Why Use Games to Teach?

Initial Publication Date: June 2, 2004
"PLAYING SHOULD BE FUN! In our great eagerness to teach our children we studiously look for "educational" toys, games with built-in lessons, books with a "message." Often these "tools" are less interesting and stimulating than the child's natural curiosity and playfulness. Play is by its very nature educational. And it should be pleasurable. When the fun goes out of play, most often so does the learning."
- Joanne E. Oppenheim (Kids and Play, ch. 1, 1984)

Games Engage People

Making learning fun motivates students and helps them pay attention and stay focused on the subject.

  • One reason to promote educatonal games is to encourage students to learn outside of class. Young adults will go out of their way to play games, even a single game, for hours on end.
  • There is also evidence that games allow students to focus well enough to learn better. Lepper and Cordova, 1992 have found that rewriting a lesson with a story context combined with a challenge for the student to overcome (in other words, making it into a game) significantly improves the learning performance of children.

Bridging the Digital Generation Divide

Game Over try again

Unsurprisingly, 21st-century college students are somewhat different from those of the preceding decades, even as those differed from earlier students. Games will help us work with them.

  • In particular, 21st-century students have grown up using different technology from that which their professors grew up with.
  • The World Wide Web has had a significant effect on the way they think and learn.
  • Marc Prensky, an educational video game designer, argues that they are used to thinking on multiple tracks at once, but have little patience with linear reasoning or delayed gratification (Prensky, 2001a ; Prensky, 2001b ).

Using games, not necessarily video games, for teaching is one way to shift to a more appropriate learning format for the Digital Generation.

  • Make learning more fun, and students will be more motivated.
  • Competition and teamwork are also motivating for students
  • Quick and specific feedback enables students to figure out the right way (or a right way, whatever works) to succeed

Learning from Mistakes

One reason that games (outside of gambling) are such a great escape from the real world is that bad consequences are rarely serious or lasting.

  • "It's only a game."
  • If you lose, start the game over and try again.
  • Often, it's possible to recover within a game, and to use what you have learned to successfully complete a task.
  • Characters and pieces may die, but this is rarely permanent.
  • There are no consequences for the player personally.

Grades can tell students if they have failed to learn something, but for a variety of reasons, students may not make good use of that feedback.

  • By the time students get their grades, it's often too late to do anything about them. So it's not possible to correct mistakes.
  • The value of grades is for rewards that are not part of the learning process like parental approval, reduced car insurance, access to a good job or medical school.
  • There is probably no way to escape from giving grades, but games that allow students to assess their knowledge for themselves give them a chance to see where they are having trouble before a test.