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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Should Video Games Replace Classroom Learning?

If you’re wondering why my eyes look so bloodshot and my voice is so hoarse, it’s because I just left Austin, TX and the annual South By Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi), one of the most exciting events on the digital media industry calendar. The conference was a five-day mashup of social media entrepreneurs, gamers, digital artists, podcasters, video bloggers and random folks eager to explore the bleeding edge of interactive technologies. And among all of this hubbub was an amazing forum that posited a provocative question: should video games replace classroom learning?

The session, “Should Video Games Replace College,” was moderated by Michael Anderson of the University of Texas System TeleCampus. Ostensibly it had a higher-education focus, but much of the discussion centered on high school students. Participating with Anderson were Aliza Gold of the UT/Austin Digital Media Collaboratory , game developer Mike McShaffry and local high school student Karen Lin. (Though there were a number of education-oriented sessions at the conference, this was the only one I noticed that had a student participating in it.)

Anderson began the session by stating bluntly, “Let’s get serious. I’m depressed.” Why so down? He continued:

I’m depressed over wikipedia, over myspace and facebook. Really depressed over YouTube…. We build learning environments and teach faculty how to put their courses online… really redesigning their courses. Working a lot on interaction… particularly between students and faculty…. I go home each night and feel kinda smug… Then not too long ago I saw a video on YouTube. It said MySpace was now the 10th largest country and it just passed Japan. So those 10,000 students we’d been helping, we were barely scratching the surface…. Then I got depressed….

Then I started thinking about video games. And I’m not talking about arcade games, video games…. I’m talking about multiplayer online games like Halo3, World of Warcraft. Imagine sitting in a classroom, you’re inside a game and actually living it. And you’re making decisions and seeing the ramifications. Instead of taking a 100 question multiple-choice test, you’ve leveled up. And instead of asking your instructor for answers, you ask your fellow gamers. Imagine having a game about how to not start wars, rather than starting battles.

Anderson was talking about what are known as massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, or MMORPGs. These are games in which thousands of players can simultaneously navigate and compete in an immersive, virtual environment. And they’re not just for entertainment. In fact, NASA recently put out a request for proposals for game developers to create an MMORPG focusing on math and science education.

“As engaging as videogames are, it makes sense to apply some of it to schools and learning,” Eliza Gold explained. “Part of what makes it hard for students to be motivated is because what’s taught is taught out of context… It’s harder to learn material than way than when it’s applied in an actual real-world situation. Trigonometry is much more interesting when you’re trying to build a bridge. It’s possible that videogames could be used to help people learn curriculum in a real world sort of way.” She added that the only thing that’s standing in the way of that is attitudes. The structure of teaching methods “hasn’t really changed since medieval times,” since universities were first founded. “It’ll probably take a critical mass of gamers as professors for that to change.”

Interestingly, the most skeptical person in the room was probably game designer Mike McShaffry. “College is going to be around for a long time. If they’re lucky they’ll incorporate games but games will never replace them.” He did, though, see a role for gaming as part of the curriculum. The challenge is to create games that are authentic to the experience they’re trying to replicate. The biggest mistake educational game designers make, he said, is forcing a square peg into a round hole - using a gaming experience that has nothing to do with what it’s simulating. When you do this, “kids say that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen, so you’ve just wasted a lot of everyone’s time.” And part of an authentic gaming experience is emphasizing interactions over player scores, or as Gold described it, creating games that aren’t about achieving points but interacting with the environment and having to pry information from it and other users.

For a game to be truly educational, it also has to strike the right balance - pushing the skill level of the player without being so difficult that they give up. “You want people to operate just outside their level of comfort,” McShaffry said. “Because that’s how they get better at something. Stretch your skills.” And you will fail from time to time. But then you succeed, and you get better.. You want to feel that it’s just beyond your skill but that you can make it.

