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Four Ways to Teach with Video Games

Educators have long been receptive to the educational potential of new technologies and teaching methods. Several excellent arguments for innovation can be found in a 1930 article titled "Educating the Twentieth-Century Youth," which advocates the use of new media like "[t]he stereograph, the stereopticon slide, the motion picture, and the radio," citing changing expectations from students, the advantages of experiential learning, and new realities of global politics and commerce (Dorris 77). This sense that modernity calls for modernization is a large part of what lies behind the intensifying interest in how video games and game-like simulations can be used effectively in the classroom.

Interest in educational uses for games (meaning, for the purposes of this article, video games running on computers, handheld systems like the Nintendo DS or console hardware like the Xbox 360) has risen markedly in recent years. A search of the Education Resources Information Database for the terms “video game” and “education” returns a total of 59 documents published between 1990 and 1999. The same search returns 48 publications from 2009 alone. Games are being used to teach, they are being studied by researchers, and they are being written about by educational theorists. Games will only become more prevalent in classrooms in the future. One recent study showed that teacher candidate attitudes towards video games were overwhelmingly positive, with 96% of surveyed secondary teacher education candidates agreeing that "games offer an effective way to teach and learn" (Sardone and Devlin-Scherer 62).

Research and theory within this emerging field cover a wide range of promising approaches, but evidence suggests that teachers are focused primarily on the most straightforward implementations of game technology. In light of the obstacles faced by many teachers today, including government-defined educational standards (Simpson and Clem, "Video Games"; Charsky and Mims 42), limited time, money, and technological support (Charsky and Mims 39; Van Eck 25-26; Tüzün 471) and organizational skepticism of game-based teaching (Shultz Colby and Colby 302; Charsky and Mims 39), such strategies are quite logical. However, other approaches are possible and may prove more appropriate and effective in certain situations. This article attempts to broaden horizons and encourage experimentation with games in the classroom by providing a basic taxonomy of four ways to teach with games, supported in each case by examples from the literature and notes about the strengths, weaknesses and challenges inherent in each approach.

1. Games that Teach Content

The most straightforward way to teach with video games is to have students play a game containing content that aligns with an existing school curriculum. Educators have been using games to teach in this way at least since 1971, when three student teachers created the classic educational game The Oregon Trail for use in a U.S. history course.

Early arguments for this approach often centered on the idea that "video games are fun, and as such, provide an intriguing prospect for coercing some children to learn" (Silvern 10). The fact that games are effective at motivating players has remained a fundamental rationale for teaching with content-aligned games. Prensky describes students who came of age in the internet era as "digital natives" who naturally learn better while using technology (Prensky, "Listen to the Natives" 9-13). Studies support the idea that 21st-century youth have a strong affinity for technology, particularly video games and communications networks (Jones et al 6, Lenhart et al 2-3). Other writers attribute the appeal of games to their engaging mix of factors including challenge, fantasy and interactivity (Malone 162; Owston 978).

One of the more sophisticated arguments for teaching with content-aligned games is that such games present players with an entry route to expertise in a given field through what educational theorists call "epistemic frames" (Shaffer 227-228). These frames are collections of skills, practices, values and identities held in common by "communities of practice" (227). Games can create these epistemic frames by embedding a player in a virtual community of practice, where he or she will learn these ways of seeing by acting as an expert and interacting with other experts, in the form of teachers, other players and "non-player characters" controlled by the software (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson and Gee 9).  These epistemic games spur learning even outside of gameplay, as players share information about game mechanics, game narratives and real-world topics that bear on the problems they are solving within the games. Squire, who spent years studying how the historical strategy game Civilization III could be used to teach world history, reports that the "disenfranchised kids" (19) in one fairly typical study quickly assimilated the game's historical content:

Within just a few weeks, all of the participants showed dramatic improvements in their basic geography and history skills. Most could locate the major ancient civilizations on a map, and all could name key historical military units, as well as make arguments about the growth of cities in particular geographic areas. Students were skilled with collegiate-level world history terminology, using words and terms such as monotheism, cathedral, and ancient Persians regularly. (19)

Significantly, learning did not end when play ceased. Squire writes that all study participants "checked out books, completed school reports, and regularly engaged in voluntary learning activities stemming from their game play" (20).

