Game On!


Now educators can translate their students' love of video games into the use of a valuable, multifaceted learning tool.

SCHOOL ISN'T ALL FUN AND GAMES, but it’s starting to move in that direction. As computer and online gaming has dominated youth culture, it was inevitable that the technology would penetrate the educational system.

But what if you can’t stand the thought of allowing games into your classroom? No problem: Educational gaming enthusiasts are prepared to convert you. Marc Prensky, writing in Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill, 2000), makes it clear that gaming is now a way of life: “Today’s schoolchildren, elementary through college, travel with their own personal Game Boys, Handicams, cell phones, portable CD and MP3 players, pagers, laptops, and Internet connections.”

Yet if the introduction of computer games into schools was an unavoidable development, it was also an auspicious one. Digital game-based learning (DGBL), the uniting of educational content with computer or online games, holds the potential for a wealth of educational applications, if managed properly. Simply put: It motivates by virtue of being fun. It’s versatile, can be used to teach almost any subject or skill, and, when used correctly, is extremely effective. What’s more, its use is supported by constructivist theory, which calls for active engagement and experiential learning.

In Prensky’s view, DGBL will eventually be taken for granted as the way people learn, because it meets the needs and learning styles of today’s and future generations of students.

Still, teachers say they have good reasons to be reluctant to bring games into their classrooms: 1) The goals of a game may not be consistent with learning objectives, and may function as a distraction to students instead of as a learning tool. 2) A game’s features (use of color, sound, flickering, etc.) might trigger unacceptable cognitive and physiological responses. 3) Many video games are just too violent for users of any age. And 4) there is general concern about how gaming fits in with the demands of a standards-driven accountability movement in education. In fact, in his book, Prensky concedes that near total revision of existing consumer games is needed for the games to be useful as education vehicles.

Before becoming converts to DGBL, however, educators need answers to questions about how games can support learning, what makes a good game, and what types are available. But if you can address and dispel those concerns, you’ll find plenty of DGBL examples suitable for K-12, in addition to resources for learning more about this emerging technology.

Game-Based Benefits

Assuming the education community can afford it, DGBL promises to bring broad learning benefits on several fronts:
Provide deep digital engagement to students who have come to expect it.
Offer motivation for persistence in completing courses.
Enable customized learning experiences.
Promote both long-term memory and transfer of learning to practical, everyday life endeavors.

Planning and problem solving.The key to unlocking potential learning gains is to find good role-playing, simulation, or adventure games that do not include violence. Such games involve strategic planning and problem solving, and enable concepts to be developed and remembered. Adventure games, for instance, enhance reading and observation skills by forcing users to read carefully and look for details in visuals, in order to plan strategies. Simulation games expand students’ common knowledge, provide real-life experiences that they might not otherwise get, and have the potential to enhance logical-thinking skills. (Players might need to select problem-solving methods and put them in sequential order to proceed through the game.) Map-reading skills are often employed in simulations, and in some simulation and role-playing games, players must create maps and take notes. The ability to take good notes, organize those notes, and find them when needed are all associated with good study skills.

Expanding vocabulary. Many games introduce new words that must be understood for the player to be successful. Thus, vocabulary building and spelling naturally improve. For example, to succeed at Civilization III (, a history simulation, players must understand such terms as anarchy, despotism, monarchy, communism, republic, and democracy, along with 13 terrain types (e.g., grassland, mountains, woodland).

Improving mental agility. An expert gamer has anything but a lazy mind. In fact, superior gaming has been linked to expert behaviors such as self-monitoring, pattern recognition, principled decision-making, qualitative thinking, and superior long- and short-term memory.

Research continues to turn up additional benefits of gaming, including therapeutic effects such as the ego boost, increased motivation, and enhanced self-worth that result from excelling at complex games. Additionally, case studies have shown that video games can help develop the spatial abilities and basic skills of special-needs kids, including language, math, and reading skills (go to There are even associated social benefits. Though video games are often played in isolation, they provide a common interest for children to discuss by trading tips and experiences.

According to Henry Jenkins, principal investigator for the MIT-Microsoft Games-to-Teach project (now concluded, but replaced with the Education Arcade initiative at, who examined the educational potential of computer and video games, games lower the threat of failure, foster a sense of engagement through immersion, link learning to goals and roles, are multimodal, and support early steps into a new domain.

The business world is already tapping in to the potential of game-based learning. Companies are turning to DGBL to reach audiences for difficult assessment and certification issues, complex process understanding, what-if analysis, and strategy development and communication.

But educators are catching on. The Alabama Department of Education recently spent $200,000 to give every fourth-grade student access to the online video game STAR Sportsmanship (, which it believes will be a strong asset to its mandated character-education program. The New Hampshire Department of Education adopted the standards-based Achieve Now program for use in its No Child Left Behind-mandated Supplemental Education Service tutoring program for Title I students. Achieve Now is a game-based K-8 curriculum from Plato Learning (

Learning Techniques

Interactive learning techniques used in DGBL vary from sophisticated problem solving to basic memorization.