MMORPGs also recognize that different players have different levels of experience - something that’s also reflected among learners in a classroom. In big classes, not everyone learns at the same pace, McShaffry noted. “Just the thin slice of kids in the middle.” To McShaffry, that’s why our classrooms fail. “Because we don’t have a system for kids to learn at their right level. But that’s where games help, because they can measure a person’s skill level and adjust accordingly.”

Several of the panelists also noted how games that simulate real-world actions have much potential as learning exercises. “The only serious game that I ever got to work on was a navy game called 24 Blue, an aircraft carrier sim,” McShaffry said.

They flew us out to the USS Truman, and we got to land on the carrier, spend four days there during flight ops…. When you feel the heat of the F-15 Tomcat on your face and someone pulls you down and saves your life, that’s when it hits you. We were developing a game to capture the physical size and space, the hand signals used, who does what….

Can playing the game replace the experience? No, it’s different. But it can show you more about what’s going there so when you get there, you brain won’t be as frazzled and terrified. If I’d played the game before going I would have known what to expect.

At the end of the session, I asked the panelists about taking these ideas one step further: inviting students and teachers to be the ones constructing the games. All of the panelists nodded and noted the potential for such activities. McShaffry in particular cited the recent decision by Microsoft to open up its XNA game developer platform for Xbox 360 users. With the opening up of the platform, amateur game developers will be able to create new immersive games for the Xbox and make them available to the entire community of Xbox users. McShaffry and the others didn’t expect this to lead to a surge of classrooms spending their time hacking together their own games, but none of them seemed surprised by the idea that some intrepid educators would take on the challenge with the students.

To me, this is the most exciting aspect of MMORPGs in education. While it will be wonderful to give students access to games that teach them physics, math or history, it would be truly incredible to have the students creating their own educational games and sims. As another panel at SXSW noted, in order to design a game you need to become an expert of the subject matter before proceeding; just looking up the topic on Wikipedia won’t suffice. Constructing such games just might end up being the ultimate constructivist educational experience. -andy

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Didn’t Thomas Edison assure us all that movies would replace textbooks? And didn’t folks try arcade-games-as-skill-drill programs a few decades ago? Maybe I’m a bit skeptical as an education historian, but I don’t believe in any panaceas… and I’m someone intrigued by Second Life as a potential educational environment.

The game developer is right - games only look like education at a superficial level. All the wishing in the world about simulations that “might be” developed doesn’t make it possible.

It is just naive to say that since games are engaging, and we want learning to be engaging, that the answer is to use games for learning. The claim that games could be used to “help learn curriculum” shows an amazing lack of understanding of the nature of video games, learning AND curriculum. I can only hope you’ve misquoted Eliza Gold.

Having students construct their own games is a powerful learning experience. But this is VERY different than kids playing so-called educational games. There are many educators world-wide having students of all ages learn programming and game development with a wide variety of tools. The learning happens as the students construct something new under their own control - not click through something someone else created.


Video games should never replace traditional classroom teaching. As a secondary teacher instructing the literacy program I know that reference to video game playing can help remove barriers that students face when interfacing with a pen and paper.
In my literacy program I am using the lessons put forth by James Paul Gee, ‘What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy’. Students react positively and with interest when they get in touch with the identity principle; real, virtual and projective identity-the hallmarks of mastering a video game. I apply this principle with mastering written responses to mulit-modal material that students will face on a standardized test.
Brain-based learning (see books by Rita Smilkstein and David Souza)remains the pedagogical philosophy for increasing student awareness and interest and academic accountability. Our brains and the connections forged within can be strenghtened and re-inforced by using video game learning as a pedagogical tool.

Frank Greco
Secondary School Teacher

When thinking about integrating technology into teaching and learning, one must think like an engineer deciding if and when to use technology to construct something or improve a process. Two questions must be asked:

1) Can this happen without the technology?

2) If not, what is the compelling result if the technology is employed?

