Let Them Play: Video gaming in education

I have to admit – I am a very recent convert to using video games in the classroom. When I first considered the idea, I thought, I’ve got absolutely no planning time to find appropriate games, much less the class time to have kids play them. Besides, I figured, I can teach my kids more than any video game could.

But then I remembered the game that introduced me to economics when I was in elementary school. It was also the game that inspired me to create paper cigarettes and sell them to friends at school (I filled them with baby powder, so when you blew out, it really looked like you were smoking). Aside from the obvious moral issue with that venture, it certainly taught me a great deal about business. So what was the game that started it all? Lemonade Stand.

Twenty years after closing my paper cigarette company, I started my 4th-grade students up on an updated version of Lemonade Stand. To my amazement, the bright yellow pixelated graphics enthralled them just as they had me. The kids all wanted to make money and, within less than an hour, my English-language learning students were appropriately using words like net profit and assets.

So I started doing some research. I discovered that, again and again, studies have shown video games can help students learn when teachers integrate them in three ways:

  • allow students to play educational games as part of a facilitated lesson
  • have  students create video games for their classmates or younger students
  • use game design principles in curriculum design

What can gaming teach students?

Teachers have been using games like Scrabble and chess for as long as schools have existed. And just like with those board games,video games engage students and can make learning fun. What’s more, with the added visual and audio effects, video games deliver information to students’ brains in a much more effective envelope. In fact, research has shown that educational video games can increase student achievement, as well as spatial reasoning skills, compared to more traditional instruction.

Now, let me be clear here. When I talk about “educational video games,” I am not talking about simple interactives or simulations (though there are a load of great ones online), nor am I taking about online quizzes posing as games (kids are smart — they know the difference). I’m talking about full-on video games, with missions that the user completes.

More than facts

videogame-collaborationMission-based video games are about more than just getting students to memorize facts. Video games have been shown to teach literacy, problem-solving, perseverance, and collaboration. Even games designed exclusively for entertainment integrate skills like literacy and math by forcing players to read necessary information or make complex monetary decisions in order to “level up.” Most video games offer students opportunities to both gain knowledge and, more importantly, immediately utilize that knowledge to solve a problem. Going back to the Lemonade Stand example, the game never asked students to define “asset.” But kids were forced to look at their assets, examine additional information (weather reports), purchase supplies, set a price for their product, sell, and then assess their profit. After this, they had to reflect on what did or didn’t work and re-adjust their strategy. Talk about critical thinking!

This immediate application of knowledge, coupled with the inherent fun of video games, engages and motivates students far better than many traditional lessons could. Students become problem solvers who can think through complex missions to find the best possible solution.

And because students are so motivated to find a solution, they will often take risks they might otherwise be too scared to take in the classroom. In a recent New York Times Magazine article about gaming in education, video-game designer Will Wright refers to this as “failure-based learning.” Think about it — a video game is all about failing. Gamers make mistakes, lose lives, lose the entire game. But then they learn from those mistakes and try it again. Keep trying, in fact, until they “beat the game.” Therein lies the challenge and fun of gaming. The article even refers to the language of gamers as “the language of strivers.”

“Failure in an academic environment is depressing,” Will Wright says. “Failure in a video game is pleasant. It’s completely aspirational.”

Game designer Jane McGonigal takes this idea even further. In her TED Talk, she asserts that gaming skills could actually help us solve the world’s largest problems:

Real-World Preparation

gamer-navyIn the past, I’ve heard adults deride video games for isolating students, for keeping them plugged into a virtual world rather than interacting with the real one. However, video games have been at the forefront of the rise of social media. One teacher told me that her teenage son is a huge World of Warcraft fan. In that game, players create avatars and roam around a fictional world completing quests. Players connect to the game online, so they can interact with other gamers live. The teacher explained that her son connects with players of all ages, races, genders, and backgrounds through the game and learns to work with them. He’ll form a “guild” with a professor in Australia, a housewife in France, and an engineer in Mexico to complete a specific mission. Not only is he gaining valuable collaborative and leadership skills, he’s also becoming a true global citizen. All while plugged into his computer.

