Is gaming the future of classroom learning?

Experts explain why video games could transform education.

Philip Tan remembers vividly what it was like to live through the Cold War. He can recall the vulnerability of being scared and of believing “a nuclear holocaust was a real possibility” like it was yesterday.

That’s why Tan recognizes how powerful it is when high school students in a world history class today can grasp what it was like to live during an era of such uncertainty. However, the MIT research scientist doesn’t credit insightful textbooks or Model UN debates - he credits a video game.

"DEFCON" is a real-time military game “where you send out bombers and fleets of ships and try to intercept opponents’ nuclear weapons while firing your own,” Tan explains. “It’s about military strategy, but the atmosphere and the aesthetics get [the point] across: there’s no way to win this thing.”

That takeaway, Tan says, is what separates “DEFCON” and video games like it from other methods of teaching. And it’s why one history professor incorporated it into his syllabus alongside other media, including newspaper clippings and film.

“We can show these kids movies and give them things to read,” Tan explains, “but how do you really convey that this is what people woke up thinking could happen every day? It takes all the material they’re learning in school about the 1980s and puts it in context. They learn what it emotionally felt like to have to deal with those circumstances - that the world could end - as a reality.”

Why educators are adopting game-based learning

Tan and his colleagues at MIT Game Lab develop new approaches for game design by “exploring the potential of play.” And while the digital component may be new (and perhaps daunting), anyone who’s set foot in a physical education class should understand firsthand the benefits of games.

“Educators have been doing it with tabletop games and classroom activities for years,” Tan argues. “Gym class has the explicit purpose of building strength and ability. These video games also have a purpose: to inspire implicit teamwork, strategic thinking and a positive attitude. We’re just using modern technology to make it approachable.”

The difference with video games, says Jordan Shapiro, is there isn’t a fear of failure. Shapiro is a senior fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit that identifies through education and lab-based research how screens can help people learn.

“What games do - and what schools should do, but tend to do pretty poorly - is cultivate an attitude among students where they’re more comfortable with experimentation,” Shapiro poses. “Kids are not afraid of getting the answers wrong, they’re not afraid of failing, they’re not afraid of doing the wrong thing, because with any video game there’s a trial-and-error process of trying to learn how to operate within the game world.”

He explains that even a young child can figure out “the world’s simplest” game on a phone or tablet in no time - and do it with confidence.

“They experiment with it and figure it out pretty quickly, and they have the opportunity to do that over and over again. They cultivate the attitude of trial and error.”

That’s also why students across socioeconomic lines stand to benefit from game-based learning. Shapiro says it’s evident when visiting different types of schools just how great the impact can be.

“You’ll see the more privileged kids tend to have grown up in schools that are better at cultivating a sense of comfort with failure, comfort with an iterative process,” Shapiro explains. “The lower-income students don’t tend to get that same thing. They get a lot of, ‘Get it right or get out.’ These games end up scaling some of the great things about an elite school environment.”

Engagement is key

Whether it’s a Cold War simulation for high school students or an ST Math game geared toward kindergarteners, the goal of game-based learning is simple: education through engagement.

“People love to learn,” says Shapiro. “When you’re learning a video game, you’re learning about a system. It’s only that it teaches the subject so well that makes it so super-engaging. It’s not because it’s a screen. It’s not because of what’s on it. There is an addiction - an addiction to learning.”

The gaming expert poses that the perfect learning mechanism, factoring in all that’s known about learning science and education psychology, might look familiar to even non-gamers.

“It would probably look a lot like Angry Birds,” Shapiro says. “It’s a perfect step-by-step way of only telling you what you need to know when you need to know it. It gives you the chance to test each thing in an experiential way over and over again, and it moves exactly at the pace you want it to move. It never gets boring.”

Shapiro says he’s only played Angry Birds once on an eight-hour plane ride where he completed the whole game.

“I couldn’t stop. It sounds silly, but think of how complex it is: First you have to learn the arc of the game, then you have to learn how each bird works (tap it in the air, it explodes). These are pretty complex systems. It’s a superficial, irrelevant narrative, but the thought among experts is you can learn algebra as quickly as you can learn Angry Birds—if it’s taught in the right way.”

Games innately strike the right chord when it comes to challenging students.

Citing Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development concept, Shapiro says you always have to keep things “just hard enough” for students: “You don’t want to make it too hard or they won’t stay engaged. You don’t want to make it too easy or they’re bored. Video games do that.”

Shapiro and Tan both can readily cite classrooms around the world that have adopted gaming into their curriculums, whether it’s the school district in Ireland that’s using Minecraft to teach third graders how to build national monuments or the undergraduate students who are learning about Rome’s history in Latin class through a military simulation of the conquest of Gaul.

However, we still have a ways to go. According to Shapiro, “We’re in the super-infancy of this.”