Teaching with content-aligned games, and particularly epistemic games, has a great deal in common with what we think of today as good pedagogy. Many schools already support epistemic learning through activities such as model United Nations, school newspapers, and hands-on science experiments. Like many video games, these activities promote "the situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, and shared values that make someone an expert" (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson and Gee 5). Learning by playing fits easily into constructivism-derived pedagogical models that value learning by doing (Van Eck 18; Charsky and Mims 41), and is a clear match with the learning styles of digital natives, who prefer to gain knowledge through trial-and-error when possible (Simpson and Clem, "Video Games"; Sardone and Devlin-Scherer 41).

Teaching with content-aligned games has received more attention from academics than the approaches below, and most work on the subject is quick to pinpoint the major limitation of this approach: there are too few games built around school-appropriate content. Some school subjects do appear frequently in games, including forms of government, economic models, historical events and simulated physics, but even these may be presented in ways that do not align with educational standards or teacher preferences. As a result, educators have often sought to imitate the example of The Oregon Trail and design their own games (Tüzün 472-473; Van Eck 19-20), only to find that matching the quality of commercial products requires money and expertise they do not possess (Simpson and Clem, "Video Games"; Charsky and Mims 38; Tüzün 470; Prensky "Students as Designers" 1013-1014). Van Eck argues that this leads to edutainment titles in which "neither the learning nor the game is effective or engaging" (Van Eck 20). Prensky agrees, attributing such failures to the large amounts of money and highly specialized skills necessary to "create, test and iterate" high-quality games (Prensky "Students as Designers," 1009). Nor can professional video game developers necessarily succeed where educators have failed, since effective teaching also requires highly specialized skills and knowledge. Collaboration between these groups is possible if game developers come to consider the education market a significant one, but this ideal situation would not guarantee a flood of high-quality educational games. In the words of legendary game designer Will Wright, "[c]reating a good game is hard enough; creating one based on educational content is even harder" (1009).

One possible solution to the challenge of limited content alignment is for educators to find ways to teach using games that do not exactly match their curricula. Several authors have offered templates for this type of instruction, proposing ways for teachers to use gameplay journals, classroom discussion, lectures and writing assignments to highlight not only what games get right, but what they get wrong as well (Whelchel, "Using Civilization"; Charsky and Mims 41-42; Van Eck 22-23). Because game mechanics and content are not monolithic, different aspects of games may also be used to teach multiple subjects. Gros explains that in her study, the core of the game Age of Empires II was used to teach social sciences, while the students simultaneously learned to read charts and graphs from the game's statistical screens (33). Creative approaches like these can overcome or at least mitigate many of the challenges posed by teaching with video games that are content-aligned with subjects already being taught in schools.

2. Games as Texts

English courses have long been open to texts outside of traditional written fiction, and many modern video games work well in this capacity. Playing a complex narrative game involves exploring, learning rules, taking risks, developing and testing hypotheses, and reading words, sounds and images (Gee 88). A typical play session of the 2007 game BioShock, for example, might find the player undertaking a mission in the underwater city of Rapture. Rapture is an unfamiliar environment, and so the player must listen to instructions over his or her radio and consult maps to find the proper location to fulfill the mission. Meanwhile, the player must also find a way to avoid or fend off the city's crazed inhabitants, using a combination of stealth, weaponry and special powers obtained through genetic modification. Even as the player follows orders, locates the best route and experiments with combat tactics, he or she will find audio logs that provide background on the political and social history of Rapture—some of which contradicts the story being told by the player's sympathetic radio "ally." Remarking on the medium's combination of new and traditional literacies, sociolinguist James Paul Gee describes gaming as "a multimodal literacy par excellence" (Gee 18; Alexander 36).

Gee argues that games not only build literacy skills, they teach players new ways to learn and to think about learning (87-89). If games promote learning outside of their core content areas, then the dearth of games built around traditional classroom content need not prevent educators from teaching with games. This view of education as the process of teaching students how to learn, how to use technology effectively and how to apply skills across content areas echoes the current push to prepare students for an information economy by teaching 21st-century skills and literacy (21st Century Workforce Commission 22; Lemke 27).