Hundreds of teachers have discovered that World of Warcraft (commonly called WoW) helps students gain collaboration, problem-solving, math, and literacy skills. These educators have even created a wiki called WoW in School, where they share lesson plans and integration ideas.

The corporate world has already seen immense potential in the ability of video games to train workers for real-life scenarios. Right now, doctors use video games to practice rare and complex surgeries. And U.S. military soldiers use video-game-like consoles to control unmanned droids.

Literacy expert James Paul Gee is one of the major proponents for video games in education, in part because he believes they ready students for the real world:

How can teachers integrate gaming?

Now, I’m not asserting that video games can replace teachers or even that they’re the magic education bullet. When I had my students play Lemonade Stand, I didn’t just put them on the game and let them go. It was a strategic piece of a larger unit. I introduced the game after we had begun talking about businesses — what they were, how they worked, etc. Plus, students had worksheets to fill in as they played the game, which re-enforced the vocabulary and major concepts I wanted them to learn.

With any in-class activity, our job as teachers is to help students transfer that knowledge so they can use it in scenarios outside of that day’s lesson. The same goes for educational games. Research shows that students need time to reflect on a game if it is to be an effective piece of a lesson. As such, educators need to develop an appropriate framework for the game to encourage students to reflect on and transfer their learning. That framework can come in different forms — depending on the game, I’ve had students complete worksheets, author reflective blogs, or simply participate in group and class discussions.


If you’re going to introduce video gaming into your classroom, the first thing you need are quality games. Check out the *footnote at the bottom of this post for a list of recommended FREE educational video games to get you started.

You’ll also need an implementation plan. My school had a mobile Mac lab, so I was able to put each student on his/her own individual computer to play video games. In other instances, I rotated students through the three computers that sat in the back of my classroom, much like one would rotate students through a center. For added re-enforcement, I’d let students come into my classroom before and after school to play games we had played in class. (Sometimes, I’d even let a student re-play an educational video game for 15 minutes of classtime as a reward. Haha — fooled them into learning!)

Henry Danielson found a more permanent solution at one California high school. I heard Henry, a tech director in the diverse Coast Unified School District, speak recently at a conference about his school, where he started a video game lab. He went to his local Best Buy, talked to the manager and got a few Plasma-screen TVs, a Wii, an XBox 360, and a PlayStaton3, all for $3,200. He installed them into an unused classroom and added a few computers for good measure. The game lab is open before and after school and at lunch. With recent cut-backs, finding an empty classroom wasn’t too difficult, but he also needed staff to man the room — the lab turned into an added duty for a single math teacher.

What’s interesting, though, is the behavioral benefits Henry noticed due to the game lab. Because students were in the lab, they weren’t bored enough to cause trouble during their down-time. Plus, teachers started seeing some intriguing self-regulation habits take form. With a limited number of controllers, students were politely asking and offering to take turns in the game lab, without adult intervention. And the lab attracted a variety of kids — girls, boys, special education students, kids from all socio-economic backgrounds. Students who normally never interacted were playing together.

Moving Up Bloom’s

Playing video games can help students acquire a number of higher level thinking skills. But, just like students learn more when they create content, they can learn a ton when building video games. Quest to Learn, a new middle school in New York, boasts an entire curriculum built around gaming, and students regularly create games in class. School leaders contend that by building video games that work, students begin to understand complex systems, which will give them valuable knowledge as they enter the workforce. After all, isn’t the world just a series of complicated systems?

At the aquarium where I currently work, we’re partnering with the Mobile Learning Institute this summer to invite high school students to build mobile phone apps. Our focus is on science instruction, so the students will spend the summer working in collaborative groups creating apps that teach other teens the science behind several aquarium exhibits. Similarly, at his high school gaming lab, Henry is adding two computer stations specifically for building mobile phone applications. His school already offers a computer programming class where students learn the basics of app creation, for both the Android and iPhone.

