Video Games & Education

“The real computer revolution hasn’t happened yet.” – Alan Kay ——— We say, maybe it’s waiting for fire and water to mix . . .


How are educators to deal with digital natives? Our students are now growing up fully immersed in technology with a hefty daily dose of video games. Is this as toxic as it seems? Are their attention spans really so short or are they merely dissatisfied with an educational system that is behind the times?


As digital natives ourselves, who have been recently trained as educators and technologists, we’ve been thinking about these questions. Can education be altered to fit the sensibilities of today’s students? Is there something to be gained by doing so? We feel technology has something new to bring to the table that would benefit students of any generation.

Many technologies are useful in education, but perhaps the greatest game changer is the video game. As 20-somethings there’s no denying that video games are engaging, and as educators we can take a step back and see a powerful, untapped potential there. Video games are all about challenge and mastery. Players want to learn as much as possible. They want to find everything, know everything, and do everything. With school – not so much. So we had to ask why.

Why don’t kids approach education the same way they approach video games? The real world is a wondrous place. It’s is full of beauty, adventure, danger, weirdness, surprises, secrets, and emotion. It’s hard to see that from inside the classroom without experiencing these things. But what if you could step outside the classroom and into the shoes of the incredible people you only read about in books. What if you were to explore darkest Africa with Livingston or even as Livingston? What if you could descend into the alien ocean with Cousteau, Ballard, or Cameron? What if you could break the WWII Enigma code with Turing and stop the wolf packs of submarines ravaging the shipping lanes? What if you could try to persuade William of Orange to take the throne of England? What if you could plan and direct the Apollo 11 moon landing? Reading books or watching a video about these things is great but you only participate in the sense of thinking about what you have seen. Only a video game will allow you to participate as an active player in these dramas. Your engagement and your stake in the events goes up dramatically when you are a part of them. Motivation is a great problem and perhaps even a deal breaker in education. Video games can help.

If students desired to master education as much as they desire to master video games, learning would suddenly become fascinating, exciting, and even satisfying. This is within reach. If a game could place you in the action and require the acquisition of real-world knowledge to succeed, it would provide the motivation, the relevance, and the experience conducive to learning. We want to harness the power of video games for education.

This is not a replacement for books, videos, lectures, writing, problem sets, labs, or projects. It’s a powerful, new tool to add to the arsenal. In fact, we believe experiencing a topic through a video game would spark interest in the rest of the arsenal and ignite a passion for learning.

Video games can give us an advanced way of learning. As a next step, they can even help us to think and create. We’re not talking about a computer thinking for us. We’re talking about a computer augmenting our own thinking process.

Computing can enhance our ability to think by simulating things and actions. Before, we were talking about learning within video games. Now, we are talking about students making video games themselves to help them visualize their ideas and show these ideas to others. 3D models can help visualize structure and computer programming can help visualize actions. These are combined in video games to form a powerful tool that seems almost magical. Not only can you imagine a castle, but you can walk through it with your friends and show them how the drawbridge works. You might be able to make a castle out of cardboard but you can’t walk through it and see how cavernous the great hall is or how tiny the people in the courtyard look from the high tower. Your drawbridge made out of popsicle sticks won’t obey the laws of physics as if it was made of giant timbers. Physics equations can, however, make your video game drawbridge strain against the massive chains that hold it.

The real world is complex and often hard to think about. Computer simulations can manage levels of complexity that would be hard to manage in our minds. The ideas are all ours, the computer doesn’t think for us, but it can keep track of things and do calculations rapidly. Motions of objects acted upon by multiple forces or the combined effects of inflation, interest rates, and taxes on our money are simple examples of this sort of thing. The computer is a tireless assistant that will do our bidding, but we have to be able to tell it how. We can learn by teaching the computer.

Scientists and engineers have long used simulations to help them understand and design things. Digital natives grew up using simulations in the form of video games. They have spent long hours learning the rules of the game which are often deliberately hidden and must be discovered. They didn’t complain and, in fact, were having intense fun. As long as it is ultimately possible to succeed, the harder the better. We think that if we can bring well-conceived educational materials to video games, the digital natives will show up as well, bringing their joy of gaming and their joy of discovery.

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