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April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

Getting Into the Game

Our students are increasingly bored in school. Perhaps they should spend more time playing games.

Getting Into the Game- thumbnail
A recent survey of students at more than 20 U.S. colleges and universities revealed some startling statistics: All the students had played a video, computer, or online game, and 65 percent described themselves as “regular or occasional” game players. Almost half (42 percent) said that playing games sometimes kept them from studying—in fact, 9 percent said that their main motivation for playing games was to avoid studying. In an especially galling statistic for educators, 32 percent of the students admitted to playing recreational electronic games during class. Today's college students spend more time playing games than they spend going to movies, watching television, or reading books for pleasure (Jones, 2003).
These recreational preferences take shape at an early age. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation (2003) found that 50 percent of U.S. children have played computer games by the time they are 6 years old. And video games are a regular part of many teenagers' lives: A study dating back to 2001 showed that approximately 84 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds surveyed owned a video game console; 58 percent played video games for an hour or more every week (Thibodeaux, 2001). In recent years this number has only grown.
The term electronic game encompasses a wide range of products, from shooting games involving extreme violence to sports simulations to fantasy adventure games to puzzlers or brainteasers. Each category has distinct characteristics, but they also have qualities in common: They all have rules and goals, provide immediate feedback, and create an interactive, virtual environment in which the player has to struggle against some kind of opposition (Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004).
Some social commentators decry the growing amount of time that children and teenagers spend playing electronic games and allege that some play can have harmful side effects, such as increased aggression and reduced physical activity (Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004). A growing body of research disputes such claims as exaggerated or ill-founded (Jenkins, 2004a, 2004b). In any case, our students' fascination with such games is unlikely to fade. Instead of swimming against the tide, educators should consider the lessons that the gaming revolution can teach us. It's time for schools to get into the game.

What's in a Game?

Nobody would propose electronic games as a panacea for the problems plaguing contemporary education, but educators could learn something from the holding power of such games. The worst thing a kid can say about a homework assignment is that it's too hard; the worst thing a kid can say about a game is that it's too easy. Students who give up on difficult assignments will stay up until dawn trying to master the next level of a challenging game. In contrast, many students find school less than compelling.
The concept of intrinsic motivation may explain the difference between the effort young people devote to games and the effort they often invest in their schoolwork. Intrinsic motivation refers to activities that we do for their own sake rather than for an external reward, whether cash or grades. A story that anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt shares about her son's interest in baseball card collecting demonstrates the power of this kind of learning:Sam . . . learned a lot about phonics that year by trying to decipher surnames on baseball cards, and a lot about cities, states, heights, weights, places of birth, stages of life. Baseball cards opened the door to baseball books, shelves and shelves of encyclopedias, magazines, histories, biographies, novels, books of jokes, anecdotes, cartoons, even poems. Literacy began for Sam with the newly pronounceable names on the picture cards and brought him what has been easily the broadest, most varied, most rewarding, and most integrated experience of his 13-year life. (1991, pp. 33–34)
This playful activity, besides demanding certain skills and practices that had clear academic payoffs, helped Sam develop a sense of himself as a learner. He learned “the meaning of expertise, of knowing about something well enough that you can start a conversation with a stranger and feel sure of holding your own” (Pratt, 1991, p. 34). In other words, the baseball cards did for Sam what existing school materials often fail to do: They not only motivated him to develop basic competencies but also enabled and enticed him to enter ever more specialized domains of knowledge.
Current literature on games, play, and learning reaffirms Pratt's observations. For example, Gee (2004) compares the complexity of what kids learn by playing Pokémon with the much more restricted vocabulary we ask them to master at school. The difference in performance reflects the higher degree of personal and social investment that kids have in learning about Pokémon. Kids learn vocabulary in Pokémon by putting it into action as they immediately transform abstract concepts and classifications into elements in the game. They are motivated to master this content because they are actually engaging in something they want to do—an activity that their peer culture values.
Papert (1998) uses the term hard fun to describe the educationally compelling and valuable quality of the best commercial games. Papert asks, “Did you ever hear a game advertised as being easy?” He urges us to consider why young people find difficult games enjoyable when they find difficult schoolwork merely frustrating. At their best, games put kids in charge of their own learning and, at the same time, make them conscious of the learning process itself by presenting challenges they need to work through or around.
As one of the founders of the Education Arcade, a research collaborative started at MIT that seeks to explore and promote the pedagogical potential of computer and video games, I have spent the last few years reviewing research on games and learning, building prototypes for educational games, and developing curriculum to support the educational use of existing commercial games. Here are some of the things we have learned about the kinds of intrinsic motivations for learning built into games.
Games lower the threat of failure. In school, students often face considerable anxiety and sometimes harsh penalties if they make mistakes. In games, the best way to learn is to plunge in, make mistakes, lose your life, and then reboot so you can try again. Thus, games encourage exploration and experimentation. They do not give us answers that they ask us to memorize; instead, they ask us to make our own discoveries and then apply what we learn to new contexts.
Games foster a sense of engagement through immersion. The depersonalized and abstract prose of textbooks locks students out of the worlds those books describe. In the compelling microworlds constructed by games, however, kids can move about and have some stake in the events that unfold there. They can manipulate variables and see the consequences of their choices. Of course, game simulations cannot mirror every aspect of the phenomenon they represent, but the same can be said for the maps, charts, and graphs commonly found in textbooks.
Games sequence tasks to allow early success. They maintain a threshold at which players feel challenged but not overwhelmed. The aesthetics of current game design first emerged when games were coin-operated arcade attractions. The prevailing wisdom was that the game should allow you to score an initial victory and then present you with a slightly bigger challenge that would motivate you to keep putting in quarters because you always felt on the verge of success. As it happens, this sense of always being challenged and on the verge of succeeding is also a powerful motivation for learning.
Games link learning to goals and roles. When we approach designing educational games, the first question we ask the content experts is, “What does the information allow you to do?” Most textbooks never address this question. Games motivate learning by setting clear goals or allowing players to set their own goals. Games not only provide a rationale for learning but also create a context in which players immediately use what they learn to solve a compelling problem that has real consequences within the virtual world of the game.
Games create a social context that connects learners to others who share their interests. Game scholars use the term metagaming to refer to the discussions that occur as players share evaluations, experiences, tips, and knowledge with one another. Metagaming parallels what educators tell us about peer-to-peer teaching: The act of sharing what we know solidifies our own understanding and also provides a sense of empowerment and expertise.
Games are multimodal. Because different learners respond better to different ways of depicting the world and because conceptual understanding gets solidified as we process information in many different forms, learning experiences are more powerful when they incorporate multiple modes of representation—including text, photographs, graphics, or moving images (Kress, 2003). Most games offer multiple perspectives and often ask the player to assume multiple roles in the course of the game play.
Games support early steps into a new domain. Games not only provide a virtual environment for rehearsing skills and mastering knowledge but also provide a framework that motivates additional research and learning. Players seek out additional information that helps them flesh out the microworld. Even if the game doesn't provide an opportunity to deploy that information through play, this knowledge makes the game play a more immersive experience.

