When I started my teaching career 15 years ago, a scenario in which teachers and their students were engaged together playing popular commercial video games sounded like a cool but highly unlikely idea. Recently, however, ideas and paradigms began to shift. Academics like James Paul Gee began to pay close attention to popular video games, considering them through the lens of learning theory. Researchers like Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkhueler began to explore the possibility of using popular games such as Sid Meier’s Civilization in an instructional capacity. Even noted game designers like Raph Koster suggested that rather than consider games digital diversions we should look at them as master teachers that make learning fun.

Fast-forward to today, and the game-based learning movement is gaining serious momentum.  As educators swim in a sea of Common Core standards, one-to-one computing initiatives, and increasingly high-stakes testing regimens, a handful of pioneers are taking what at first seems a counterintuitive approach to learning. They’re bringing popular video games into the classroom and leveraging them to engage the modern-day texting mavens and Instagram-ing digital natives who fill our schools. Games like Angry Birds, Minecraft, and even the popular online fantasy game World of Warcraft are among the commercial successes that are finding their way into classroom lessons.

“Whoa, whoa!  Wait a minute,” you’re thinking, “how is there any educational value in these games? My child wastes hours playing ______.”

That’s usually the first response I hear from skeptical parents. My initial reply is, “Thank you!  Thank you for being aware of how your children spend their free time.” You are so busy with the rat race of life that, as long as you don’t hear screaming or see blood, you assume all is well. But you understand that your child has a passion for video games. This is actually the first step to understanding the educational value of gaming. The second step is realizing that today’s games are vastly different from the button-mashing arcade classics we grew up on. Let’s face it, the strategic thinking required in PAC-MAN is limited to choosing up, down, left, or right, and whether or not you should go for the fruit now or wait.

Today, game developers know that if you want to engage players for the long haul and increase word-of-mouth marketing, you have to design games that masterfully ramp up the challenge for players, avoiding becoming too easy or too difficult as you progress toward the game’s end. Games must also have depth, challenging players with interesting choices and novel scenarios. Take a look at the graphics and gameplay of any blockbuster game, and you’ll quickly realize we’ve come a long way since Pong.

The next time your son or daughter is engaged in a marathon gaming session on the Xbox or in Minecraft, take a moment to observe. At this point, I’d encourage you to put on what I call your “teacher glasses.”  Look at what’s going on through the lens of learning. The challenge is to do this without totally creeping out your children. If they’re not accustomed to you showing genuine interest in their favorite game, this is going to be a bit strange to them. As you watch them play, ask them questions. Here are a few starters:

  • “Why is this game better than _____ (the last game they spent this much time on)?”
  • “How did you learn to play this?”
  • “Have you ever gotten stuck in this game? How’d you get past that level?”
  • “What was the hardest thing for you to learn how to do in this game?”
  • “Are your friends as good at this as you are?”

If you suspend your preconceived notions about games for a moment and think about what’s happening in the brain, you may be surprised at the level of thinking that’s involved in modern games. Pay attention to the depth with which your child can articulate the specialized vocabulary that’s involved with game play. Listen to them as they talk to their friends who play the same game. Are they speaking a foreign language? In a sense, yes. These are the very ways that experts, from pharmacists to mechanical engineers, engage with their professions. The problem-solving that takes place in these games is building “mental muscle” that will serve them well in a future career.

Is it any wonder that our children, whose brains are accustomed to these engaging, responsive simulations and puzzles, are bored out of their minds sitting in rows and listening to someone lecture about the Magna Carta? Maybe we should demand more games in our schools. We are just now seeing the beginnings of a revolution in education. The real nexus of games and learning still lies ahead of us. In the near future we will embrace the challenge and immersion that video games offer, giving our kids authentic opportunities to practice everything from grammar to differential equations. As a parent, educator, and a gamer, I’m stoked.

This article was written by

Lucas Gillispie has been an educator for nearly 15 years, working as a high school science teacher for ten years before taking a position as a district-level instructional technology and media coordinator in southeastern North Carolina. Lucas holds a MS in Instructional Technology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington where he completed thesis work researching the effects of a 3D video game on middle school students’ achievement and attitude in mathematics.