If you’re interested in having students create apps as a culmination project in any subject, check out Google’s App Inventor. It’s a free program for building Android apps and, because it’s from Google, there’s a series of tutorials online that can teach middle and high school students the basics. (UPDATE: Google has announced it will stop supporting the program at the end of 2011, when MIT is slated to take it over.) To create iPhone apps, you’ll have to shell out a little cash — its Developer Program goes for $99. UPDATE: ARIS, an open-source program from the University of Wisconsin, allows users to create location-based games for the iPhone and iPad. Compared to the Apple Developer Program, it has a much easier user interface that’s great for students. Plus, it’s totally FREE.

But video game creation shouldn’t begin and end with mobile phone apps. Several easy-to-use FREE programs can get even elementary school students building their own video games. With Kodu Game Lab, students can create XBox 360 games. Gamestar Mechanic (created by the founder of the Quest to Learn school) and Alice both make computer game creation easy and fun for students.

What can gaming teach teachers?

Any teacher in the 21st century can tell you that video games engage students. Games motivate kids to keep trying, even as tasks get more difficult. They feed students bits of information, just when it’s needed. They encourage students to persevere, despite failure after failure. Video games are, in essence, scaffolding machines. And they do it perfectly.

Imagine how effective schools could be if they did the same thing.

A few educators already are. Obviously, every lesson can’t be (and shouldn’t be) learned by playing a video game. But there are ways to integrate gaming principles into everyday lessons to help motivate and engage students.

At Indiana University, Professor Lee Sheldon’s students gain experience points rather than grades. They earn those points by completing quests (giving presentations), fighting monsters (taking tests) and crafting (completing projects). For some quests, students are grouped into guilds, while others they complete solo. Lee says that, since he made the changes, he’s seen a marked improvement in his students’ enthusiasm. The Quest to Learn middle school is set up in a similar fashion, with students earning levels of expertise from ‘novice’ to ‘master’ on their report cards. (You can find the school’s learning framework here.)

Nothing is new in education, though. A lot of gaming ideas correlate to principles that have been in education for decades. Quest to Learn basically utilizes Problem-Based Learning — a technique originally designed for medical students — to teach its middle schoolers.

With Problem-Based Learning, students must solve a problem (or complete a mission), but they need various skills in order to find a solution, so they learn these necessary skills (the lesson’s objectives) along the way. A common PBL lesson is the roller coaster challenge. In many middle school science classrooms, students have to solve a problem — how can they design a safe, speedy, fun roller coaster when roller coasters don’t have engines? In solving this problem, students test different methods (failing again and again) and learn various physics-related principles, all while having quite a bit of fun.

Problem-Based Learning (which is similar to both Project-Based and Inquiry Learning) has been shown to increase student’s critical thinking skills, as well as the depth of their understanding.

But gaming-based curricula aren’t solely a new face on an old idea. What gaming can uniquely offer educators is a new vocabulary to assess and critique students, where that feedback is encouraging rather than frightening. A classroom setting where students both want to win and believe they can.

Lesson Integration Ideas

Elementary Classrooms

Grade: K-3
Subject: All Subjects
Objective: The student will be able to master a variety of objectives while solving problems for a fictional zookeeper.

Thematic units are a big part of many lower elementary classrooms. If we look at video game structure, we can use gaming design principles to help create strong thematic units.

One of the benefits of working with young students is their unparalleled imagination. You can put students into a completely imaginary situation, and they will become totally enraptured in this fake world. Coupled with a thematic unit, you can take the principles of video game design to a whole new level.

In lower elementary grades, there are various animal-related science standards — understanding what animals need to live, the characteristics of various organisms, and the life cycle of animals. Plus, kids at this age LOVE animals. So why not create a thematic unit around the idea of zoos?

