Meaningful Fun: Why Video Games Should be Used in the Classroom (Part 3 of 3)

Posted by SM Bruner on

Educationally, traditional video games have much to offer at multiple levels: in the sub-conscious realm of information processing, at the conscious level in terms of content material, and above the material level by teaching many critical thinking strategies which are applicable across a wide range of subjects and situations (Klopfer et al., 7).  In addition to these general patterns of problem solving and higher-order-thinking that video games encourage, specifically focused games can teach players to think and solve problems in very specific ways.

Games are excellent learning tools because they can effectively teach players not just facts, but how to think in certain ways.  Knowledge is not acquired in a vacuum; as Shaffer and his colleagues write, “We learn by becoming part of a community of practice and thus developing that community’s ways of knowing, acting, being, and caring – the community’s situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, and shared values.” (Shaffer et al., 7)  In a video game, players are easily transported into communities of practice.  In the game Full Spectrum Warrior, a game adopted from a training simulator used by the U.S. Army, the player learns to think like a soldier by inhabiting a world of soldiers.

One of the ways the player learns in this environment is through the distributed intelligence of the game – the player knows something and the game knows some other thing…  Games today are complex enough that often players play as just one member on a team while the rest of the team is controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence.  These team members, due to their intelligence, allow the player to perform tasks before being fully competent at their performance.  For example, in a football simulation game (which are becoming more and more popular with both collegiate and professional teams across the country), a player playing as the quarterback may be able to execute a ten yard pass play before he is truly good at doing so.  The ten yard completion is possible not only because of the player’s skill, but because of the intelligence of the player’s teammates: the linemen knew how to block and the receivers knew how to run and catch.  This “performance before competence” allows the player to experiment as a quarterback, eventually becoming competent through trial, error, and feedback (Gee, 13).  Additionally, the player will also become competent in the facts that the computer teammates already know (how specific routes should be run on a specific pass play) through their continued demonstration and use (Shaffer et al., 9).

Additionally, along with other computer-controlled inhabitants of the world, the very world itself – the rules it is governed by – immerses the player in a consistent epistemic frame.  Instead of being allowed to completely roam free, games can use restrictions to impart a set of values and way of thinking upon a player.  Returning to Full Spectrum Warrior, the player learns to solve problems by communicating with other military leaders and giving the proper order to subordinate troops, not by driving a racecar through a set of checkpoints faster than anybody else.  Success in the game depends on internalizing and utilizing the ways of thinking that are valued in the military (Shaffer et al., 10).

The established educational framework into which video games most obviously fit is “grappling”, as pioneered by Ted Sizer.  In a curriculum based on grappling, students are constantly questioning and testing their values, the information being presented to them, their abilities.  Video games encourage grappling in multiple ways. As Sizer says, “Grappling is necessarily a balancing act. One is trying to do what one has never done before and learning more about what one wants to do.” (Sizer, 23)  Grappling on this level occurs when students playing the game itself.  Specifically, using Prensky’s terminology, this would be on Learning Levels 2 and 3: Learning What and Learning Why.  At these levels, players are figuring out the game’s rules and strategy, and to do so they actively engage in the scientific method, reaching for and discovering new meaning in their virtual environment.  They are engrossed in, “The spiraling of ideas, the testing and retesting and testing again of hypotheses.” (Sizer, 34)

The second stage of grappling that video games encourage is encompassed in Levels 4 and 5 of Presky’s framework: Learning Where and Learning When/Whether.  On these levels, players learn about and question the validity and ethics of the game world.  This type of grappling, in which students actively participate in discovering their own values, is highly valuable in Sizer’s eyes; he writes of the importance for students to grapple with meanings (Sizer, 23).  Literature is one excellent jumping off point for this type of search, and often provokes challenging questions from within the reader, questions about human nature, society’s values, personal responsibility, etc (Sizer, 28), but, as Sizer notes, “Literature is but one field which can provide the stuff, or the point of departure, for thinking deeply about ethical matters such as justice.” (Sizer, 31)  Games can also lead to this type of grappling.  As a medium, games are so young that people are still trying to figure out how to use them to deal with complex issues such as those explored in film or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird effectively.  However, when games with serious social content, whose goal or theme is a social issue, they will be able to explore just as thoroughly, if not more, than books or movies because games can put the player more directly inside the situation being explored. Instead of watching Atticus and Scout deal with racism, the player himself will be witnessing and responding to the same issues.

