Five Reasons Why Video Games Power Up Learning

| June 15, 2011 | 9 Comments
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By Aran Levasseur

The famous videogame designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, known for creating some of the most iconic and successful videogames in history, such as Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda, once said, “Videogames are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock n’ roll.”

In retrospect, we know rock ‘n roll’s influence has gone beyond creating a new kind of music, shaping many other aspects of culture: lifestyles, fashion, attitudes and language. And there is compelling evidence that rock ‘n roll may have even helped the civil rights movement.

In a similar fashion, videogames have been stigmatized by an older generation (that has largely never played them) as corrupting the moral and cognitive fiber of a generation. At best they can help develop some hand-eye coordination. At worst videogames can turn you into a sociopath.

Because games are complex, you are continually reformulating and retesting your hypothesis — the hallmark of critical thinking.

But from what I’ve seen in my classroom, videogames aren’t bad for you at all. In fact, videogames are powerful tools for learning.

Learning about Middle East Conflict

Take, for example, the game PeaceMaker, which I’ve integrated into my 7th grade history classes.

PeaceMaker is a simulation of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Players play as either the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister — under calm, tense or violent circumstances. Players have to make numerous decisions in the midst and wake of challenging circumstances and events, such as suicide bombings and missile strikes.

When the players make decisions they are immediately assessed and converted into polls that show how the Palestinians, Israelis, Arab countries, Europeans, Americans and the United Nations think of their leadership. The goal is to make decisions that walk the middle path and reach peaceful consensus in the form of a two state solution.

In the process of the gameplay, players learn to think like politicians and negotiators. The game requires taking a variety of constituencies into consideration when making decisions; otherwise their decisions would be too myopic. To create a peaceful solution requires reconciling polar worldviews, which means having a working knowledge of each extreme and a sense of which series of decisions can chart a middle way that unites both sides of the conflict.

The Learning Principles of Gaming

What makes PeaceMaker, and videogames in general, powerful tools for learning is that a variety of effective learning principles are embedded within the game design. While there is a spectrum of learning principles embedded within good game design, I’ve distilled the list down to five cornerstones.

1. Just-in-time learning.
Videogames give you just enough information that you can usefully apply. You are not given information you’ll need for level 8 at level 1, which can often be the case with schools that download files of information that are never applied. Videogames provide doable challenges that are constantly pushing the edge of a player’s competence. This is similar to Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

2. Critical thinking.
When you play videogames you’re entering a virtual world with only the vaguest idea of what you are supposed to do. As a result, you need to explore the physics of the game and generate a hypothesis of how to navigate it. And then test it. Because games are complex, you are continually reformulating and retesting your hypothesis — the hallmark of critical thinking.

3. Increased memory retention.
Cognitive science has recently discovered that memory is a residue of thought. So what you think about is what you remember. As videogames make you think, they also hold the potential to increase memory retention.

4. Emotional interest.
Videogames are emotionally engaging. Brain research has revealed that emotional interest helps humans learn. Basically, we don’t pay attention to boring things. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain and also the gateway to learning.

5. We learn best through images.
Vision is our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. The more visual input, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled. Videogames meet this learning principle in spades as interactive visual simulations.

The New Gold Standard of Learning

Videogames are emerging as a new gold standard of learning because they effectively integrate many vital learning principles into their design.

Eric Hoffer, the San Francisco longshoreman and philosopher, said that “in times of change learners inherit the Earth while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

We are living in such times of rapid changes, and those who are most adaptive not only survive, but thrive. I believe videogames represent one of many new powerful forms of media that are tailored to our times, and can also be leveraged as a tool for learning that cultivates critical thinking and emotional engagement.

Computers and videogames represent the latest possibility of turning swords into plowshares: The first computers were used for code-breaking and calculating ballistic trajectories during World War II. And now, with the right kind of scaffolding, hopefully we can use computers and computer games to connect, collaborate and create a more peaceful world.

Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. For the last five years he’s taught middle school history and science. From the beginning he’s been integrating technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. He recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he’s the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School.