A report just came out from CISCO that debunks a lot of myths about media in education while posing some very interesting questions similar to those above?

see: http://www.cisco.com/web/strategy/docs/education/Multimodal-Learning-Through-Media.pdf

Speaking from both a parent’s and a teacher’s point of view:

I can see the responsiblity my own son has gained since getting involved with World of Warcraft. I say “getting involved with” be cause the verb “playing” is inaccurate…these might be “games”, but are very real to those who become immersed in these worlds. In fact, I propose that the vocabulary we use is partly responsible for the prejudice that prevents educators from seeing the value in virtual worlds. As long as “serious” educators see these as games, they will have little validity as teaching tools.

Just wondering if Second Life was mentioned at the conference in this context. Like Sherman above, I am very interested in this platform as an extension of my classroom for high school students. The wonderful discussions that need to take place with them before they enter ANY virtual world (Do I recreate myself or create someone new? What are the advantages to both, what could be the pitfalls? Who owns what I create in a virtual environment?) are great learning tools in and of themselves!

This is not your grandmother’s education. Heck! It’s not even your older brother’s!

Second Life was mentioned a couple of times, but mostly in passing.

While I thought the very idea of using virtual games in the classroom was ludicrous at first, as I read the article I could begin to see uses for such a strategy. Like field trips, it the games were prudently designed to enhance, not replace the learning they might be of some value. The purpose of higher education is to prepare students for life within their chosen field of study and if life situations could be portrayed in a game manner better than could be presented in a classroom, then by all means, game on!

To hear of these games as educational tools is a new concept to me. It amazes me that Second Life could be considered one of them. As a user of Second Life myself, I’ve done nothing with it to be educational. There are so many pitfalls that a student could fall into when joining in one of these activities. An online environment also is not the same as having that personal interaction with an actual teacher or other students.

However I do understand the concept of actually using math with building a bridge or something to that effect. By using math in a way that can actually be seen as effective will make a student more willing to try to learn it.

I have mixed feelings. On one level, using games for students, or online education can be good. It has the potential to keep their interest in different ways than we’ve tried in the past. But it takes away actual interaction and may take away from important things needed taught.

I’ve never heard of games such as World of Warcraft or Second Life wanting to be used in a classroom setting. It amazes me that we are even contemplating incorporating a computer game for children to play as a way of learning. Whatever happened to student/teacher interaction a classroom is supposed to have? I personally do not care for games such as the two listed above because I believe it can cause a person to become too engrossed in the game and maybe miss the message it is trying to portray.
Teachers, and parents as well, have an obligation to teach a child to prepare himself or herself for the so called real world and all of the responsibility it entails. Maybe I need a little more enlightened on video/computer games.

Hi Leah,

I think you’re misinterpreting what they were saying. No one was arguing that WoW should be used in the classroom. They were arguing about the role that educationally-oriented multiplayer simulations could be used as a new way to teach. That’s very different than saying “Let’s introduce World of Warcraft to my 7th graders,” which no one was suggesting at the event. Having said that, there’s definitely an argument for using Second Life in the classroom. Maybe not the one that’s available to the general public and is full of adult-oriented material, but an education-oriented version of it that exists separately.


I’m not sure if it’s proper for a (partial) subject of a blog post to respond but because you were so kind about our sxsw panel and so accurate in your reporting, I felt inspired to amplify a few points I failed to make last Tuesday.

First, I absolutely agree that the ideal learning situation is the Socratic log—a teacher on one end and a student on the other with meaning and learning constructed in the dialog space between. What I question about this model is the ability to scale to the proportions we need to address global illiteracy in an age where information is doubling every two years. What I question is how this model can succeed when it has devolved in our large universities to classes of 500 students. What I question is the utility of teaching facts when, in the age of Internet resources, we should be teaching strategy.

Second, we can’t just add a dollop of games to a course like some new tool, just like we couldn’t add videodisks or CD’s or online tests or Second Life excursions or podcasts or MySpace requirements to classes and expect to improve learning outcomes. In fact, danah boyd has a brilliant post which argues for NOT incorporating social networks in classes. I agree. I happen to believe that social networks and games could replace what passes for education in many instances. Sylvia nailed it when she said, “learning happens as the students construct something new under their own control - not click through something someone else created.” The best videogames I’ve played encourage construction, and the point of the best MMORPG’s is NOT the content—it’s the communication among team players as they seek to improve their skills to accomplish a goal. What we have to do is make learning the goal of games.

