, having fun is basically learning stuff that is applicable world. So, we can use the substitution property to change a previous statement: “The main purpose of playing a video game is to learn stuff that is applicable in the real world.” Does this sound like something else you might be familiar with?

“The main purpose of SCHOOL is to learn stuff that is applicable in the real world.” So, we’ve basically stated that video games and school have the same primary goal. At this point, you might be thinking, “How is anything you can learn in a video game applicable in real life?”

I’m going to use the most played video game today to answer your question. FarmVille. The game is actually packed full of useful skills and lessons. For those of you who don’t know, FarmVille is a social game on Facebook, in which you must run a farm: planting, tending crops, harvesting trees, caring for animals, designing your farm, etc. For starters, the game teaches money management skills: for example, I realized that if you spend all of your money plowing your land, you won’t have any left for planting crops, which means you can’t earn money, which means you’ve pretty much failed as a farmer. One also learns teamwork, as you have to work together, sending gifts and fertilizing each other’s land for bonus coins. Time management is also a big lesson which you learn once you realize planting a six hour crop at eight in the afternoon will require you to harvest it at two in the morning. The list of lessons goes on, and while you learn them, you also see farms from a whole new perspective and where your food comes from. And all games are like this, be it a sci-fi shooter like Halo or a fantasy MMO like World of Warcraft (if you think you have a game that you think doesn’t teach or work out your brain, please comment so I can prove you wrong).

Video games are set up very similarly to a class. Both games and classes continuously introduce new information, give scores based on mastery, get more difficult with time, test knowledge of an area with a test (a boss battle), test mastery on the entire class/game with a final (a final boss battle), give clearly defined goals which the student/player must reach (whether it’s save the princess or solve for x), etc.

Video games also fill in the gaps where school seems to fall short. For many classes, the learning is basically the teacher telling/giving you facts, and you memorizing the facts. That is not learning. Learning is gaining information/skills interactively through trying and failing, not being told what to do people who have already learned it (or were also told). Real learning allows for actual retention and understanding. That’s how children learn, that’s how early man learned, and that’s how one is supposed to learn. Video games allow for failure and allow you to play around with things. If you are shot, you are given another chance: you learn from your mistake, fix it the next time, and make a lot more progress. If games were like some classes, you’d memorize the exact route, enemy locations, and puzzle solutions before playing, and the playing would mainly be executing (you don’t learn anything!). The main point is, it’s hard to memorize a list of polyatomic ions in chemistry, but it’s easy to remember the huge library of lessons which a gamer pulls from throughout the game.

Another major problem of the traditional class is progression. Most teachers start the semester/year with a schedule of tests, homework assignments, what they are going to teach, and when they’re going to teach it. If a student fails a test and does not understand the unit or section, he/she does not get a chance to learn from his/her failure (the real kind of learning), and the class moves on, new topics that require previous knowledge quickly pile on the student who still hasn’t learned the foundation for these new topics. On the other hand, a student who has mastered a topic soon becomes bored and unmotivated, and new unknown material may be far off. With video games, the computer can slow down to give the student a chance to learn, or speed up if the player has mastered the certain topic. Basically, the computer can teach the individual student with a personalized class: reviews of older trouble-spots, a perfect learning curve fitted for the individual, constant feedback of how the student is doing (rather than after assignments or entire chapters have been completed), and the use of the techniques which students have learned from the best.

Another major advantage of learning through video games is the fact that video games are games! I don’t know anyone who would rather read a textbook than play a game. The many students that find class daunting, boring, or difficult can find themselves immersed in the world of the video game. Imagine all of the people who could learn subjects they could have never imagined understanding through video games. We need to see past the term “video games” and see them for what they really are: “digital interactive learning environments” (or DILEs). We just need to change what it is the player learns in these digital interactive learning environments.

The advantages that video games have as teaching tools go far beyond the limits of a blog post. They allow for actual learning by allowing failure and avoiding common teaching pitfalls, like lecturing and memorizing assignments, which tend to drive many students away or make them think that the things they are learning are not important (as they can just look it up anyhow). All video games teach (they teach so well, we don’t even realize we are learning since our definition of learning has changed over the years); once we let them (DILEs) into the education system (or even outside), millions of students will excel at subjects like math, science, English, history, etc. They could be used during summer, as supplementary material, or as entire classes if my ideas turn out to be correct (and we will never know until we try).

Teachers should look at video games and try to change things in class to model the learning structure of video games until we have reached a day where education leaders have accepted gaming as learning: more hands-on experiences, less lecturing, no memorizing (anything you have to memorize is basically useless, especially since you don’t even learn it in the first place), more individual “check-ups”, looser schedules, and maybe even games kids can play in the classroom in which they learn and discuss what they learned (don’t tell them!) And if you think it is impossible to teach real classes in a game, it is not. Attempts have already started to occur (Example: Florida Virtual School teaches a US history class in a video game in which you must prove a conspiracy). The facts are in front of us: video games teach what they teach better than anyone/anything else ever could. It is difficult to learn in the modern classroom that doesn’t allow failure, interactivity, engagement, or feedback (until you see that giant F on your paper). The kids who don’t do well in these classes aren’t stupid – they just can’t learn by the techniques used for hundreds of years.

This is the first in a series of guest blogs my son will write to share a high school student’s perspective on education. They will appear every so often on Thursdays. Please leave your feedback as a comment, or drop me a line through the contact page on my website. If you have any questions, or if you have ideas for topics, just let us know.



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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tamera Fernandez  |  March 25, 2010 at 9:20 am

    This was a very well written and interesting blog. This is a concept that might just pan out in years to come. Of course any major change in the established, time-honored tradition is very slow in changing, but I believe an idea worth pursuing. I personally like to use the internet to find out about things I hear and spark an interest, put together a jigsaw puzzle online teaches hand-eye coordination, and other games that involve strategy, planning and calculations.