Students are capable of engaging with the multiple literacies within games at a high level. In a case study focusing on two college students who played the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft, researcher Jonathan Alexander identified five distinct literacy skills employed by his subjects: critical analysis, multicultural communication, collaborative writing, and reflection about the relationship between in-game and real-world skills (45). Equally significant to educators is Alexander's conclusion that teaching games as texts does not require a radical restructuring of the curriculum, since student work about games can fit into the same categories as work about any other medium, and can therefore be evaluated by the same criteria (59; Shultz Colby and Colby 309-310).

Research further suggests that students are eager to engage with video games alongside, or even as, written literature (Robertson and Good 44). One junior high school remedial reading instructor found that her students were far more enthusiastic about reading when they could select books based on video game stories, such as Halo: The Fall of Reach, a prequel to the popular Halo game franchise (Jolley 85). Another teacher, who conducted multiple case studies with the dialogue-heavy role-playing game Neverwinter Nights, reported that the game's advanced fantasy vocabulary encouraged "model reading behaviors" for weak and strong readers alike (Adams 56).

Although not restricted by the need to find games that are content-aligned with existing school subjects, the games-as-texts approach is limited in other ways. Gaming literacy is more demanding to teach than traditional written literacy, in part because there are far fewer resources extant for teachers to turn to. Teaching students how to read games requires first teaching them how to play those games, and the costs of this instruction—in class time, hardware and software—can add up quickly. As with written literacy, students in the same class may possess vastly different gaming literacy skills; teacher Megan Glover Adams was able to overcome this to an extent by pairing students who were then able to tutor each other (56). Additionally, textual analysis is not an ideal mode of instruction for some subjects, though it is well suited to a variety of English, history and social science courses.

Even in cases where time and money are not insurmountable obstacles, educators must find games in which the plot and its presentation (through such elements as writing, voice acting and animation) merit analysis. Video game journalist Jeff Gerstmann has said of quality of game writing that "[g]reat stories in games are rare...Game writing is still not to the level of book writing [or] movie writing" (Giant Bombcast, "Game of the Year"). While it is possible to find games that rise far above the rest in this respect, educators must know how to research available games and read through the likely candidates to determine whether the content and experience are appropriate for use as a text. This may require more gaming literacy on the part of educators themselves than is yet common.

3. Students Making Games

Making a video game can be an expensive, time-consuming process requiring skilled programmers, artists, game designers and writers. Yet research shows that with the right tools and technical assistance, students are capable of creating video games as part of their education, and that they enjoy and benefit from the experience.

The educational rationale for having students create games depends on the context of the activity, but generally falls into one of the approaches discussed above: either games are a venue for students to acquire and demonstrate content expertise in a particular subject, or else they are composed as "interactive stories" (Carbonaro et al 687). A study in which students developed questions and answers about curricular content for use in simple quiz games cited the potential of gaming as a "vehicle for increasing motivation and engagement," while also mentioning theories of digital nativity, digital literacy and epistemic learning (Owston et al 978). Studies in which students develop original stories with game technology tend to focus on the significance of digital literacy, as well as the presence of traditional literacies within narrative game genres (Robertson and Good 44-46; Carbonaro et al 688-689). Theories of constructivist and constructionist learning, which hold that learning is most effective when students construct mental models or tangible artifacts, respectively, frequently appear in the literature covering both approaches (Robertson and Good 46; Carbonaro et al 704-705; El-Nasr and Smith 2).

There is a cost-reward ratio in the use of games for education. The simpler a game is, the less training and ability are required to play it; yet the simplest games are appropriate only for teaching bite-sized chunks of information, and rarely support the higher order thinking levels defined by Bloom's Taxonomy (Rice 90; Prensky "Complexity Matters," 6). The same principle applies to student game design. To navigate this balance, teachers who wish to have students create games must first familiarize themselves with the game genres and game creation tools that can support their intended instruction. Dozens of software tools exist to help non-programmers develop video games, ranging from simple quiz games, into which students need only plug questions and answers, to professional art, animation and level-design tools that allow users to create new content for complex commercial game engines.