Bringing Games into the Classroom

As we have begun to develop games that can function as classroom resources, we have tried to build on these insights. Consider, for example, Revolution, a game we are developing for use in high school and middle school U.S. history classes. In Revolution, students assume the roles of townsfolk in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, as they go about their business and make political decisions on the eve of the American Revolution. Most of the major incidents and characters in the game are drawn from news reports in the Virginia Gazette, the major newspaper in Williamsburg in the 1770s. Students can read stories from the paper in preparation for playing the game. After they play, they can read further accounts to see how the actual community responded to the historic situations, or they can write their own news reports to describe how the events played out within the game. The game thus provides a solid context for students to learn from primary source materials, a skill emphasized by many state social studies standards. At the same time, each student has a distinctive experience, seeing the events through the eyes of a character of a specific class, race, gender, and political identity and making choices that affect the outcome of events. Playing these individual roles encourages students to participate in class discussions and thus provides an incentive to learn core vocabulary to share their perspectives.
But teachers do not need to use games specifically designed for education to tap the learning potential of games in their classroom teaching. Kurt Squire, codeveloper of Revolution and one of the codirectors of the Education Arcade, has introduced Civilization III into high school geography and history classes with positive results. Civilization III is a commercially developed strategy game in which players shape the growth and development of a historical civilization, negotiating trade agreements or plunging the civilization into war. Squire has found that playing this game helps students develop a strong conceptual framework for understanding the logic of historical change—for example, thinking about the role of resources or geographic location in determining the rate at which civilizations develop. Students also use a broad array of vocabulary words often included on standardized social studies tests—from monarchy to monotheism—as they analyze and articulate their game-play experience (Squire, 2004).
In both of these examples, the game serves as part of a larger education trajectory. Social studies teachers have long used role-playing to help students understand global politics or historical events from different perspectives. For example, the Model United Nations is essentially a role-playing game that teachers use as a catalyst to get students excited about understanding multi-national politics. Students don't just show up and participate in the Model United Nations assembly; they spend weeks preparing, doing library research, listening to relevant lectures, and reading in the textbook. Ideally, the role-play leads to other learning activities, such as writing assignments, class discussions, and oral presentations.
The educational use of electronic simulation games works the same way—not as a replacement for good teaching or tried-and-true methods, but as a tool that good teachers can use to spark learning and to provide a context for a range of other related experiences. More and more teachers are bringing games into their classrooms on these terms.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Language, learning, and gaming: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. (2004a). Making meaning, not war: Rethinking the video game violence debate. Independent Schools, 63(4).

Jenkins, H. (2004b). Reality bytes: Eight myths about video games debunked [Online]. Available:

Jones, S. (2003). Let the games begin: Gaming technologies and entertainment among college students. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Kaiser Family Foundation. (2003). Age zero to six: Electronic media in the lives of infants and preschool children. Menlo Park, CA: Author.

Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.

Mitchell, A., & Savill-Smith, C. (2004). The use of computer and video games for learning: A review of the literature. London: Learning & Skills Development Agency. Available:

Papert, S. (1998, June). Does easy do it? Children, games, and learning. Game Developer, 88. Available:

Pratt, M. L. (1991). Arts of the contact zone. Profession, 91, 33–40.

Squire, K. (2004). Replaying history: Learning world history through playing Civilization III. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana University School of Education, Bloomington, Indiana.

Thibodeaux, T. (2001). Gaming: The first CE contact. Dealerscope: The Business of CE Retailing, 3(43), 42.

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