Video Games in Education: Final Blog Post

Educational Video Game Use So Far

There are a multitude of teaching styles implemented in k-12 school across the United States, varying from public schools that tie curriculum to the test, private Montessori schools that try to develop experiential learning models, and private religious schools that bring a faith-based educational environment. What seems to be standard among all these institutions is that school remains boring for almost everyone. We know this from many of our personal experiences, but also from studies. One Indiana University study, which took responses from 81,000 high school students from 26 states, found that 75% of students are bored in class due to uninteresting material. I’m sure that most teachers are used to seeing this look from their students as they lecture from the chalk board-

Probably not inspiring the teacher, either.

Although school has always been a sources of boredom for students, the current environment for a child or teen-aged individual has dramatically changed in the last twenty years with the introduction of large steps forward in technology. Both the nature of social interaction and human to human play were revolutionized by things like email, texting, and game console systems. According to one study by Pew Research cited in the New York Times, 90% of teachers believe digital technology has created “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

The response from the school systems and computer industry has been slow and proved itself incapable thus far of competing with the  cell phone, computer, and video game industry for the attention spans of students. A great example of this is the downfall of ‘The Learning Company’ which produced many educational video games meant to teach elementary school students classroom curriculum in a fun way that kept students motivated and focused. The company was founded in 1980, produced many educational games for all levels of elementary education, and did quite well for a span of about 19 years until it was sold to Mattel for $3.8 billion in 1999. However, this became known as one of the worst corporate acquisitions in history as the stock price turned out to be highly inflated. Mattel re-sold the company for just $122 million.

When one looks at the games that were produced by The Learning Company, they were not too bad for their time period. Although the music was not very good at all, the graphics were enough for a young child to appreciate and the educational quality of the game seems decent. Here is an example-

The Learning Company also developed the ‘Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego’ series, which was spun off into a TV show. We are much more critical of this game for its awful representation of foreign lands, including blonde haired ‘barbie looking’ women in Saudi Arabia and red-haired Irish looking people in Mexico City, which looks more like a set of Aztec Ruins.

No matter the rise and fall of The Learning Company, the future of video game use in the classroom will look completely dissimilar in the future. The Learning Company relied on schools that usually had only one computer lab for the entire school, making marginal usage per student an issue, with actual usage time per student limited to the number of computers the school had available. We also could not find any examples of video games produced for high school learning.

With every change in technology, it is becoming ever more possible that this technological limitation will be a thing of the past. Access to the technology necessary to provide video game based learning will no longer be limited, and some school districts are already supplying iPads for every student. This incredible advance of technology in the classroom will provide schools and teachers with a new opportunity to dramatically change that boredom statistic provided above, help teachers combat increasing attention deficiencies, and hopefully further develop the learning potential of curriculum taught in the classroom.

We must begin re-inventing the educational video game, now.


An evaluation of the educational merit of video games ought to begin with one simple question: Why video games?  Let’s get past the obvious; video games are more exciting than textbooks.  No classroom full of middle school students is going to turn down the opportunity to play a video game if the alternative is reading through (and trying to remember) lots of densely presented information.  In fact, a 2004 study conducted by Michigan State University found that 8th grade boys played video games for an average of 23 hours per week and 8th grade girls played video games for an average of 12 hours per week (Simpson 5), so gender isn’t an issue.  The kids are on board with gaming in the classroom.  However, the collective preference of a bunch of twelve year olds doesn’t dictate school curriculum.  Video games only belong in the classroom if they can teach as effectively as other established, and more traditional, methods… So can they?

The short answer is yes (especially in theory).

The Right Medium for the Right Generation

One common theme in the literature about education and video games is that today’s children constitute a new generation, often labeled the “Net generation.”  Members of this so-called Net generation are distinguished by the fact that they grew up in the digital age (we sometimes forget that our parents didn’t have the Internet when they were our age).  Not surprisingly, this unlimited access to information has produced a slightly different style of learner.

Firstly, members of the Net generation are more autonomous in their quest for information (Simpson 4).  If Net generation kids desire to know the answer to any question, they can Google it.  However, if they don’t find a question to be interesting or significant, they won’t.  They have more control over what they learn than any other generation in the history of the world.

Secondly, members of the Net generation generally process information much faster than members of previous generations (Simpson 4).  This isn’t to say that they’re smarter than members of previous generations.  Rather, they’re less reflective, determining whether or not information is useful in a matter of seconds.  Lastly, they prefer to learn things through doing, even if it means failing (Simpson 4,5).

There are other observed learning differences that distinguish the Net generation from previous generations, but we chose to highlight these three.  Why?  Because they highlight the underlying reasons as to why video games can be effective teachers in the modern classroom.  Video games allow for an incredible amount of autonomy: “When you log into a new virtual world, you never know what the goal is right away.  So you learn how to explore… and how to deal with overcoming challenges” (Maxmen 203).  Video games provide gamers with objectives, but it is the gamer’s job to develop the skills and knowledge required to meet those objectives.  This is a task that the typical Net generation learner would likely embrace.