On the first day of the unit, post a large sign outside your classroom door with an appropriate name for your class zoo. Decorate the outside of your classroom so it looks like a zoo (if you have windows in your classroom, use construction paper to emulate zoo cage bars; add paper green grass along the bottom of the wall in the hallway leading to your classroom; etc.). Before students enter your classroom, tell them that you got a very important call from the local zoo. They heard how smart your students were, and they asked the kids to help some of their animals. In order to do this, each student would be named a Junior Zookeeper. Have students raise their right hands and repeat a “Zookeepers’ Pledge.” Then, give each of them a “Junior Zookeeper” badge to wear as they enter the classroom.

Once inside the classroom, have centers set up for various subjects and objectives, but continue the zoo theme with the decorations and activities. At each center, have a letter from a zookeeper explaining the zoo’s problem and asking students for help. (If you’re really ambitious, you could have videos from the zookeeper — you or a friend dressed up — at some of the centers.) At a math center, the zookeepers need help sorting animals into the right habitats. Depending on age, students can sort different species or different sizes of the same species. At a writing center, the zookeepers need help writing the signs that will be hung on a specific animal’s exhibit. Have younger students read books to get information about the animal, while older kids can do research on the internet. Then, have students write and design exhibit signs.

Every day, you can create new lessons in each subject area that align with your objectives and timeline, but also have students solving problems for the zookeeper. As a culmination activity at the end of the unit, tell students that the zookeepers are thinking about adding a new exhibit to the zoo and need some ideas. After a field trip to the zoo and/or some research, have students write a proposal for a new exhibit and make a 3D model of it. You could even ask the local zoo to send a zookeeper to your class to speak to students or judge their projects.

Middle School Classrooms

Grade: 4-6
Subject: Math
Objective: The student will be able to find the perimeter and the area of an object.

First, spend one day teaching students about perimeter. The next day, introduce the idea of area. Then, take students out onto the playground. Tell them to walk on the PERIMETER of the playground (generally, students will walk in a line around the outside of the playground). Then, ask them to walk in the AREA of the playground (they run around in the middle of the playground). Keep switching your directions — having students walk along the PERIMETER, and then inside the AREA. Afterwards, discuss what students noticed — were the perimeter and area the same? Etc.

Next, have students play the Cyberchase game Cyberspaceship Builder. In the game, students are given a set perimeter. Then they have to create shapes with various areas using the same perimeter. As students play, have them take notes about their findings. You might want to make a worksheet where students must demonstrate the different perimeters and areas they create. With older students, you could have them record their findings in their math notebooks.

After the lesson, discuss what students discovered, any questions they have, and have connections they made. (This is a good time to connect area to multiplication arrays and ask students if they found a more efficient way — other than counting — to find the area. For older students, ask about strategies for finding the area of oddly shaped spaceships.)

High School Classrooms

Grade: 9-12
Subject: Technology
Objective: The student will be able to communicate information to others, by engaging them in a mission-based video game.

Partner with a middle or elementary class in your area. Have the teacher send you a list of objectives his/her students have been studying. Present these objectives to your high school students and challenge each student to create a video game that will both engage younger kids and help them better understand one of the objectives (allow each of your students to choose which objective they’d like to teach).

Have students build video games using Google’s App Inventor, the iPhone Developer Program, ARIS, Flash, or another game development software (like Kodu Game Lab, Gamestar Mechanic or Alice).

Even simple games, like Lemonade Stand, can go a long way if they’re built creatively. There’s a great opportunity for students to create games that help explain major concepts like evolution or even climate change.

*Footnote: Educational Video Games


Budget Hero (grades 7-12), created by American Public Media, invites students to control the federal budget. What government programs should be cut? Which ones should be expanded? How much should Americans pay in taxes? You decide.

Food Force (grades 4-8) “invites children to complete six virtual missions that reflect real-life obstacles faced by the World Food Program in its emergency responses both to the tsunami and other hunger crises around the world.”

