George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Cameron Baker, a game designer focused on "creating meaningful, engaging, provocative, and captivating experiences through strong, focused design and enticing story worlds."

As Jordan Shapiro said at the 2014 Global Education & Skills Forum:

Games are not just about entertainment and distraction anymore. We need to approach them as a particular kind of persuasion -- a particular kind of rhetoric. A particular way of looking at the world. A different way of thinking.

Well, Jordan pretty much hits the nail on the head.

Once seen as a form of entertainment or a way to pass the time, games are now becoming prevalent in every industry -- particularly in education. Everyone is catching on to the fact that games are engaging. Games are addictive. Educational. Motivational. Games are powerful tools for change and learning.

But what gives games these qualities? And what can educators learn from the gaming industry that they can apply to teaching?

Free to Learn, Free to Play

Games present users with a mechanic -- that is, a set outline of rules and dynamics that guide gameplay -- and as players invest more time in the mechanic, they get a stronger understanding for how it works and an increased proficiency at applying the mechanic.

Take Braid or Portal. Players are briefly told how the main mechanic works, and are then left to discover how to solve the puzzles using the mechanic. As they progress, the puzzles become harder and require more knowledge of the mechanic and its applications. Think of it like an understanding of Pythagoras' theorem -- students must first grasp the basics and then use their knowledge to explore and solve new and increasingly complex problems.

However, it could easily be argued that gamers are much more motivated to solve a puzzle in Portal than students are to use Pythagoras' theorem to solve a problem in a test.


Because students in schools are absorbing and applying knowledge to pass a test. In a game, players are doing so because they want to explore and progress voluntarily. Players have intrinsic motivation in games -- a desire to finish the story, beat their friends, or achieve high scores -- and in doing so, they are willing to think laterally about how to solve problems.

Games allow for play and experimentation. Humans love to solve problems and create. Shouldn't this go for education as well? We just need to stop thinking of education as teaching a set of information that needs to be regurgitated, and start thinking of it as a way to approach and understand the world.

Failure is Most Certainly an Option - and It's Encouraged

When players don't defeat a boss in-game, they don't fail at the entire game. They're not embarrassed, and it doesn't affect their self-esteem. Rather, they can try again. And again. And again. They can experiment. They can get creative with their tactics.

Games give us a problem to overcome. If we don't overcome it at first, we try again. And as we re-attempt it, we identify gaps in our knowledge or begin to understand the system a little better so that we can start to develop "strategies" and eventually overcome the challenge.

Adding to this, games give extremely clear feedback. When you go in the wrong direction, the game will tell you so. If you aren't equipped with the correct weapon to defeat the boss, you won't defeat the boss (if you play The Legend of Zelda, you know this all too well).

However, if a student fails the SATs or a pop quiz, they are never presented with the opportunity to attempt the same problem again -- at least, not in a way that isn't met with the feeling that they failed drastically. Instead, a traditional learning environment tells its "players" that they only get one shot, one opportunity. And sometimes, students don't even know why they failed.

But what if educators allowed students to keep trying a problem over and over again until they succeeded? Rather than parrot back information or cram knowledge for the be-all-and-end-all test, students would develop a stronger understanding of the information they are given, and they'd have the opportunity to learn and develop their understanding at a deeper level – without becoming paralyzed by fear of failure along the way.

Games Allow for a Level of Abstraction

Games are sometimes explicit in their learning objectives but, more often than not, learning becomes a byproduct of a game.

Let's go back to the example of Pythagoras' theorem. At first, to the unknowing learner, it can seem intimidating, complex, and off-putting. However, traditional education systems don't allow for much abstraction. Students must learn that a2 + b2 = c2. They pretty much have no choice.

However, games aren't so limited. They incorporate metaphors, imagery, and ideas to help communicate concepts. Games allow players to learn on a subtextual level. They allow for secondary learning outcomes. They are well known for abstracting complex issues down to basic and easily digestible problems that users can interact with and begin to understand.

