We’ve come a long way since the days of Mortal Kombat and Senate hearings on video games. In the last decade gaming has earned mainstream acceptance. Everyone games, whether it’s a teenager gunning down strangers online in Call of Duty, a child playing Minecraft with friends, or a grandparent playing Candy Crush on their phone.

For the most part gaming is still considered a purely leisure activity. That doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from video games and what makes them so successful. Gaming concepts like achievements and intrinsic motivation can help inspire students in the classroom to improve their grades and attitudes toward learning.

During PAX South 2016 I attended a panel by orchestra director and music teacher Ashley Brandin titled, “You Have Died of Dysentery: Meaningful Gaming in Education.” The Dysentery comment references the most popular educational game from the 90s – The Oregon Trail. After remedial typing lessons we often fired up this simplistic simulator that involved hunting down game and fording rivers. Mostly we named our doomed frontiersmen and women after our fellow classmates, and giggled when we looked up what dysentery meant after they died from it.

Ashley’s point was that we didn’t actually learn anything from The Oregon Trail. “Educational games, or ‘edutainment,’ do not teach kids anything. Most of the time they just drill kids with rote memorization and simple tasks. My argument is that all video games can be educational – you just have to know how to use them.” Ashley used a recent example, The Witness, as a game that’s not built to be educational, but “does an infinitely better job of teaching rules, mechanics, and how to learn.”

Gaming Strategy in Learning

Like an increasingly larger percentage of the population, Ashley grew up with games. Prior to teaching she had a background as a musician. Like any learned skill the methods of improving at a video game are remarkably similar to learning music. “Want to get faster at a speed run? I practice it the same way when I’m practicing a fast musical passage,” she said. “Want to figure out why a student doesn’t get something? I examine the components the same way I do when encountering a puzzle in a game. These strategies work horizontally across games, teaching, and music.”

Ashley saw a natural connection. She began incorporating specific elements of gaming into her classroom. “Games are motivating. Kids want to play them. The benefit of applying game mechanics to the classroom is that we can preserve educational content. This content can become more motivating, more engaging, and more fun in the process.”

the witness classroom

The Witness is an example of a game that can teach without being designed to be educational.

This can even go well beyond the classroom. Ashley points out that by making learning itself enjoyable, you create a life-long learner. “Think of how badly your kid wants to play Minecraft. Do you wish they would want to learn about South America in the same way?”

So kids love video games and we want them to love learning. How do we actually do that?

Bringing Games into the Classroom

“Games and education are incredibly similar. In the classroom kids are immersed in a content-specific environment (the levels and worlds of a game). Students’ skills and knowledge increase throughout the year (learning new game skills and abilities). They’re tested to show their learning (boss fights). When they leave for Summer vacation, they have a different informed perspective than when they began the school year.”

Video games help motivate by providing small setbacks and big rewards in an immersive environment. Most games have long abandoned the simple Game Over screen (though that certainly has its own form of motivation). Instead we see checkpoints and autosaves.

Games generally want us to learn and succeed – just as teachers do. Often the fastest way to win is by losing, and learning from those mistakes. By creating an immersive environment in the classroom we can create organized rules that everyone follows, but still allow for autonomy. Students should be able to demonstrate their competency beyond tests.

Ashley uses an example of teaching World War II. Instead of simply reading from a book and taking a test (rote memorization), she could assign diverse character roles among her students. She establishes the rules but allows for each student to learn their specific role and demonstrate their own learned knowledge.

Motivation from Achievements

Achievements are a great video game tool that can be applied to classroom learning. Ashley breaks down achievements into several different categories. Perfunctory achievements are simple tasks anyone can do, like telling a joke. They help build confidence and make a reassuring connection. “Later achievements have some scaffolds of difficulty: name five periodic elements for 4th graders. Learn 10 for 5th grade. I try to have achievements that work on creativity and collaboration, like learning a song – and as a separate achievement, teaching it to someone else.”

None of these achievements were tied to actual grades. They allowed small mistakes but big rewards. Achievements are largely optional and self-motivating. Ashley found that the more achievements students completed, the higher their grade and motivation for learning.

I asked Ashley what she thought of the current and future landscapes of gaming and education. She admits that gaming’s biggest obstacle is largely generational. “The current parent demographic is still the hold out to games, and that’s the age a lot of teachers are as well. They aren’t 50+ with more time to play mobile games, and they aren’t as young as older millennials who were born into a world of gaming.”

We’re at a point where the first kids that grew up gaming are having kids of their own and sending them to school. The perception of gaming is already changing. Its positive applications are undeniable. “I believe that classroom education can be modified in meaningful ways thanks to videos games as long as individual teachers are willing to apply gaming mechanics,” Ashley said. “The more teachers are willing to try it, the more likely we are to see truly innovative, engaging classrooms that both students and teachers enjoy.”

This article was written by

Eric is a freelance writer who enjoys talking about video games, movies, books and Dallas-based sports teams. He's a featured community blogger on GameInformer.com and every week he watches a random film from his collection of several hundred DVDs and live tweets about it @RogueWatson. He also makes a mean tuna quesadilla. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas with his wife and daughter, two dogs, two cats, two fish tanks, some hermit crabs and a bookshelf full of Transformers.