Games – What exactly are kids learning?

[Cross-posted at U Tech Tips]

Games and the value of game-based learning has been a hot topic for me lately, so I was thrilled to come across Tom Chatfield’s article, Why playing in the virtual world has an awful lot to teach children in the Guardian on the 10th January 2010 (hat tip to @paulmaglione for the link). Tom argues that there is more to games than meets the eye.

For perhaps the most remarkable thing about modern video games is the degree to which they offer not a sullen and silent unreality, but a realm that’s thick with difficulties, obligations, judgments and allegiances. If we are to understand the 21st century and the generation who will inherit it, it’s crucial that we learn to describe the dynamics of this gaming life: a place that’s not so much about escaping the commitments and interactions that make friendships “real” as about a sophisticated set of satisfactions with their own increasingly urgent reality and challenges.

Super Mario BrosKatie Salen, professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design argues that traditionally, games have not been seen as challenging realities, but rather as time-wasting activities:

There is a long history of understanding games as sort of leisure activities, as a kind of waste of time. And that when we see kids playing games that maybe our first reaction is to say, “Oh well they’re just playing, they’re just kind of wasting time.” There isn’t a sense of even sitting down with the child and asking them… “What’s going on in your head right now?” Because if you sit down and talk to a game player about what they’re doing, an incredible narrative will come out of their mouth about the complex problem they’re working on. A set of specialist vocabulary will spew out of their mouth…
[see the full video here]

From my reading on the subject, there are a number of key learning areas that games help players develop. Here are a few of the main ones.

Games Develop Literacy SkillsMoshi_passable

Many people underestimate the amount of literacy involved in game-playing. Instructions and other comments on the website require reasonably sophisticated levels of reading. James Paul Gee, an Arizona State University professor and leading figure in the field of games in education, argues, “Some people even say that games are killing reading and writing – far from it! They’re actually engaging kids with reading and writing more than ever.” [See the full video here]

By way of example, in Moshi Monsters – a game students at my school have been playing with gusto – your monster tells you how he/she is feeling, with quite a wide vocabulary. My monster has been elated, effervescent, marginal, and sunny lately, but the other day he was just passable. One of our K2 classes created their own monster, and play it as a class first thing in the morning. What a great way to discuss and develop new vocabulary!

In the context of Moshi Monsters, the “specialist vocabulary” that Katie Salen speaks of, includes Moshlings and Rox – both of which I am extremely confident all players would be able to explain clearly.

mystMessage boards are also popular with students as a way of communicating with others. On my message board, students have asked me how to get a particular Moshling, commented on my room and so on. It is great to see the dialogue that it generates, and the buzz in the ICT lab is electric, to say the least!

Tim Rylands, often credited as one of the forerunners of  gaming in education,  brought the computer game Myst into his classroom to develop literacy skills, with great success – he won a Becta ICT in Practice Award for his work in 2005. Since then, projects have been developed by schools and learning institutions around the world, including Learning & Teaching Scotland, who use games such as Guitar Hero and Myst to  stimulate creative and descriptive writing. They have been receiving positive feedback from teachers and students alike.

Games Develop Creativity

Scratch_001Gee states in his video for Edutopia, “Kids want to produce, they don’t just want to consume.” This is certainly true of the Playstation 3 hit, Little Big Planet, which has user generate content as a major part of the game.

At my school, the Grade 2-5’s are devouring Scratch, the MIT-developed computer programming software for kids. Scratch provides an extremely user-friendly platform where users can upload their own games, or download and make changes/improvements to other people’s games and upload them again for the community to try. One of our Grade 5 students contributed a game which he has translated into 3 languages – Chinese, Dutch and English! The code behind this game (and others that the students in my class produce) is extremely sophisticated, and more often than not, beyond my comprehension!

Games Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Samorost_1Players need to use critical thinking skills when playing games. Problem solving and decision making skills, together with logical thinking, sequencing and strategy-making are all reinforced. James Paul Gee argues that playing a game is like a continuous stream of assessment. If you fail to work out what steps need to be taken, and in which order, you will not progress further in the game. Games such as Samorost (and other games created by Amanita Design, including Samorost 2 and Machinarium) are fabulous for all the skills mentioned above. Kids love to play them together, and thrive on the challenge of coming up with possible solutions to rather daunting problems.

Zoombinis is a very popular computer game (and has been since its release in the mid ’90s), requiring complicated mathematical thinking skills. According to Amazon,

Zoombinis Logical Journey challenges children to employ such basic fundamentals of mathematical thinking as organizing information, reasoning of evidence, finding and making patterns, and systematic testing of hypotheses.

zoombinisWe loaded it on some computers in the lab, and had a games focus for our most recent Wired Wednesday professional development with staff, and it was funny how many teachers remembered it from 10 years ago when their kids played it. One teacher even asked to take it home, because it was that engaging! 

