Video Game Designers: They Sure Know How to Teach

I understand that it’s still a bit taboo in professional circles, but I’ll admit it: I’m a casual closet gamer. So yeah, I play the odd video game. I’m not into the big multiplayer shooter games, but I am a sucker for an adventure game. I’ve been very impressed with some games lately that unravel an intense plot that rivals a good movie. Yet in the game, I am the protagonist, co-constructing the story with the author as I progress through the plot. I move myself through the rising tension, the conflict and through the to climax. I’ve walked, ran and shot my way through immersive stories where the hero (or anti-hero) struggles with redemption, loss, the human condition, and identity. The stuff of great novels has moved into video games.

Bioshock Infinite

But that’s not the cool part.

As an educator, I’m amazed at how effectively these games teach! I think they’re beating us teachers at our own ‘game.’ Many games require the player to learn an extensive collection of skills and strategies as well as the controls and mechanics of the game in a short amount of time while keeping the player motivated. It’s a tall order to get the player up to the skill level required to have an enjoyable experience throughout the game.

In many older games, the player must first run through a training module before the game. A skill is explicitly taught to the player, demonstrated. The player must then execute the same skill and successfully master it before moving on to the next part of the training module. Some people don’t mind that, but I think they’re dreadful. I want to get into the story and start my way down the adventure.

Tomb Raider

Many games in the past 10 years have switched to a new, integrated approach. They train the player as they progress through the first parts of the story, without the player knowing it. Each skill is carefully introduced in a way that feels seamless with the story. A problem is presented to the player that can only be solved with the application of a new skill.  After solving it, the player feels a sense of reward just for figuring it out,  unaware that she or he just graduated from a training level, reached mastery, and can move on to the next skill level. To the player, they’re just in the story.

If a certain skill, weapon or tool will be required for further progression in the game, the player is first introduced to the skill in a comfortable environment and given some practice time that is still part of the story. They first learn the skill without frustration and then comes the test. A foe or puzzle is presented to the player that requires that skill to now be executed under pressure, and will still have to apply all the previously gained skills as well. It’s tricky since the player needs to be kept in the ‘zone of proximal development’ or they might stop playing the game. When they finally succeed the serotonin pours forth and the players enjoy the feeling of having met their goal. These game designers scaffold learning beautifully, and probably don’t even know the term.

They’re really on to something.

Assassin's Creed III

I came across an article today about how the founder of Atari has started an educational gaming company. (Atari founder: Use video games to teach and students will ‘never forget’) Nolan Bushnell believes that, “Applying video gaming technology to education will allow students to learn ten times faster and retain knowledge “forever””. Allowing license for a bit of hyperbole, he may be right.

On occasion I’ve gone back and played games that I last played 10 years ago. I found I still remembered how to play, how to progress through the levels, and what strategies to use. Neurons have been fed oxygen in my brain to retain those memories for a decade. There’s something about that immersive learning experience that sticks.

Unfortunately this has changed the way many students, especially adolescent boys, learn. At home they are learning in these games at an incredibly fast speed; they’re processing information on screens at speeds that just make adults dizzy. There’s a bit of contrast with their experience of  sitting quietly, watching a teacher write with chalk on a blackboard. I can see why it would drive their brains bonkers.

Of course there’s still a dark side to video games. Many students are losing their childhoods to them, they have a long way to go with regards to sexism, stereotypes and violence, but nevertheless, they are great at teaching, and maybe this could be put to good use.

I’m very interested to see how the story of using video games in education unfolds. (Which is different, by the way, from gamification, which doesn’t even need technology). The unfortunate part is that though educators are eager and desperate to make learning more engaging for students, early attempts at gaming might not get it right. Small flash-based games might be suitable for primary students, but they aren’t anything near the kind of immersion found in popular video games. Also, could the production of a learning activity ever have the kind of budget that a video game production company has? Would the learning pay off be worth it?

We have a long way to go, but this is definitely something to keep an eye on.

Portal 2



  1. bgrasley · February 26, 2014

    Part of the draw of some games is the badge or achievement system they use. I’ve worked with a classroom to use the same approach of skill badges; it’s pretty effective.

    Oh, and I like to play games too. 🙂

    • Tim Robinson · February 26, 2014

      Yeah, that’s the part that I can’t relate with as much. I don’t really get it. I never pay attention to game badges. Kids love those darn little digital badges, or to be able to walk around in their world with a special cape that shows off that they’ve clicked on a stone more than others. Military games have players actually rise through real ranks. It’s a powerful motivator for students, in a completely different way from the immersion factor.

      Some LMSs have awesome little badge systems built in, unfortunately the D2L one is still in development.

      At least, I think it’s being developed. I think you and I should both blog about badges in the near future.

Let me know what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s