Can Video Games Transform Learning?

A lot of really smart people believe that video games are the key to engaging children in school. I find video games fascinating (but definitely not fascinating enough to play them!), because they often embed learning throughout game play. So many incredible games are out there — Zoo Tycoon, Sims City — these games truly do seem to teach our children things like math, environmental practices, and more. I am a bit embarrassed to admit it, but my son has played since he was 4, first on the computer, and then on the Wii. When he started kindergarten, I believe he may have done so well in Math, partly due to what he learned as he budgeted for the zoos and cities in the games he plays.

So, the question is can video games really teach useful, transferable subjects? The NY Times magazine just put out an issue discussing this very subject. They profiled a school called Quest to Learn that has a curriculum around children designing and playing video games. These kids aren’t playing Halo however, these are games that were specifically made to teach. Serious games they are now called, meaning games with an educational component. The article didn’t really conclude anything although in the small print it did say that these children after one year in the program did no better or worse than other 6th graders in their district on federally mandated standardized tests.

So what’s the big deal? Why is everyone so excited? Well, video games are used successfully to teach how to shoot with drones in the military. They have been used to teach laparoscopic surgery. They develop cognitive skills such as spatial perception (Greenfield, 2009). Moreover, maybe there are skills that video games teach that are not measured by standardized tests — such as critical thinking or systems thinking.

On the other hand, does playing games really lead to learning how to critically think? Doesn’t that require the time to really ponder something, while today’s frantic media world doesn’t really encourage that kind of time? And do we really want schools, so far a place where children have been relatively isolated from the media frenzy that exists outside their four walls, to be another place where kids do “games and games and games and games” (to quote Kai, a student at Quest to Learn, telling the reporter what he loves most).

I honestly don’t know. It’s an exciting world out there, but I would hate to put the cart before the horse. Maybe children should have access to after school programs that offer these kinds of curriculum for different kinds of learning, such as social learning, teamwork, career development. The stakes wouldn’t be as high, and the population that took these kinds of courses may be the kids that would really benefit from it.

In any case, one year is too soon to tell. I will be eagerly watching Quest to Learn, we know education in our country needs something to provide some innovation. Maybe this is it.

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