Practice and feedback, sometimes associated with drill-and-kill programs, can be valuable for learning facts or basic skills through repetition.
Learning by doing adds the elements of exploration, discovery, and problem solving.
Learning from mistakes is lifted from reality (trial and error). Players move forward until an error is made; sometimes they must return to the beginning and start over.
Goal-oriented learning is related to learning how to do something, and motivates students to push on to overcome failures.
Discovery learning and “guided discovery” are associated with adventure games, which involve problem-solving scenarios.
Task-based learning involves students solving a series of tasks or problems that build on each other and gradually increase in difficulty. Guidance and modeling are provided to assist players with learning skills.
Question-led learning is connected with quiz games in which players reason among options.
Role-playing provokes reflection, which is an important part of learning. Simulation, adventure, strategy, and puzzle games require players to consider options, which means that games incorporating these strategies might move at a slower pace.
Coaching provides assistance to help solve problems and move through a game.
“Accelerated” (multisensory) learning incorporates memory techniques and a see-hear-do approach that appeals to multiple learning styles. The strategy has proven to be effective in learning foreign languages (see
Selecting from learning objects allows the user to link independent content modules and certain interactions on demand for a customized experience.
Intelligent tutoring enables specific feedback based on student errors.
Mastery learning can be built into DGBL, which is in line with the NCLB accountability movement. Although some games allow players to choose a level of difficulty, many contain levels organized by graduated difficulty in which players can’t progress to the next level without mastering the current level.

Selecting Game Types

Games can roughly be categorized as Action, Adventure, Fighting, Puzzle, Role-playing, Simulation, Sports, and Strategy. Choosing the appropriate type depends on the content to be learned and/or mental processes to be developed (see “Choosing the Right Game,” left). Several other variables must also be considered, including:

Students’ age, characteristics, gender, competitiveness, and previous gaming experience.
The game’s target age level, which indicates the likelihood that students will understand the rules and possess the necessary motor skills for playing by them.
Special needs. Some kids with disabilities might be left out. Visually handicapped students, for example, may require enlarged text (and some traditional students need to work alone, rather than in groups).
Gender and racial diversity. In its choice of characters, language, or situations, does the game offend or slight any particular group of students?
Number of players. How many students can play at one time? Will too many be left sitting on their hands?
The role of the teacher. Passive observer or active participant?

Teachers should also get a few other questions settled before deciding if a game is right for their students:

It’s not whether you win or lose—or is it? For classroom use, the nature of DGBL would suggest that games involving strategies to win are preferred over those involving luck. But the drive to win may obscure the educational intent, as well as alienate less-capable students. Teachers may be interested in determining if the game allows all to win, and whether or not winning comes at the expense of others.

Will it ever end? The duration of the game is a crucial consideration. At one end of the game spectrum are “persistent-state” games, which typically are role-playing games that support thousands of players at a time, go on forever, and don’t require all players to play at the same time; then there are “session” games, which exist for only as long as players are playing; when the game is won, players start over.

Fraction Track ( is one such session game. It illustrates that digital games do not have to be elaborate. The game is listed among e-examples in Principles and Standards for School Mathematics by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (yers are playing; when the game is won, players start over.

Fraction Track ( Microsoft’s Rise of Nations ( requires teachers to help students relate their game-based insights about complex systems to school content, but such dialog provides opportunity for reflection and the linking of knowledge across several disciplines.

How hard is it? The difficulty level of a game and the time required to learn it can interfere with its effectiveness. In discussing the results of his study using Civilization III in a high school history class, Kurt Squire, a professor of educational communications and technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in “Changing the Game: What Happens When Video Games Enter the Classroom” ( that the game “takes hundreds of hours to master and can be played dozens of ways; players can win through military, scientific, economic, political, or cultural superiority (and most likely a combination of each).” Many students found the game too complex, overwhelming, and just too difficult. It appealed to students for whom traditional education was not working, rather than to students who were doing well in the class. This latter group had difficulty accepting how success on a game unit would help them pass college entrance exams or perform well in a college classroom.

A Question of Value

The academic, the game developer, and the student will each have a different perspective on the value of DGBL. Graduate courses for K-12 educators have taken up the debate, such as the one I have personally taught on technology skills for virtual teachers. However, the decision on whether to use DGBL as an instructional strategy must be made according to the needs of students. Stakeholders such as parents, administrators, and teachers will want assurances that games played during class time are clearly linked to learning subject matter and not usurped as toys by students. As with any new learning methodology or technology, appropriate staff development must be provided for integrating DGBL into the curriculum.

While research has shown that games have considerable success when designed to address a given problem or teach a certain skill, their value outside of the game-playing scenario remains an important, undecided question for researchers. Even with acceptance or proof of broader value, educators may need to call on their differentiated instruction practices to provide alternatives for students who are not engaged by a particular game.

Ultimately, however, problems with integrating DGBL into schools are more systemic. Squire believes that “even if you had the ideal game…it is not certain that such a game could even survive in today’s educational environment as our contemporary educational systems do not know how to sustain a curricular innovation built on the properties that make games compelling.”

Systemic change might begin to take shape when school administrators, pre-service teachers, and in-service teachers are awakened to uses for DGBL that meet their own needs. Such games as School Tycoon (, simSchool (, and the aforementioned STAR Sportsmanship can help pave the way. Once teachers experience firsthand the unique mix of learning and fun that games can offer, they’ll be more secure in making them available to their students.

Patricia Deubel is an education consultant and adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University in Minneapolis. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.