This story was originally published by PBS MediaShift, covering the intersection of media and technology. Follow @PBSMediaShift for Twitter updates, or join us on Facebook.

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  • Lucast

    You obviously know very little about the Israeli-Arab conflict. “Palestinians” are nothing but Arabs that the Saudis, Jordanians, et al, don’t want in their own countries, or are using to oust Israel off it’s historical lands. The word notion of a separate “Palestine” (historically, land of the Philistines, i.e., those often associated with gross idolatry, including the practice of child sacrifice, ritual prostitution and other base atrocities) is based on the erroneous assumption that they “always lived there.” In fact, they did not. 

    Thus, your argument for the virtue of video games based on this specious prima facie argument and historic revisionism is weak, at best, and propagandistic, at worst.

    Do your homework first.

    • Lucast

      Oops..typo: its

      • Lee

        The problem with video games, in my view, is that the more human beings engage with machines, the more they disengage with each other. Seems that they are as addictive as many a drug. As a teacher, I have an awful time pulling my kids away from their computers to accomplish actual work; they would rather play “Paper Zombies” than produce something. 

        A great waste of brain energy and time.

        • MarianFrae

          That’s why, as a teacher, you need to either give them something productive AND fun to do on their computers or not give them the computers.
          Ten or eleven years ago, my elementary school teacher was trying to teach me long division. Most of the class had already learned and moved on but I was still struggling greatly. Then, the computer lab obtained a new math game and it was “strongly suggested” that all the teachers give it a shot. After a couple of months of simply not picking up on how to do long division, I learned in a week–probably only two or three hours of actual play time. I can’t remember what the game was called. I can’t remember any of the character names. . . but I do remember how to do long division; and, I remember that I ended up getting ahead of the curriculum and class in math because I played a computer game that made the process fun and engaging.
          Sure, video games can be addicting. . . but it’s not the game itself that gets players hooked. Video games come with challenges that you don’t find in normal schoolwork. They have obtainable achievements and acknowledgments not only make you feel good about the time you’ve spent, but often reward you as well. At school, your achievements can always be better and your reward for succeeding is simply more school.
          Someday, I’d love to see a school that is actually developed around how children work. The learning process needs two parts–engaging things that make learning fun and the classic lecture and notes.
          Video games could very well become the new Schoolhouse Rock–an innovative and engaging new media that not only gives children a way to have fun with school, but gets them interested in further areas within that subject.

        • Michelle

          Yeah, you’re seeing that result on schooled children.  In unschooled children, who have no gaming time limits to worry about, video games do not become addicting.  It’s the act of controlling children through controlling the amount of time they are “allowed” to play that creates addiction.

    • http://twitter.com/gutterkisser Tom Fraux

      Given that the article is actually about adapting gameplay principles to a learning environment, and not a political discussion, your comments are completely unnecessary. 

      The Palestine example was to show how a few gameplay staples – critical thinking, branching decision making, etc – can be applied to a less abstracted context. The game already sounds far less biased on the subject than you do. If it’s a successful gateway for students to engage with the real-world subject matter, then that is a pretty amazing result if you ask me.

      Anyway, interesting article thank you – as mainstream as gaming has become, it’s still an easy target for reactionary media so this kind of coverage is always refreshing.

  • Dave Wingler

    I’ve found playing games in my classes by using a variety of mediums has an overall positive effect in motivating my students to try harder.  Not liking that my students were becoming disengaged with each other I went so far as to have an app for the iPad (Futaba) developed for vocabulary review.  Students play together as opposed to being singularly immersed in their devices and all educators can use it in their curriculum.  A good balanced intellectual competition between my students enriches the learning experience.  I hope there is a push towards creation of video games which require collaboration and are purposefully designed to have students learn and practice specific aspects of curriculum.  In that way we can engage students to learn even more while at the same time developing important skills in interacting with one another.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.gametester Joe Gametester

    There is even a company that uses video games to teach life skills and at the same time you learn what it is to become a video game tester.  PowerUpGames.com.  It is a slightly different slant to it all.

  • Hihi 414

    yolo