Also, unlike quizzes or papers, and other traditional forms of actually testing students’ knowledge, video games provide instant feedback (Bavelier 767).  All actions made within video games instantly trigger some sort of response.  This immediacy should appeal to the speedy information processing tendencies of the Net generation.  In fact, the existence of instant feedback, specifically positive feedback, is one of Jane McGonigal’s core reasons as to why humans are better at gaming than we are at real life.  If gaming could be used to encourage people to examine and solve complex world issues, as McGonigal suggests, then it should certainly be capable of encouraging students to learn about a variety subjects.

Lastly, video games are all about doing/ playing.  While the word “play” has connotations that don’t entirely mesh well with the idea of learning, this isn’t actually the case.  In 1898 Karl Groos’ developed a theory of play as pre-exercise, the idea being that youth (the stage of life) exists only because humans need time to play in order to practice/ develop skills: “Play systematically presents the child with a learning situation” (Annetta 232).  The great thing about video games is that they allow gamers to play, and therefore learn, in environments that are otherwise entirely inaccessible to the gamer.

While video games certainly have the potential to be effective teachers, it’s important to understand that potential doesn’t always translate to actual success.  There are definitely foreseeable issues that could stem from using video games in educational settings.  One commonly cited issue is the effect that video games have on increasing academic dishonesty.  In a survey study of 113 children and adults, Karla Hamlen found that increased video game play was significantly related to cheating in school (Hamlen 1148).  She also found that gamers who frequently use cheat codes in order to bypass difficult levels were more likely to cheat in school (Hamlen 1149).  These are issues that need to be addressed in the actual practice of using video games to teach.

(something about this screenshot just doesn’t seem right)

Current Educational Games and Where We Are Headed

The educational games created by The Learning Company were largely assessment style games. For example, the Reader Rabbit game shown previously on this post is based on a students understanding of math. The student has already been taught that 11 + 33 = 44, and the game simply asks that the student answer a series of questions to unlock game levels. The game is really just a fun way to test a student on what they have learned from a lecture. Although past educational games have been a fun and motivating way for students to learn subjects such as math, such games are really just a means of testing students.

Educational video games being produced now focus largely on what Professor James Paul Gee calls ‘Situated and Embodied Learning’ which means that students solve problems using what they learn and know from advancing through the game, not by simply memorizing and regurgitating factual information. Gee uses the example of a student taking a test at the end of a semester, versus an individual playing ‘Halo’ on a difficult setting. A teacher would not need to test the Halo player because the game was the learning and the test in and of itself. Essentially, educational video games will use the same practices Montessori schools have used for many years.

A great example of this that we have studied in class was the protein folding game experiment called Foldit developed by researchers at the University of Washington. Although far more complicated than games implemented in the k-12 classroom, the principles are still the same. The researches that designed the game did not have the solution to the problem. The game provided the building blocks necessary for success, but the process of learning, discovery, and solution was left up to the players.

Games such as Immune Attack, developed by the Federation of American Scientists and Escape Hatch Entertainment, offer students the building blocks to explore the human immune system, learn about bodily functions, and solve disease related immune problems. The player floats around a human artery and blood vessel system in a microscopic ‘nanobot’ zapping bacteria and viruses. Everything the student sees can be clicked on for information which helps the student complete the game and learn about the human body.

With the dawning of classroom tablet use, such as the iPad, games such as Immune Attack will have to be adapted to that platform. As noted previously, a problem with The Learning Company’s strategy was that there were only so many computers per student at a school, making it very difficult to have a large technological learning impact per student.

A fantastic example of educational video games being adapted for the classroom is Sid Meier’s Civilization. Although this game has had large amounts of commercial success, the game has been widely used in classrooms on PC platforms with great results,but has now been reformatted of the iPad. One study from the University of Wisconsin noted that students who successfully used Civilization in their studies “developed conceptual understandings across world history, geography, and politics.” The National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education also holds high the use of Civilization for classroom purposes in high esteem. Here is an example of the game-

Looking into the future, we might find more schools that resemble Quest to Learn, which is a New York City public school that enhances children’s learning through the use of technology, including the use of game play and game design. It makes school more interesting for the children, enhances their ability to learn, and incorporates the ever changing technology in the world. Take this quote from one middle school teacher at Quest to Learn in a 2010 New York Times Article, “Now I show them GarageBand” — a digital audio sequencer produced by Apple — “and five minutes later they’re recording and editing sound” (Corbett).  Students are taking technological building blocks, in this example a music video game, and are literally using it to make music.

Commercial Games in the Classroom

Even though almost all commercial video games were created for entertainment purposes, many still have intellectual challenges and educational value, specifically real-time strategy games like SimCity, Age of Empires, Civilization III (as mentioned in the previous section), and Railroad Tycoon (Charsky 38).  Popular consensus is that successful integration of commercial video games into middle school and high school classrooms is highly dependent on three main factors: the teacher’s expertise (Charsky 39), a clear set of standards surrounding gameplay (Simpson 9,10), and the existence of complementary assignments (Charsky 40; Simpson 10).

