Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Value of Gaming in Education

When you think of video games, what comes to mind? Tiny spaceships shooting down invaders from beyond? Bleeps and bloops? High scores?

Space Invaders, early 1980s
Times have changed. Game soundtracks are now orchestrated, the visuals are on par with anything one might see in a computer animated Hollywood film, and the storylines go far beyond shooting down aliens or saving the princess. Games are no longer relegated to the back of pizzerias and instead are found in homes worldwide. Just like the internet, children born after the year 2000 are growing up with interactive entertainment at their fingertips.

So if gaming is wide spread and accessible, and our students are compelled to complete Halo and Modern Warfare more than their homework, why, aside from a few uninspiring “edutainment” titles, haven’t we acknowledged the educational potential of this fledgling medium?

I am convinced that video games are one of many new texts of the younger generations, going hand-in-hand with web pages, blogs and other forms of digital media. If teachers do not embrace this and other forms of neo-literacy, I fear we will be left in the Stone Age of education, hardly able to reach our students.

Now you might be thinking: “Okay, so what can a student learn from a video game, aside from how to throw fireballs and blow things up?”

According to educational theorist James Paul Gee in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, video games can aid in developing problem solving skills. In a speech at Vassar Collage on April 2, 2009, Gee used the game Portal as an example, saying that players must find unorthodox ways of getting their character from Point A to Point B. Those skills, he said, can be transferred to real life situations. Instead of moving a character in a video game, Portal players may one day use similar logic to move a building or find a new way to transport a large group of people.

From the game Portal, by Valve

Gee also said is that for learning to take place, one must be emotionally involved with the material. Video games fit the bill better than any other form of media available. Combining education and gaming would be an excellent way to provide an emotional component to what we must teach students. Gee used Sid Meier’s Civilization as an example: One might not feel much of a connection to an event like Custer’s Last Stand, but if one were to try to come up with ways to change the outcome of the event, he or she might feel much more “in tune” with it.

There are other applications as well. As technology improves, so to do the number of high-quality video game narratives that utilize foreshadowing, irony, metaphor and more – all the things that English Language Arts students must know to succeed – in ways equal to much of the cannon literature of the curriculum. For example, the games Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams and Rule of Rose rival pieces like The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar in terms of delving into the psychology of a fragile mind; Braid and Earthbound pack as poignant and metaphorical punch as Animal Farm; and the Metal Gear Solid series, in ways just as memorable as any war novel I’ve ever read, makes real the horrors of battle and the effect on the individual, while also calling into question what it means to be a hero.

One of Braid's many puzzles

It will be a long, tough road to convince the masses that gaming has more value than just mindless entertainment. However, that day can and must come, lest our tech-hungry students become bogged down in the quagmire of educational malaise and our teachers fight an unwinnable battle.


  1. Nice topic choice. We now have a place to quote Joseph Cambell and talk about the nature of the Grue! Brett Bondar and I did a workshop for the annual Literacy conference regarding text based adventure games as a "so old its new again" approach. Here are are notes/links:

    Also feel free to harass Brett in the Curriculum Library, his background is in creative writing, specifically movie scripts.

    Zork is free to download:

    and most people who think that a PS2 is old will have never heard of it.

    We felt that it was as important to look at the authoring tools that have surfaced as well as the games themselves, allowing people the ability to author text games as well as participate in them brings all the levels of learning together. I never got the follow up of using MUDs for the same purpose, if you want a project some time let me know.

  2. Great blog post! I've always thought video games could add a lot to the classroom, look at Orgeon Trail! It was a fun game that we used to play in the classroom, but it got us learning about the travels of those from that time era.

  3. I really like your topic, as a mother of two kids I think that this is a great way to get them involved in learning. I am familiar with V-Smile which is an interactive learning video game system but it is only good for younger kids. Using video games for older kids could combine learning with something that they actually enjoy doing.

  4. I'd have read your comment, Kyle, but I died of dysentery before I could.

  5. This is why Dad made sure we had logic puzzle games like LoLo and Legacy of the Wizard and... Basic for the C64... It is true ask Karen.