Curriculum Opinion

Gaming Changes Teaching and Learning

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 01, 2013 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is Peggy Sheehy, a well-known fierce advocate for the meaningful infusion of technology in education. She has presented her work at major education, technology, and gaming conferences, and continues to share her knowledge and experience with teachers all over the world. Peggy is a pioneer in virtual world education, serves as Guild Master of The Cognitive Dissonance Educator Guild in World of Warcraft, and is a founding member and officer of G.A.M.E.

My students will be playing games in our class this year---and this is the work ethic I hope to encourage--the “questing disposition” that, as a gamer, I have come to know and understand. Jane McGonigal alludes to it in her most recent TED Talk. Numerous books, presentations, and research papers exploring the use of games for learning are now flooding mass media. A Google search of “games in education” will yield about 1,180,000,000 results. The concept, once confined to discussions between those “geeky techy-type teachers”, is now a topic that can be found at most every education conference. So, here you shall have one educator’s opinion--as I sort through some of the controversy surrounding the use of video games in school in order to help make some sense of it all. Full disclosure--I have been using virtual worlds and games in my teaching since 1997 when I used Caravans© to supplement my third grade social studies curriculum. I am much more than a believer---I am an evangelist.

Let’s start with why. Why the huge buzz around games in education? Since the vast collection of literature surrounding computer games and learning has been around for at least two decades, why now? As I see it, there are a number of reasons.

  1. Games are everywhere today - played by almost everyone. As of early January 2013, Zynga games had over 265 million monthly active users. The popularity of console and handheld games in recent years has tended to “redefine the nature of games, opening up the possibility for new kinds of games in the marketplace and putting powerful and inexpensive platforms in the hands of tens of millions of people” (Klopfer et al, 2009). Rather than take up your time and space with all of the statistics- here’s a link to the most current data from the Entertainment Software Association.
  2. Because there is now a huge repertoire of games available on varied platforms from computers and consoles to hand-held devices and cell phones, and people are actually revisiting the spirit of play- even if it’s for five minutes in the waiting room.
  3. The conversation has also been spurred on by the latest perceived crisis in education. Regardless of whether or not you buy into the headline reports that the U.S. lags behind their global peers in math and science or other studies that show only 17 percent of U.S. 12th-grade students are proficient in math or demonstrate any interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, (STEM), there is no doubt that right now our nation cannot fill job vacancies in STEM associated fields. According to a 2012 study from Change the Equation, an organization that supports STEM education, business leaders across the nation have sounded an alarm. They cannot find the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent they need to stay competitive. (Changetheequation.org)

The good news is video games are hotbeds of STEM! Eric Klopfer, associate professor of education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology states, “Video games can enable STEM education from elementary school all the way through college as they teach skills such as analytical thinking, multitasking, strategizing, problem-solving, and team building. Traditional learning has provided superficial learning through textbooks. Games are best at teaching a deeper level of learning” (Klopfer, in Chitra, 2012). Those of us who are proponents of games in education must consider this a really good thing, right? ? Well, yes...sort of.

Yes, I’m very excited about the prospects of wider acceptance of using video games to support learning. What’s the appeal? Why am I so passionate about using games in education? Well, the pros most often cited are the motivational aspect of games, and the potential of experiential learning through simulation. Plus, who can argue against the opportunity to support literacy via games that offer rich complex narratives set in lush fantasy worlds, which challenge curiosity, increase extended engagement, or promote teamwork and collaboration? Games-based learning affords my students agency and autonomy in an authentic situated learning platform. They get to choose their path to mastery.

But in my years of using games in the classroom, I’ve seen some other things at work - things much more powerful and alluring - the freedom that functioning as avatar allows. In most of the games we use, my students are able to construct the identity of their character, or avatar, and, therefore, right from the start there is a personal investment. The process of ownership has begun. This ability to function as avatar is foundational to the risk-taking, persistence and problem solving called for in a well-designed video game. Theories can be tested over and over because failure is no longer stigmatized. It is anticipated and respected as part of the process. There’s a sign in my classroom. It says, “FAIL HARDER!” Where is this attitude in the rest of education?

I have seen the power firsthand...time and time again. I’ve seen reluctant readers and writes become versed and adept at the craft once inspired by the agency and ownership of their learning. I’ve seen the strange and beautiful evolution of a group of students merge and evolve into a well-honed team of players, often with an unlikely candidate at the helm. I’ve watched kids fail, and try again, and fail again, and learn something new each time until they were successful. I’ve watched kids mentor each other, develop and articulate a set of values and play by them, and I’ve seen those values transfer to the physical world.

Then, they go to their next class, sit at a desk in a row of desks, fill in a bubble sheet, or take notes about a lecture, or work from a textbook, or a worksheet. Learning is serious. Learning is hard work. Education is slow to change.

Note: Peggy will be our guest blogger on this topic for the next two Thursdays!


Chitra, Sethi. “Can Video Games Reshape STEM Education?” ASME. ASME, 15 09 2012. Web. 28 Jul. 2013.

Changetheequation.org, (2012). Stem vital signs.
Entertainment Software Association (ESA). (2013). Games & violence.
Federation of American Scientists. (2006). R&D challenges in games for learning. Report of The Learning Federation.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave/ St. Martin’s.
Groff, J., Howells, C. & Cranmer, S. (2010). The impact of games in the classroom: Evidence from schools in Scotland. Bristol, Futurelab.
Ito, M. (2008). Education V. Entertainment: A Cultural History of Children’s Software, In Katie Salen (Ed.), Ecology of Games. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning.
Ito, M. (2006). Engineering Play: Children’s software and the cultural politics of edutainment. Discourse, 27(2), 139-160(22).
Jenkins, H. (2004, September 27). Reality bytes: Eight myths about video games debunked .
Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S., & Salen, K. (2009). Moving learning games forward:obstacles opportunities and openess.
Kutner, Lawrence, PH.D. and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Video Games And What Parents Can Do. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Sandford, S., Ulicsak, M., Facer, K., & Rudd, T. Teaching With Games (2006).
Schaffer, D. (2006). How computer games help children learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Squire, K.D. (2006). From content to context: Video games as designed experiences. Educational Researcher, 35(8),
Squire, K., & Steinkuehler, C. (2005). Meet the gamers. Library Journal, April 15.19-29.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between Learning and Development (pp. 79-91). In Mind in Society. (Trans. M. Cole). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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