Third, I find Second Life to be one of the most interesting developments in a while, and I’m sorry we didn’t spend more time on it. It’s not a game per se (which is why we didn’t) but it seems like it could function as a game delivery vehicle with constructivist (and communicative) components. So far, what most institutions have done is build replicas of their brick and mortar—and I find that sort of sad. There’s certainly the potential for griefing—but we could address that pitfall with (large) walled gardens. And while the Cisco report DOES debunk the “I remember 10% of what I read, 20% of what I hear” myth, the report actually endorses the key characteristics of MMORPG’s: social networking; scaffolding (leveling up); construction (what gamers call modding aka modifying); motivation; and interactive multimodal content interaction.

Finally, none of this is original with me—I stand at the feet of giants including Marc Prensky with his ground-breaking views on digital natives; Chris Dede at Harvard who uses Active Worlds as the basis for his River City project; the folks at MIT who released Croquet, an open-source VR application; Rovy Branon at the ADL Co-Lab who gives away an open source game-building application that middle and high school kids use; Paul Gee and David Shaffer and Kurt Squire at Wisconsin who helped define the “serious” games movement; and George Siemens and Stephen Downes and Terry Anderson and a host of other folks in Canada who started talking about connectivism and networking before anyone in the U.S. got it. This is not to blame these fine people for any of my shortcomings but rather to acknowledge that I am indebted to others for my passion. Am I a dreamer? Yes. But I happen to think we better start dreaming up some solutions fast because what we have now won’t work in 10 years.

Thanks for your response, Michael - I truly appreciate it. If it wasn’t apparent in my post, I found your session to be one of the most thought-provoking discussions at SXSW. Thanks for organizing it~

In Scotland we’ve been working with gaming in learning for years, but it has indeed taken off this past year using off-the-shelf non-educational games. They haven’t been shoe-horned in at all, but provide meaningful contexts for learning which may well have taken place, but in a way which had little significance or connection for the learner.

I’ve brought together some of this work on my own blog:

and we have a site dedicated to our nascent work:

However, I’d also question the wisdom of Prensky’s ‘ground breaking’ digital natives work, which is being disproved at one research report a month it would seem. There are merely those who do and those who don’t, rather than any age-specific reasoning behind uptake or not of technology:

As someone who has tried every new technology I can get my hands on, I would like to encourage the people who have mentioned Second Life to think twice. It is very buggy and hard to do too much in without a major time investment. Also, the normal second life world has so many things in it that would get a public school teacher fired, it’s just not worth it. Plus, I’m not sure what SL could teach except that people are wierd:)

The best way to begin using games to teach is to use elements that relate to topics you’re teaching. Want to teach supply and demand or economics? Try an MMO such as Runescape. Players can buy and sell items, and the price of an item varies greatly depending on rarity and popularity. Physics of moving objects? A golf game would work great for that. The games have real world concepts that the kids already understand, they just serve as a better way to relate to the kids.

This is also what a good educational game will do. It will make a player apply a concept they need to build on to do something FUN, so they stay engaged and learn. The problem is most most educational games are not fun, so they don’t engage and therefore don’t work.

I am secondary school teacher and I’m in the process of exploring how to incorporate games into my classroom. Having read most of the comments posted above, I really believe that we should look at the whole episode of game from two perspectives, that is, the regular students and the students at risk. What I want to know is, who will benefit more? or which group of students should be more exposed to games? Is it the regular students or the at risk students? From observations, my at risk students are very knowledgeable in the use of technology than I do. They are basically disengaged when learning is not fun. Most of the workshops and books I have read on action research pointed at creating an atmosphere where students are creative while interracting with each other.

My thought is to buy games like classroom jeapardy! and ask students to create their own questions based a previous classroom knowledge or ask them to teach the class on how to use power point, facebook, my space, you tube, etc. Interestingly, the students were lighted up when we had this discussion. They even gave me other ideas and we all discuss what the goal of such a project should be.