The significance of a teacher’s expertise surrounding the game and related educational content is pretty obvious.  A teacher who cannot help guide students through difficult sections of a game is about as credible and useful as the man featured in this tutorial video.

The standards that teachers set surrounding gameplay is a more interesting topic, though.  If video games do encourage academic dishonesty, as Karla Hamlen found, this is where teachers can combat that trend.  There are so many resources that a gamer can use to advance through games more quickly or achieve higher scores, such as cheat codes, video walkthroughs, collaboration and glitching (Hamlen 1147).  Teachers must clearly establish which methods of information gathering are acceptable.  The standards and expectations shouldn’t end there, though.  One recurring theme that we’ve discussed in class over this past term is the prevalence of hate speech and hostile climates in video games.  Integrating commercial games into the classroom could help to curb this issue by introducing some mature, adult supervision into the world of video games.  Also, because all students (of all gender, racial and sexual backgrounds) would participate in the gaming activities, this integration of commercial video games into middle school and high school classrooms could help to challenge the widely held misconception that video games are a space created by and for white heterosexual males.

Lastly, no commercial video games are perfectly accurate from a historical or real-life perspective.  It is essential that teachers provide students with complementary assignments to enhance their understanding of the curriculum.  In one example from Dennis Charsky and Clif Mims’ article “Integrating Commercial Off-the-Shelf Video Games into School Curriculums,” a high school class played the game Civilization III and were later asked to write a response to the following prompt: “Describe how the underlying simulation model in Civilization III determined whether or not civilizations rose or fell? In addition, critique your description offering alternative models or theories that would better align with real history” (Charsky 42).  Asking students to compare and contrast a video game’s mechanics with actual historical knowledge forces them to understand concepts from a more reflective and analytical perspective than a textbook could ever provide.  Prompts like these are essential to maximizing the educational value of commercial video games.

Works Cited

Alexander, Bryan. “Teaching with a Video Game: the Case for Civilization.” National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, 6 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 March 2013.

“An IPad for Every Student in Hamilton County Schools?” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Annetta, Leonard A. “Video Games in Education: Why They Should Be Used and How They Are Being Used.” Theory into Practice 47.3 (2008): 229-239. Web. 11 March 2013.

Bavelier, D., et. al. “Brains on Video Games.” Nature Reviews 12.12 (2011): 763-768. Web. 12 March 2013.

“California; Mattel Settles Shareholders Lawsuit For $122 Million The El Segundo-Based Toy Maker Closes The Books On Itsill-Fated $3.5-Billion Purchase Of Learning Co. – 12/06/2002.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Charsky, Dennis, and Clif Mims. “Integrating Commercial Off-the-Shelf Video Games into School Curriculums.” TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning 52.5 (2008): 38-44. Web. 10 March 2013.

Corbett, Sarah. “Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom.” New York Times 15 Sept 2010. Web. 16 March 2013.

“Games and Education Scholar James Paul Gee on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy.”YouTube. YouTube, 04 Aug. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Hamlen, Karla R. “Academic Dishonesty and Video Game Play: Is New Media Use Changing Conceptions of Cheating?” Computers & Education 59.4 (2012): 1145-1152. Web. 14 March 2013.

“IU Study: Students Are Bored in High School; Seek Attention.” Latest Headlines RSS. N.p., n.d.   Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

Markoff, John. “In a Video Game, Tackling the Complexities of Protein Folding.” New York Times 9 Aug 2010. Web. 15 March 2013.

Maxmen, Amy. “Video Games and the Second Life of Science Class.” Cell 141.2 (2010): 201-203. Web. 10 March 2013.

McGonigal, Jane. “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” TED Talk. February 2010.

Richtel, Matt. “Technology Is Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say.” New York Times RSS. November 2010. Accessed March 2013.

Simpson, Elizabeth, and Frances A Clem. “Video Games in the Middle School Classroom.” Middle School Journal 39.4 (2008): 4-11. Web. 11 March 2013.

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One Response to Video Games in Education: Final Blog Post

  1. cstabile says:

    There’s a lot of great material in this blog post, E. and G. My main caution involves making somewhat ahistorical assumptions, like “school has always been a source of boredom for students” or “school remains boring for almost everyone.” You mention a wide range of teaching styles in your first sentence — I find it hard to believe that boredom is so universal (particularly in classes where the sizes are smaller). I think the more important point, and it’s one made by Cathy Davidson in her book “Now You See It,” is that the organization of learning in public schools has not changed since the late 19th century.

    What does that mean? According to Davidson, it means that the old industrial model of education (with the teacher at the front of the classroom and the students passive recipients of information) still prevails. You could, as she points out, take a teacher from 1890, set her in a classroom in 2013, and she’d know where to stand and how to perform. Not particularly innovative, eh?

    And remember to be critical of the information you’re using. Take Hamlen’s research, which seems to reproduce the kind of technophobia we’ve criticized this quarter. How did we assess “academic honesty” in the past? Is re-mixing dishonest? Are cheat codes dishonest? Hamlen seems to assume that video games are changing students’ behaviors and invariably for the worst.

    Nice work overall and a great addition to our course conversation.

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