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Are video games a waste of time? Educators and parents alike are concerned about the time spent on video games and the growing lack of engagement in schools. But are video games a total waste? Some researchers have found that the principles behind video game creation can teach valuable lessons when it comes to educating and engaging our students. Imagine Learning Product Manager, Carter Durham, addresses the key findings in a webinar titled “Rules of Engagement: The Potential Impact of Video Games on Education.” You can view the full webinar here, or, if you’re short on time, read the summary below.

Educators are starting to examine how to use video games to their best advantage. Judy Willis, MD, has studied how video games can be used in education. She says, “The popularity of video games is not the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching strategies.” Willis found in her research that the US school system does not teach the way that the brain learns, whereas video games do. How do they do that? Here are some aspects of video games that really engage kids and help them learn:

  1. Avatar. This is the character you pick in a game to represent yourself. It might be an elf, a reflection of your real face, or a microorganism that evolves throughout the game. The key to the avatar is that it is a representation of the student, and he or she projects him/herself onto it. The more the student is immersed in the world [by projecting his or herself on the avatar], the more engaged he or she is; the more engaged he or she is, the more effectively he or she learns. Also, with avatars, people can be selectively projective; that is, they are immersed in the world but still disconnected enough that they can be more objective and analytical with failure. Projecting oneself onto an avatar creates a safer environment where failure is less distressing for the student.
  2. Story. This is the context of the skill being learned, and something schools miss out on. Think of the games Oregon Trail or Where in the world is Carmen San Diego—these were early-on video games that set the student in the actual context to learn in. The story hooks you and invests you. Story helps with rich encoding of content in your memory, thus aiding in both recall and retention. How would you more easily remember facts about Napoleon Bonaparte? By having memorized the points in a textbook, or by meeting him in a game?
  3. Environmental Control. The idea that the student’s choices and decisions are meaningful and actually change the environment of the game is very engaging. Rather than the typical passive act of listening and watching and learning, the students must actively interact and engage to progress.
  4. Goal setting. Video games often set goals, if unspoken, and these are extremely motivating.
  5. 3D Immersive World. This is not a requirement, but a 3D world can be even more immersive than 2D worlds, causing the student to be even more engaged and thus learn more effectively.
  6. Rewards. Rewards can be highly effective in validating student learning. They don’t have to be real material rewards. Even fake bags of gold or praise are intrinsically rewarding. It is naturally rewarding to be achieving.

    Go for the Gold, an Imagine Learning activity, is an example of giving rewards for student learning.

  7. Levels. Students progress easily through the levels until they hit their “achievable challenge level.” That is, the level that actually presents a challenge to them. When they are challenged, they are engaged. This can be a fine line, because if they are not challenged, they are bored but if they are too challenged, they will give up. Carter discusses the unfortunate aspect of our school system where everyone starts with As. Because every student starts at the top, that puts them immediately into a defensive state because all they can do is fall behind. Video games start at the bottom, at level zero, so everything is an achievement. It is more motivating.
  8. Social element. When video games were first released, technology limited games to a single player. As technology has progressed, video games are much more social than they were before.
  9. Collaboration. In conjunction with the social element, video games offer the opportunity to collaborate with your peers. Where there are problems you can’t solve as an individual, you can work with others to solve it. This is a positive real world skill; colleagues depend on each other every day to solve problems in the workplace. Collaboration is so key in some video games that there are head hunters who will log into games, such as World of Warcraft, to seek out management talent, searching out those individuals that have found leadership places in guilds and such.
  10. Incremental progress. It is very important for students to see where they are at and that they are progressing. This is very validating and motivating to know that they are moving forward.

Here are some additional links to sites and documents that research the engagement of video games and how it can be applied to learning:

Games & Learning



Videogames and Learning

The Benefits of Playing Video Games

How can you implement these aspects in your classroom? Have you seen evidence of these working for your students? Share in the comments below.