Patterns in the selection and use of game creation tools for education are beginning to emerge. Educators interested in the creation of content-aligned games seem to opt for mini-game development, which allows students to either focus on content to the exclusion of technology (Owston et al 980) or to ensure that the content being studied is central to the game mechanics and design (Tannenbaum, "At-Risk Students"). Educators interested in having students write their own game-texts tend to work with complex games in the role-playing game genre, specifically computer role-playing games such as Neverwinter Nights, in which character actions and dialogue form a large portion of gameplay (Carbonaro et al 689; Robertson and Good 46). These games are often sold with tools that allow users to develop their own characters, maps and storylines, and research has demonstrated that students are able to successfully use these tools "to construct sophisticated interactive stories with very little training" (Carbonaro et al 687).

What constitutes "very little training" is likely to be relative, however. By any measure, having students create a game requires more training in technology and gaming literacy than having them merely play a comparable game. In other words, whereas teaching students to create games may achieve many of the same goals as teaching with content-aligned games or teaching games as texts, the implementation of this approach requires a greater willingness to restructure an existing curriculum. Prensky writes that the obstacles to such an undertaking are both practical and cultural ("Students as Designers," 1011-1012), and researchers have repeatedly found that student game creation presents significant scheduling and cultural challenges in a classroom setting (Owston et al 987; El-Nasr and Smith 3; Carbonaro et al 698). Student training is also not the only issue, as it is always a best practice for educators themselves to gain expertise with a game technology before introducing that technology to students (Charsky and Mims 38-39; Gros 35; Tüzün 474-475).

One way to circumvent limitations on time is to relocate game-making activities to learning spaces where they are not subject to the same restrictions, such as after school programs and summer classes (Prensky "Students as Designers," 1014). These settings are more likely to allow teachers to dispense with the lectures, class period time constraints  and content requirements that can impede creative experimentation (Prensky "Students as Designers," 1012; Robertson and Good 51). Researchers who have conducted studies in such settings report that students formed groups that were social and work-oriented, and worked feverishly both in and out of class (El-Nasr and Smith 9; Robertson and Good 57).

4. Game-Like Motivational Systems

For the purposes of this article, "game-like motivational systems" means those game mechanics that keep players engaged in playing in a video game. Given how effectively games accomplish this task, some educators have begun to look to these systems for ideas about how to structure their courses. This method of teaching with games requires a deep familiarity with video game design conventions, and a willingness to rethink pedagogy from the ground up. Probably not coincidentally, of the four approaches covered in this article, it is by far the least explored in academic literature.

Modern games frequently mirror well-known pedagogical techniques in their rules, narratives, and gameplay experiences (Ang et al 542). Player-reward systems like equipment upgrades and player-character skill development operate as variable ratio reinforcements—a behaviorist technique that encourages behavior by rewarding it according to an unpredictable schedule (Ang et al 537). Well-designed games teach players new skills and strategies by building contextually on what they have learned before, paralleling Vygotskyian theories of scaffolding and "zones of proximal development" (Jackson 292; Shultz Colby and Colby 305). In-game tutorials and the social networks that develop around games similarly express Vygotsky's theories of social constructivism (Tüzün 474). Other game elements that motivate players and mirror good teaching techniques include setting clear goals, fomenting healthy competition and providing immediate feedback (Malone 163-166).

Speculating that "teachers and teacher educators can learn from the new and innovative ways videogames use these techniques," Janna Jackson undertook the bold experiment of structuring her educational technology course as a video game to as great a degree as possible (292). Jackson identified several game-like systems that she could mimic using technology, a careful selection of assignments and a close attention to detail. Students could choose from "Proficient, Expert, or Guru" versions of each assignment (296), and assignments could be reattempted with no penalty (295). New assignments became available to students only once they reached an aggregate point total on previous work, approximating the experience point systems common in role-playing games (295). If students became stuck, they could access a hint system and walkthrough for each assignment (296). Jackson even implemented a public "high score" system by posting the name and point total of the highest scorer each week (297).