    Maybe you will grow up to be the person who creates the first video game classroom!! Who knows, but what ever you end up doing, don’t stop trying to change the status-quo and come up with new and inventive ways to engage our youth and get them ready to enter the world with confidence!

  • 2. Matthew Campbell  |  March 25, 2010 at 10:34 am

    As an instructor of game programming at Conestoga College here in Kitchener I completly agree with you. Games encourage us to relax and by relaxing we are able to learn better. It is a shame that a few bad games have spoiled the notion of video games for everyone. I have taught through games in both college and high school always with great success. Thank you for providing your views on this matter, we need more students like yourself who are willing to stand up for their own learning.

    In regards to you wishes to major in game design, may I provide some ideas for you. If you are looking at game programming (as opposed to the theoretical study of game theory), I would recommend spending some time learning either Python or XNA. Python is an open-source language that is excellent for game programming (through its library pygame). XNA is Microsoft’s game language and allows you to program games for the XBox (and sell them if you buy a membership). Both languages are quick to learn and easy to produce exciting 2D and 3D games in. Good luck!

  • 3. Yoon Soo Lim  |  March 25, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Hi! I’m a music teacher who uses Twitter for PD and saw your Dad’s tweet about your post. The title caught my eye so I wanted to read what you had to say.
    Good job! You made your points very well; I’ve enjoyed your post very much! (My students will also agree 100% with you).
    To start, let me just say – I love video games. I love the way games engage you, get you to think strategies, and the way you can collaborate with complete strangers. I also enjoy having conversations with my students about playing games and implementing some gaming into my music classes (Elite Beat Agents, DDR, Guitar Hero, Brain Age etc.for fun and introduction to actual lessons). I wished that more people will see importance of “play” (including gaming and actual play time outside) and that they would make more educational games.
    Well, recently I found one of those answers when I saw this TEDTalk post titled Gaming Can Make a Better World. I invite you to watch this interesting talk (20min) posted on my blog. I’d love to know what you think!
    Maybe you’ll be one of “those” people who will make a difference in education and gaming! 🙂
    ~Mrs. Lim ♬

  • 4. Joni Jordan  |  March 26, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Completely fascinating! I wonder if more teachers making this connection might help to keep boys in classes, reducing the current disparity between genders. Loved the point that learning should be fun, as it seems to be everywhere outside the academy.

    Looking forward to more! 🙂

  • 5. Ferd P. Sludge  |  March 26, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    When I was a youth, I spent most of my time building and playing with electronic devices. I preferred this to studying and doing homework and passing exams in school. I was more interested in learning every detail I could about electronics than studying what my teachers wanted me to learn.
    I managed to graduate from college, and started grad school, having a vague notion that I should continue in physics, since that was at the heart of evolving electronics technology. I got my first real job in electronics, and really enjoyed the work. I was finally learning practical skills that I could use. I tried to learn new skills from my co-workers. As I got into more interesting and challenging projects, I began to see myself applying what I had learned in school, as well as what I had learned in my hobby. I was combining school learning and hobby learning to create new inventions and concepts that had not been done before.
    I loved doing this, expanding the frontiers of science and engineering. But I realized that I did not have all the skills that I needed to do what I wanted to do. I became increasingly dissatisfied with my work, to the point where after a few years on the job, I quit and went back to school so I could learn the math, engineering, and physics fundamentals that I had ignored earlier in my education. My work experience had taught me that I did not know everything I needed to know, and it showed me what was missing from my school education.
    So, I went back to school again, this time repeating undergraduate engineering and math courses and taking graduate courses in engineering and physics. This time, I knew what I wanted to learn, and I was having fun doing it. I thoroughly enjoyed these times in school, seeing how what I was learning could be applied to my interests. My thesis was a combination of practical electronics, engineering principles and solid state physics theory. I had made a discovery that no one else had done. (I don’t think my major professor or my committee really understood it!)
    I wouldn’t have achieved this if I had not been intensely interested in electronics as a hobby. But neither would I have achieved this if I did not have the theoretical tools to do it.
    So, at least in my life, learning is having fun, but achieving requires the tools and skills learned from others to expand your capabilities.
    To this day, I have never regretted the benefits I derived from the synergy of practical creativity and schoolbook learning. When I get stuck trying to do something new, I still go back to school or read a book to get the tools that I need.
    I think you are right about using video games as learning tools. But where is the material coming from that you are going to teach? And who gets to decide what material should be taught? And then, most important to me, how is the student going to use what he has learned as he goes through life?
    I remember this from an otherwise boring “History of Civilization” class: “A wise man knows what he does not know.”

  • 6. Alfonso Gonzalez  |  March 27, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    I totally agree. I play WoW myself and would love to see more opportunities to bring gaming to my middle school Science classes to help my students learn. A game can provide feedback much better than I can! And talk about motivation. Now we just need to find a way to make it affordable for all our students!
    Twitter – @educatoral

  • 7. Sasha Anderson  |  April 12, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Great blog! I am impressed by your thoughts on the subject and I honestly think that education will greatly expand in that direction (perhaps with your help!). I do have to point out that most ‘boys’ I have seen play video games also use the internet for cheat codes and other help. Just a reminder that even with the wonderful gaming algorithms which promote players to use trial and error and learn independently, learners still find a way not to. We tend to be lazy even when we play video games.

  • […] talking about how education can be improved by incorporating elements of game design. He wrote a guest blog for me last year on video games in education.  Please leave feedback by commenting on the post – we’d both love to hear what you have to […]


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