Students can really benefit from using games in the classroom, because sometimes abstraction through metaphors, re-enactments, and narrative can do the trick -- and do it well.

How have you used games in your classroom? Please share stories and strategies.

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Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Alexandria Gibb's picture

This year I've been doing things differently than in the past. When a student doesn't give me an answer that is enough (for example, telling why a passage is important), I write a leading question or "need more" on the paper and have them resubmit it. The effects have been twofold. First, the motivation of the students to do it right the first time has improved...because they know they are just going to have to do it over again. Second, the students are gaining a deeper understanding of what is expected of them and I can scaffold for them and support them exactly how they need it. I have seen tremendous gains in my students!

Seán McHugh's picture

Great article, although ... (here it comes) ... as an avid gamer, I think we're missing the point when we think we need to literally use video games in the classroom. As you explain so well, video games and the greatest game developers are skilled at creating incredibly engaging environments and experiences; so 'Gamification' in the classroom needs to focus more on learning from gaming and imitating the qualities that make the greatest games engaging, and less on trying to shoehorn them into class activities.

It's not the games themselves that are the key, it's the qualities of games as highly engaging experiences that is key. There is a big difference.

schisnell's picture
High school English teacher

Good points, all. My experience so far with gamification is that the most powerful "gaming" is one where the game is closely integrated into the curricular ideas of the course. In other words, the "boss battle" which may occur is one in my class of a literary idea, in mathematics a theorem, etc. This sounds more boring in type than it need be in practice. When the storyline of the game is problem-solving related to the ideas learned, the badges earned make sense for students. In my online games, successful formative assignments earn the students additional weapons or points used to defeat that climactic boss.
I like, too, the idea of repeated opportunities, though we called this Mastery Learning in the '90s. I used it then and still use it now. Nothing more powerful!
Thanks for the article!

Sarah Minnick's picture
Sarah Minnick
8-12 Social Studies teacher, Pennsylvania

Not having the time to create the visual aspect of a game in my classes, I've been piloting the experience that gaming offers with 'leveling up' and the earning of tokens based on the number of points earned on a lesson. We have a badge system within our LMS that I can award to my students when they've achieved so many tokens or level. The idea is for my students to take advantage of the multiple attempts on most of my lessons to improve their score.

Virmared Santiago's picture
Virmared Santiago
A happily ever after story of a Spanish teacher working on her masters on Curriculum and Instruction.

My son is 19. He knows about Portal, knows that Valve developed it. He calls them forward thinkers. He is just letting me know about what Valve did when their first game Half Life was hacked. They hired the hackers and became part of what is now Half Life 2. I just remembered he has told me that in Florida Virtual School as a student, he used to take the tests more than once, so it seems that this is already happening. I wish I could do so too in my classroom, some way.

Virmared Santiago's picture
Virmared Santiago
A happily ever after story of a Spanish teacher working on her masters on Curriculum and Instruction.

So interesting!

Colleo's picture

Jr high math - "Mathcraft" based on tenets of Minecraft (which students are obsessed with). "creepers" are negative thoughts saying "I can't do this". Players get experience points based on using strategies, assisting others, accomplishing assignments, etc. I have a great visual graphing chart that allows me to put colourful blocks to measure their progress (above their self-made avatars). Each colour is worth different points which students have to add up in order to redeem/unlock new opportunities and tools (e.g. using a calculator). So far, it's pretty popular and engaging!

Sheryl Morris's picture

Points well taken:

* Intrinsic motivation brings about a willingness to think laterally about how to solve problems.
* Time for play and experimentation allows for creativity.
* Challenges to overcome build growth.
* Feedback eliminates paralysis or fear of failure
* Acceptance of failure as something to try to overcome.
* Abstract concepts incorporated in the concrete allows for "secondary" learning

Love these points!
Check, check, check, check, and check!

There are effects of these games that require strong effort to balance.

---Reduction of physical movement

The Power of Movement in Teaching

--Reduction of multi-sensory stimuli

Learning Is Multi-Sensory

--Reduction of connection to natural world
Quotes and Sayings About Children and Nature

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