Though this is an on-going discussion among the nay and yah sayers, could somebody out there give someone like me ideas that I could use technological-wise with my at risk students.

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how would you use immersive learning in your current training program?

Thought I’d update from what I said earlier about Second Life: This semester, after a long-delayed entry, I have a class of high school students on the Teen Grid in Second Life. We are using a set of closed sims that belongs to our area consortium of schools; my students will be mentors as other teachers bring their classes in for short lessons. The sims were already designed and developed, but that hasn’t stopped my kids from building, creating and in general, redesigning everything to their own purposes.

We’re using several technologies in this endeavor, actually. There’s also a class wiki where the kids keep their journals and I keep a blog of our ups and downs as we sail these uncharted waters. Because my kids will be mentors, I’ve set up a set of skills they need to learn — but I don’t care what order they learn them in. They direct their own learning, asking when they have questions, forming and trying out hypotheses, pestering each other and prodding (“Hey! How’d you do that? I want to do that. Show me how to do that!!!). After the holiday break I’m going to set them down and have them reflect on what skills they’ve learned that translate to RL (Real Life).

I like Noble Experiments — and this one’s proving to be a lot of fun. Is it the future of education? No. But it IS another learning tool, just as the blackboard was, just as the overhead projector and PowerPoint have been. And in this day and age? I’ll use every tool at my disposal to teach proper behavior, social skills — and mentoring.

Of course not, online games should remain on the cyber cafe and at homes only. It’s a luxury, an entertainment, definitely not to be mixed with classroom learning, otherwise some students will have a hard time knowing the difference.

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I do not believe that video games should be incorporated into classroom learning. I am of the view that it will affect the integrity of the learning process. It’s hard enough keeping students focused. I feel that teachers can find more creative and effective tools to introduce into the learning environment rather than video games.
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I don’t think classroom learning should be replaced by video games, but giving some time (30-60 minutes) to students to play educational video games in a school day would likely wake them up and get them excited again, whenever they “fall asleep” or get bored with regular classroom teaching

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Although not a teacher, I know several of them and have 4 children of my own.

My response would be a , a most heartfelt, NO! There isn’t anything that can take the place of human interaction. We are getting farther and farther away from this with all of the distraction that video games and T.V. provide too easily. Soon enough we will be raising a new generation of zombies.

It’s getting too easy for kids to distance themselves from human relationships of any kind. This is a dangerous path we are starting to go down.

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I’d like to echo many of the comments here by saying that there truly is no replacement for a live teacher. The elements of the human connection and the ability to coach instantly make for a combination that won’t likely be going away anytime soon. I hope not anyhow!

I’m a bit concerned with the shortening attention span of younger generations, and fear that real human connections will begin to take a back seat as technology advances

I think the inclusion of this type of learning is inevitable. Of course, there will be the knee jerk oppositions, but as we move forward as a society this type of supplement will increase.

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Video learning is inevitably going to be on the rise, let’s not fight it. Even some of the best guitar lessons are available via the internet, and it makes sense to include other types of education as well.

I think we should completely embrace this. Anything that gets kids more interested in learning and does not cause harm to others should be explored as an option.

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Video games should be part of any child’s life. How much of their life is the question…


i agree,video games maybe should replace classroom learning.it has more fun.

Your post is reall great and I feel excited after reading it. That would be nice to hear from you soon again.

I think that the increasing use of technology in the classroom is inevitable. Let’s not keep our heads in the sand here, we have a real opportunity here if we can just embrace the change. Cliche, I know, but the pace of change will only be accelerating.

My two cents…

I think more technology in the classroom is inevitable. Whether or not educational games are a good thing I don’t know for sure, but I know when I was a kid I started playing “educational” video games, and yes I learned a lot, but I personally have struggled with video game addiction. Later in life it is a waist of time, so is it worth what it adds to our children’s education when later in life it very often becomes an addictive wasteful behavior.

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