Video games take learning to new heights

In March 2012, President Barack Obama, speaking at TechBoston Academy, challenged educators “to create educational software as compelling as the best video game.” For the past decade, researchers including myself (through Games + Learning + Society) have taken up this challenge of studying how video games can help students learn and designing educational experiences based on our findings. We’ve discovered that good games can be valuable in education, but they require careful design and thoughtful teachers who maximize their potential.

Our goal is not to replace teachers, but to empower teachers through tools that make their jobs easier and more fun. We imagine games helping teachers not only by making learning fun and interesting for students, but also by giving them better tools for diagnosing and assessing learning.

Why Video Games?

Video games have the potential to be deeply engaging for learners. For decades, psychologists have studied video games as models of intrinsically motivated learning. The techniques that games use—fantasy, control, challenge, curiosity, collaboration and competition—are now the cornerstones of motivational theory.

Games have grown in complexity, and our understandings of them have grown as well. Consider for a moment how games have moved away from requiring players to read instructions. By analyzing what players do, and by providing real-time feedback to the player, game designers can successfully teach players how to play without supplemental materials. Educators often have similar goals: We want to deliver feedback just in time, while students are engaged in meaningful activity. This capacity for immediate feedback and instruction is a primary reason to use games for learning, because, in a modern school setting, real-time feedback is difficult to come by.

Assessment and Data-Driven Teaching

Games can record learners’ actions, which opens new opportunities for data-driven decision-making. Students, teachers, parents, and administrators can view individual or aggregated data across play sessions. With the assistance of data-based metrics collected from games, educators might know when a learner is on- or off-task, or know when a learner is struggling with a concept.

For example, in “ProgenitorX,” players face an outbreak of zombies due to a virus that escaped a science lab. Players use stem cells to grow tissues and organs and heal the victims of the zombie plague. Liz Owen and Rich Halverson studied player data and found that successfully completing the game’s advanced levels is a strong predictor of player performance on traditional post-tests—meaning the player has learned some stem cell science.

Soon, data visualizations will be available to students and teachers. We imagine them supporting students reflecting on their own learning, as well as deep conversations among teachers, students, and perhaps parents and the public about learning. Our goal is not to replace teachers, but to empower teachers through tools that make their jobs easier and more fun. We imagine games helping teachers not only by making learning fun and interesting for students, but also by giving them better tools for diagnosing and assessing learning.

Games as Preparation for Future Learning

One of games’ most compelling virtues may be how they prepare students for future learning. According to a theory of learning and assessment developed by Dan Schwartz and his colleagues, a good way to measure learning is to see how efficiently and effectively students learn future topics.

In “Citizen Science,” players are youth who help a lake spirit restore Lake Mendota to health. As players explore the landscape, they take water samples, interact with a virtual, simulated watershed, and talk with stakeholders. Students collect information and use it to participate in scientific arguments that probe their thinking.

Ph.D. student Matt Gaydos compared students who learned lake ecology through playing “Citizen Science” with students who learned through reading traditional packets (the control group). Next, the students switched. Gaydos found the strongest gains for students who played the game first and then read the packets. The reason for these gains, we think, is that playing “Citizen Science” gave students a context for understanding the material.

Games in the Curriculum

“Citizen Science” also highlights how games can be integrated into a broader curriculum. When we brought “Citizen Science” into schools, teachers extended the game experience in exciting ways. One group of teachers used “Citizen Science” to create an exciting, multi-week, inquiry-based learning curriculum. Students played the game and then visited a nearby lake, playing the game in the outdoors on mobile devices that taught them about that lake’s ecology. Next, they designed and executed a research study of their own local watershed. A few students went even further and developed their own games in Scratch about their local watershed.

Games can be a springboard toward more open-ended pedagogies such as learning by design or inquiry-based learning. In our vision of this game-based learning future, kids are not only tethered to screens, but also physically and socially engaged in the world. Our assessment systems will need to acknowledge the reality that not all learning can, will, or should be captured on devices.

A Brave New World

As mobile Internet use becomes routine for billions of people worldwide, we can safely predict that hardware devices loaded with digital content—including games—will be a core part of learning for the students of tomorrow.

There are a few key choices educators face around this impending revolution. Will content developers churn out games that are little more than glorified worksheets? Or, will digital content embrace the aesthetics of games, with a focus on designing compelling experiences, learning through failure, exploration, collaboration, and construction? One thing appears certain: The future is difficult to predict. After all, who could have predicted the types of innovative educational games we are seeing in the market today? These developments give me hope for the future. As a new generation of media developers raised with not only with games but also with mobile devices enters the academy and the marketplace, they will have brilliant ideas for new learning experiences past generations couldn’t have even fathomed.

Kurt Squire is a professor of Digital Media in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-director of Games + Learning + Society within the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. Squire’s research investigates the design of game-based learning environments from a socio- cultural perspective, and he’s the author of more than 75 scholarly works. Among other projects, Squire produced ARIS, a mobile learning platform that is currently available on iTunes. Squire is a former Montessori and primary school teacher, former co-director of the Education Arcade, co-founder of, and vice president and a founding member of the Learning Games Network. Dennis Ramirez is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.