Along with grappling, using video games in the classroom as teaching tools is in support of multi-cultural education.  Sonia Nieto, in her book, The Light in Their Eyes, defines culture as “the ever-changing values, traditions, social and political relationships, and worldview created, shared, and transformed by a group of people bound together by a combination of factors that can include a common history, geographic location, language, social class, and religion.” (Nieto, 48)  A multi-cultural educational environment is one that recognizes that different students come into the classroom with different learning styles because of their cultures, and that a truly democratic education must value each of these (Nieto, 63).  Additionally, multi-cultural classrooms affirm not only the learning style that accompanies each culture in the classroom, but each culture itself.  Relating lessons to a student’s culture is a great way to create situated meaning for a student, resulting in a deeper understanding of a topic.  A multi-cultural classroom seeks to maximize each student’s learning by teaching to the whole of each student, not just the part of the student that recognizes the dominant classroom culture.

Even among children living in different geographic regions in the United States who have vastly different backgrounds, Nieto asserts that there exists some form of shared “youth culture,” (Nieto, 50).  For a large percentage of American youth, this culture includes video games. “In a given week, the average eighth-grade boy will play video games for about 23 hours, while the average girl will play about 12 – that’s even more time than they spend watching TV,” and as a result, students are often already fluent in the language of video games (Klopfer, et al. 1).  Much importance has been placed on affirming students’ native languages in the classroom (Nieto, 60), but the language of video games that students bring to school is largely ignored.  In a multi-cultural classroom, the learning styles of a student’s culture and the student’s culture itself are affirmed and used to improve the student’s education.  Not including video games in education disregards the powerful methods of learning that students are engaging in every day outside of the classroom, but also tries to dismiss this very real aspect of students’ lives as illegitimate.  A true multi-cultural classroom recognizes students’ playing of video games and uses it to enhance their learning inside the classroom instead of ignoring it because it is not a part of the teacher’s own culture.

Video games should be a part of an effective classroom.  They teach information processing techniques, specific academic content, and critical thinking and problem solving skills in ways that are not replicable through other educational techniques.  They provide situated meaning for content that is otherwise without context, and encourage scientific exploration, creative problem solving, and questioning the rules and ethics of the surrounding world.  These reasons alone should be enough to encourage the incorporation of video games into the classroom and teacher training programs.  However, beyond their educational value on their own, video games are a part of many students’ cultures.  They are digital natives growing up in a digital world, and an education that affirms the whole student cannot overlook the part of the student that plays video games.



Facer, Keri “Computer Games and Learning: Why do we think it’s worth talking about computer games and learning in the same breath? A discussion paper” Futurelab 2003


Gee, James, “Why Are Video Games Good For Learning?” University of Madison-Wisconsin


Kopfer, Eric, et al. “Using the Technology of Today, in the Classroom Today: The Instructional Power of Digital Games, Social Networking, Simulations and How Teachers can Leverage Them” The Education Arcade, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2009


Nieto, Sonia, The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities New York: Teachers College Press


Prensky, Marc, “What Kids Learn That’s POSITIVE From Playing Video Games” 2002


Shaffer, David, et al. “Video games and the future of learning,” University of Wisconsin-Madison and Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory 2004


Sizer, T. & Sizer, N. Grappling. In The Students are watching: Schools and the moral contract. Boston, MA: Beacon Press 1999.