How Games and Learning Go Together and How They Don't

Posted by | June 08, 2015 | News, Opinion | 3 Comments
the game believes in you

A book about games and learning was released in April, and it’s getting a lot of attention. The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter is by Greg Toppo, USA Today’s national education reporter. Toppo rounds up the history and current thinking on the learning value of games. The book is well written and accessible for parents. As Toppo says in the prologue, “This is the story of a still-unfolding drama, the tale of a small, mostly unconnected group of visionaries who, for the past forty years, have been pushing hand controllers—and control—to students…they’ve searched for ways to make learning more rigorous, more, sticky, and more fun.”

The Strengths of Games and Learning

In a recent NPR interview, Toppo explained some of the points he made in his book. One is that video games, far from destroying literacy, seem to be encouraging it. I experienced this firsthand when I reviewed the new Pokémon games. I couldn’t believe how much reading and analysis I had to do—both within the game and on walkthrough websites—in order to progress in the game. Game scholar James Paul Gee has spoken about how Pokémon essentially taught his kid to read. (And I’ve heard other parents say the same thing.) The fact is that, in order to play many games well, gamers are required to read, digest, and understand complex material.

There's nothing like a heads-up from Dad about the latest game release.

Pokémon teaches kids to read. It really does.

Toppo also touts the ability of games to make failure just a step on the way to learning more. And he talks about the potential of games to measure learning in a way that traditional education can’t—without onerous and constant testing.

Games can make learning fun, and that helps keep kids engaged in learning. But some people overlook another important aspect of games and learning. Games are good at helping people learn very hard things. Toppo says that gamers will try and try to solve hard problems in games, and “…it’s not fun because it’s easy; it’s fun because it’s hard.”

How the Digital Divide Affects Game-Based Learning

The games and learning movement is not without its skeptics and detractors, even in its own ranks. In a recent article in the Washington Post, technology expert Kentaro Toyama said that, “Many people believe that technology ‘levels the playing field’ of learning, but what I’ve discovered is that it does no such thing.”

Toyama cites examples of successful technology in schools but notes that “technology never made up for a lack of good teachers or good principals.” In schools with overburdened or poorly trained teachers, technology tends to add to the burden. Toyama’s theory is that “technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces.” If a school is functioning well and a teacher is brilliant and dedicated, games and other technology will help it function better. But if a school is struggling, technology will add to the distress.

Indie Games, Simulations, and the Future of Learning

One chapter in Toppo’s book talks about a game called Walden, a Game. Toppo says this game “can make transcendentalism and reading cool again.” In it, the player gets to play through a simulation of Henry David Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond. There’s another indie game coming out that puts literature in a game form called Ever, Jane. Ever, Jane lets gamers play characters in a world inspired by Jane Austen’s books. These kinds of games and simulations have amazing potential to add to kids’ educational experiences.

Walden a game

Play Walden, a Game if you want to live Thoreau’s life.

In the future, these kinds of experiences may be common and even more educationally valuable than they are now. Especially given the promised adaptation of new virtual-reality technologies like Oculus Rift to education.

But we’re not there yet. What’s needed is schools and teachers who can take advantage of the technology on offer.

Linda Breneman

About Linda Breneman

Linda learned to play video games as a way to connect with her teenaged kids, and then she learned to love video games for their own sake. At Pixelkin she wrangles the business & management side of things, writes posts as often as she can, reaches out on the social media, and does the occasional panel or talk. She lives in Seattle, where she writes, studies, plays video games, spends time with her family, consumes vast quantities of science fiction, and looks after her small cockapoo. She loves to hear from people out there. You can read more about her at her website, Linda Breneman.com or her family foundation's website, ludusproject.org.