Education Opinion

Gaming in Education Holds Power for Student Learning

By Beth Holland — October 23, 2015 4 min read
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Next week, I will be presenting to school librarians in Rome about The Power of Games to Create New Learning Opportunities as a way to kick off International Games Day - an initiative that began eight years ago as a way to bring together the global library community and raise awareness about the role of libraries in the 21st century. To prepare for my talk, I began researching the value of games not only for libraries, but also the broader educational context.

All games harness the power of play. Significant research has shown that people of all ages learn through this social interaction. Through play, young children develop language, problem solving, and social skills. As older students, they engage in critical thinking, collaboration, and strategy development through play. Even adults enjoy the potential of play to think creatively and explore new concepts in a safe and forgiving environment. Within an educational context, games offer up an opportunity for students to collaborate, engage in critical thinking, and experience content in novel and constructive ways. As John Krajewski of Strange Loop games comments, games have “the power to impart empathy, wonder, emotion, experience; to convey the beauty of the systems you find in mathematics and the worlds within worlds you find in science.” Consider digital games such as Minecraft or role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. These games possess the potential to transport students into a new world that allows them to relate to content, construct their own understanding, and share with their peers. This same type of experience could be replicated in education.

Three Ways to use Games in Education

Douglas Kiang, EdTechTeacher instructor and educator at Punahou School in Hawaii, views three distinct ways in which educators can leverage the power of games in their classrooms. First, teachers can use games as a way to present a controlled subset of reality. Remember the game Oregon Trail? Millions of school children discovered the hardships of westward expansion, learned geography, and died of dysentery along the way. However, by immersing themselves in the environment, students gained a personal experience with a historical event. The ability to control variables provides tremendous value in these simulation based games. Teachers can create immersive environments using digital tools such as Minecraft, or create a physical situation as demonstrated by Michael Matera’s Athens vs Sparta live debate.

Douglas also challenges educators to leverage the power of game dynamics, even if their students do not actually play games. Great pedagogy (like great games) share a number of commonalities. Many people think of badging with gamification. As students complete tasks, they earn extrinsic rewards much like they may gain points on a test, quiz, or assignment. However, gaming also presents an opportunity for more intrinsic rewards as students engage in an opportunity that they truly care about. Within a gaming context, students decide how they can be successful and then employ those new strategies in order to master new skills. Think about the student who does not appear to persevere when struggling with math problems, but spends hours honing their soccer skills or constructing new worlds within a game.

Finally, educators can ask their students to design their own games. In order to do this, students need to understand the content, develop a set of rules, and create a narrative. Several years ago, some of my middle school students wanted to create a video game about Global Warming. Within their game, every “life decision” impacted the environment. Choose to use plastic bags instead of reusable ones, lose points. Decide to replace incandescent lightbulbs with LED ones, move ahead. Although they never coded the final product, they constructed an elaborate logic diagram that clearly demonstrated their understanding of the factors contributing to the phenomenon, and they dedicated hours to thinking through the problem.

Libraries and Games

Libraries and games have three critical capabilities in common: they bridge communities, encourage problem solving, and make learning fun. Much like books, games foster storytelling, imagination, and community building by presenting challenges and encouraging players to use strategies and seek out creative solutions. From an academic standpoint, both encourage math, reading, and literacy as students work to decode content in books as well as the directions or artifacts in a game. However, unlike books, games provide individuals with active, social opportunities that require choice, problem solving, and decision making.

Nicholson (2010) argues that games provide an opportunity to extend the notion of literacy.

Most people are comfortable with the concept that literacy is about reading and writing. The next step beyond that is to consider what literacy actually is - it's about working with a set of symbols, learning how to derive meaning from the symbols, and applying a set of rules to manipulate the symbols. Reading and writing are just one case of symbolic literacy, where the symbols are letters, numbers, spaces, and punctuation. There are many types of literacies in life that are required, but each requires the underlying skill of being able to take a new set of symbols, derive meaning, and manipulate the symbols through explicit and implicit rules" (p. 42)

By bringing games into the library, the conversation around literacy extends. Whether students engage with board games or video games, they have an opportunity to develop and adapt based on the rules presented.

Since their inception, libraries have served as a community hub for accessing and constructing knowledge. As I wrote last year in an Edutopia post, libraries are reinventing themselves as content becomes more accessible online and their role becomes less about housing books and more about connecting learners. To encourage exploration, creation, and collaboration between students, teachers, and a broader community, libraries can now look to games. In particular, games provide a vehicle through which to reach an often underserved population: teens (Nicholson, 2009). By bringing games into libraries, the potential exists to connect games with books, with learning, and with the community.


Nicholson, S. (2009). Why gaming? Digitale Bibliotheek, 1(1), 17. Retrieved from http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/whygamingbiblio.pdf

Nicholson, S. (2010). Gaming and literacy: Exploring the Connections. Digitale Bibliotheek, 2(4), 42. Retrieved from http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/gamingliteracy.pdf

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