Video Games, Fun, and Learning!

I’ve long been a proponent of using games and simulations to engage students in learning (1, 2). Let’s face it, we all like to play games, and we all want our students to be successful learners. Does it matter if they have fun while they are learning? I don’t think so, and there is mounting evidence that gaming not only teaches facts more effectively than rote memorization, but it also teachers logic, problem solving, and creativity.

Kurt Squire (2003a), in a widely cited study on Video Games in Education, shares, “When educators have discussed games, they have focused on the social consequences of game play, ignoring important educational potentials of gaming.” It is something we, as educators, need to move beyond. We didn’t learn this way because the kinds of games that exist now, didn’t exist a generation ago, and honestly many of the early computer-based games weren’t very good. Good games have structures that make them great learning vehicles.

clear goals that students find

Squire outlines several key characteristics of educational games:

  • multiple goal structures and scoring to give students feedback on their progress,
  • multiple difficulty levels to adjust the game difficulty to learner skill,
  • random elements of surprise,
  • emotionally appealing fantasy and metaphor that is related to game skills.

In their study, Whitehall and McDonald (1993) argued that incorporating a variable payoff schedule into a simulation game led to increased risk taking among students, which resulted in greater persistence on the task and improved performance. This kind of perseverance in problem-solving is a skill that many American mathematics students have traditionally been poor at in standardized testing situations. If we find games that accomplish the learning goals we’ve set for our students and they include these kinds of structures then why not make them an integral component of our instructional process?

This infographic from Online Colleges, shares much of the anecdotal evidence around video gaming as an educational tool.

Video Games and Education

Via: Online Colleges Guide

Traditionally, many computer games have been drill and practice games, aimed at increasing a students basic knowledge recall, and teachers were pretty comfortable with those simple lower level learning targets. There will continue to be a role for drill and practice games (Savery & Duffy, 1995), but the opportunity to have students explore microworlds, problem-solving simulations, and design/creation (Papert 1980; Rieber 1996) is more suited to the new capabilities of technology in education.

Can you imagine using games to get student’s to read and understand Shakespeare? Prospero’s Island, a partnership between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology & a work-in-progress, is an interactive reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s classic, The Tempest that draws players into a playful and exploratory re-engagement with the classic text.

Civilizations III allows players to lead a civilization from 4000 BC to the present. Students win by making political, scientific, military, cultural, and economic gains, and balancing the different aspects of a complex system that is a nationstate. Players seek out geographical resources, manage economies, plan the growth of their civilization, and engage in diplomacy.

Squire (2003a, 2003b) in his evaluation of simulation games identified that students made connections between the different aspects of the simulations that were not prevalent in other learning scenarios.

Looking beyond the ‘engagement’ factor, gaming in education has the potential to strengthen student understanding of a variety of different areas, and educators need to look beyond traditional ways of learning and take advantage of opportunities to get students involved in the learning process any way we can.

Look for games that will help students do something in your content area that they can do other ways, but are likely to do more if they can play a game and do it at the same time, I know I am!


Papert, S. (1981). Mindstorms: Children, computers and powerful ideas. Brighton: Harvester Press.

Rieber, L. P. (1996). Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44, 43-58.

Savery, J.R., & Duffy, T.M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35(5), 31-37.

Squire, K. (2003a). Video games in education. International Journal of Intelligent Simulations and Gaming, 2(1), 49-62.

Squire, K. (2003b). Formative Evaluation of Biohazard” (report delivered at the Microsoft Faculty Research Summit, 29 July.

Whitehall, B., & McDonald, B. (1993). Improving learning persistence of military personnel by enhancing motivation in a technical training program. Simulation & Gaming, 24, 294-313.

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