Jackson's results were mixed. The overall quality of student work improved when compared to a more traditional version of the same course, and qualitative data supported the conclusion that "game-based teaching outscored direct instruction" (300). However, several confounding factors (low sample size, a change in universities) make the quantitative data suspect. Students ignored Jackson's attempts to incorporate a game-like narrative into the progression of assignments (297), avoided the more difficult versions of assignments (297), and had mixed reactions to the self-directed hint system (298-299). Some innovations, such as game-inspired assignment tutorials, the point system and the lack of penalties for resubmitting assignments, were received more enthusiastically. In general, Jackson found that students preferred the game-like motivational systems that differed least from "school norms" (296).

Other writers have suggested less extreme implementations of game-like motivational systems. Game-like online learning environments have received significant attention (Warren et al 115; Annetta et al 8), as researchers seek to leverage the motivational elements of social interaction, challenge and fantasy (Malone 162). Other theorists speculate that tying coursework directly to gameplay will motivate students, as in Shultz Colby and Colby's proposal for a combination research and textual analysis course in which the central text is the massively-multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft (304-305). Citing game theorist Johan Huizenga, Shultz Colby and Colby argue that school has become too much like work, and that the classroom should be refashioned as a "magic circle," a "pure space" that blurs the lines between game, school and real world (302-303).

Integrating game-like motivational systems into the classroom is not a new idea. As early as 1980, Malone suggested that the principles of video game design "can be applied to make a boring situation more interesting" (168). If not new, however, this approach is rarely implemented, and more research is called for before its benefits and limitations can be clearly defined. Despite the absence of significant research on their use, game-like motivational systems have at least one thing in their favor: they can be adopted incrementally. Teachers can integrate as many, or as few, game-like elements into their classroom as they desire, affording a measure of control that is difficult to maintain when using video games to teach in other ways.


New forms of media create new opportunites in education, but taking advantage of these opportunities is not simple. Each of the four approaches described in this article—teaching with content-aligned games, using games as texts, having students make games and integrating game-like motivational systems into the classroom—has great potential, but educators face significant challenges in their implementation.

Funding is one such challenge. Cheap or free games are plentiful, but these games tend to be less complex and have lower production values than commercial products, which limits their value to educators (Rice 90) and their appeal to students (Tüzün 470; Annetta et al 18). Some of the most promising work conducted with games for education has been undertaken with complex commercial computer games (Van Eck 22-23), which are not free and will not run well (if at all) without adequate computer hardware. These costs add up, particularly if several students will be playing a game concurrently, each on a separate computer and with a separate licensed copy of the software.

Limited time for training and instruction is also a problem. Acquiring expertise in a complex game can take upwards of a dozen hours; playing a game to completion can take far longer (Charsky and Mims 38). Creating a game can take anywhere from hours to years, depending on the scope of the exercise. Technological support, which is invaluable for educators planning to teach with games (Simpson and Clem, "Video Games"), is also a finite resource.

The generally low level of gaming literacy among teachers and school administrators is another barrier to the use of games in classrooms, since many educators are understandably reluctant to experiment with games about which they know little. Charsky and Mims suggest that teachers should not only play a game extensively before incorporating it into the curriculum, but should also purchase a strategy guide and research the game online (Charsky and Mims 38-39). This is good advice, but also a prohibitively costly time investment for most teachers (Gros 35). As of this writing, there are no educational gaming resources targeted specifically at teachers. Such a resource—for example, a website focusing on the use of specific content-aligned games to teach common subjects—would disseminate valuable information that is currently inaccessible to educators who have not either conducted extensive research or spent years as gamers themselves.

Access to resources can change, however. As interest in the educational use of games continues to grow, so too does the evidence that games are effective teaching tools. Eventually, perhaps, this will open the door to new funding sources and spark meaningful conversations about how classrooms and schools can adapt to better serve these modes of instruction.

Teachers who are now pioneering the use of games in their classrooms are laying the foundation for the future of education. Hopefully, a better understanding of how games can be used to teach will prove useful to these teachers, and will prompt new experimentation by others. More work is needed with each of the four approaches outlined in this article: in particular, more case studies testing the assertions of theorists, and more research into the relationships between granular factors like game genre, game difficulty, student skills and organizational and classroom culture. Only continued experimentation can fulfill the vast untapped potential of video games as a source of experience, knowledge and, yes, fun in students' lives.

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