Games for Change (preK-adult) lists a variety of games for different grade levels and topics. Most of the games are designed to teach students about global issues, such as refugees, global poverty, and climate change.

iCivics (formerly Our Courts) (grades 4-12) “is a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy. iCivics is the vision of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is concerned that students are not getting the information and tools they need for civic participation, and that civics teachers need better materials and support.” It includes a teacher section with several lesson plans.

In Whyville (grades 4-8), players complete missions and, in the process, “learn about art history, science, journalism, civics, economics, and really so, so much more. Whyville works directly with the Getty, NASA, the School Nutrition Association, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (to name just a few) to bring engaging educational content to kids.”


Lemonade Stand (grades 3-8) requires players to create and manage a lemonade business. If they don’t make a profit, they lose. (Newer version here.)

In Whyville (grades 4-8), players complete missions and, in the process, “learn about art history, science, journalism, civics, economics, and really so, so much more. Whyville works directly with the Getty, NASA, the School Nutrition Association, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (to name just a few) to bring engaging educational content to kids.”


Discover Babylon (grades 3-9) uses sophisticated video gaming strategies and realistic digital environments to engage the learner in challenges and mysteries that can only be solved through developing an understanding of Mesopotamian society, business practices, and trade.”


I’m a fan of most of the games on the PBS kids website, but specifically those associated with the Cyberchase (grades 3-6) cartoon series. Each episode of Cyberchase teaches a different math concept in a real-world setting, and the dozens of games available on the website do the same. Plus, the site has a teacher section that lists the games by national math standards and offers associated lesson plans.


In Immune Attack (grades 7-12) “you must navigate a nanobot through a 3D environment of blood vessels and connective tissue in an attempt to save an ailing patient by retraining her non-functional immune cells.  Along the way, you will learn about the biological processes that enable macrophages and neutrophils – white blood cells – to detect and fight infections.

In Re-Mission (grades 9-12), which is rated T for Teens, players fight cancerous cells at a microscopic level to keep a human body healthy.

In Whyville (grades 4-8), players complete missions and, in the process, “learn about art history, science, journalism, civics, economics, and really so, so much more. Whyville works directly with the Getty, NASA, the School Nutrition Association, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (to name just a few) to bring engaging educational content to kids.”


With Smokescreen (grades 7-12), a game about Internet safety, gamers “explore websites, search for clues, receive phone calls, chat on IM, and tackle puzzles and minigames. On Smokescreen, who can you trust?


In Whyville (grades 4-8), players complete missions and, in the process, “learn about art history, science, journalism, civics, economics, and really so, so much more. Whyville works directly with the Getty, NASA, the School Nutrition Association, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (to name just a few) to bring engaging educational content to kids.”


You can find more FREE educational games listed at Social Impact Games. Also, College at Home lists some of the best commercial ($$) video games that can be used in education.

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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5 Responses

  1. WOW! Love this post! Next year, my school is adding an honors class for freshman English, and I’m hoping to have them build at least one educational video game. I’m going to spend the summer testing some of them out. Can’t wait! I’m thinking about using Edusim as a possible option, too. I’d love to have them build a game around mythology or Shakespeare. You just gave me a lot of great information (particularly the research-based info) to support my project.

    • Katy Scott says:

      That’s really exciting, Jessica! I can’t wait to see what your students produce — I hope you’ll post it on your blog.

      For more research, check out the research section of the PD link up top — there’s a direct link to the University of Rochester’s video game research page. (In this post, I just linked to the NPR report about their research.) They’ve done dozens of studies since 2002, and they’re all available on the site as PDFs. One of their studies suggests that gaming actually improves vision — who knew!?

  2. heroes of the storm boosting says:

    It is impressive how teachers have started integrating gaming into their classroom activities recently. The gaming industry itself has significantly shifted from simple entertainment to a part of good quality education. Hopefully will be seeing more and more of this trend as the benefits of games on the human brain are unquestionable.

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