Gee, in an interview with Gamezone, argues:

…people are too hung up about learning “content” in the sense of facts. What we need people to learn is how to think deeply about complex systems (e.g., modern workplaces, the environment, international relations, social interactions, cultures, etc.) where everything interacts in complicated ways with everything else and bad decisions can make for disasters.

The thinking skills developed in gaming are transferable across a range of contexts, which will be of great benefit to our students in the workplaces of the future.

Gee explains in the same interview,

Good games stay inside, but at the outer edge of the player’s growing competence, feeling challenging, but “doable.” This creates a sense of pleasurable frustration.

It has also been described as ‘hard fun’. I’m sure many of us have been in the situation where a game has  been too easy or too hard. Those just-right games really hook us in to the point where our concept of time melts away – or as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Hungarian professor of Psychology famously refers to it – the state of flow. According to Wikipedia, flow is:

the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

Games are SocialMachinarium in the Lab 002 (Medium)

The old-fashioned notion of gamers in seclusion, having no human contact is a thing of the past. The majority of games today have a huge social component, including sophisticated discussion forums. Tom Chatfield again suggests:

Visit any website devoted to hosting player discussions of games like World of Warcraft, for instance, and you’ll find not hundreds but tens of thousands of comments flying between players who debate every aspect of the game, from weapon-hit percentages to mathematical analyses of the most efficient sequence in which to use a character’s abilities. It will range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and will be riddled with private codes, slang, trolls, flames, and everything else the internet so excels at delivering.

What you’ll find above all, though, is a love of discussion almost for its own sake; and an immensely broad and well-informed range of critical analyses. It’s not unknown for doctors of economics or maths to wade into the fray – and find themselves bested by other still more meticulous chains of gamer reasoning.

Participation in the social communities surrounding games, interacting with friends in multiplayer games, and contributing to discussion forums all help develop communication and collaboration skills. The ability to communication and collaborate with others is increasing in importance – take the ISTE Nets for example. Being able to establish a rapport with others, in a range of situations will help today’s students in future contexts.

Game-playing provides leadership and peer-learning opportunities for students. Games can level the playing field. Tom Chatfield notes that, “A virtual world is a tremendous leveller in terms of wealth, age, appearance, ethnicity and such like…” It means a child can be an expert, a student can be the most knowledgeable source of information.What a powerful concept for a student in a classroom – I have something of value to offer my peers and my teachers.

playstation_FlottenheimerAs Joseph Joubert, the French essayist famously said, “To teach is to learn twice.” In the context of the lab, the students I see playing games are a very supportive community, keen to help newcomers develop their understanding of the game. This fits in beautifully with  Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice theory of learning, where,

“It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally.”

Face-to-face friendships develop through similar online  interests, and this is certainly evident in my ICT Lab.

James Paul Gee speaks of these communities of practice as “passion communities” constructed via social networking, where members are usually held to quite rigorous standards in their area of passion. To the novice, feedback is given, support is provided, but standards are not be lowered.

Rachel Williams for the Guardian, notes that according to a government-appointed expert,

Children spend so much time in front of the television and computer games, and so little time with adults that one child in six has difficulty learning to talk…

parent with kids & playstationIt is easy to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the television and computer game industry, instead of focusing on the role parents and other adults have to play in a child’s language development. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, this is a powerful opportunity for parents to involve themselves in the lives of their children, and play games together. The discussion arising from shared game-playing would surely help children develop those crucially important communication skills, and create a nice shared activity for parents and children.

In Summary

I truly believe gaming and game-based learning has a lot to offer our students. I hope this has provided an alternative perspective on gaming, and an insight into what our kids are learning through game-playing.

I would be interested in hearing how other educators have used gaming in their classrooms, and to what effect. Please share your expertise!

People to Watch

Tom Barrett‘s blog features a lot of great game-based learning information

James Paul Gee

Tim Rylandswebsite has writing samples and videos of work produced by students using Myst and other games.

Katie Salen

Further Reading

Background to Games Based Learning – Learning & Teaching Scotland

Using the Technology of Today, in the Classroom Today – the Education Arcade

Unlimited Learning – Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association

Photo Credits:

Mario – Nahuel31, Playstation – Flottenheimer, Parent & children with playstation – sean dreilinger, Myst image – ldrose,  Zoombinis image – matt.agnello, Images from games captured using Jing

9 thoughts on “Games – What exactly are kids learning?

  1. A great post and one which I will refer to when discussing game sbased learning activities in school.
    I have used Myst with a class whilst teaching in Spain and the game not only captured their enthusiasm in Literacy lessons it developed their understanding of descriptive language.
    The use of games should not be seen as detrimental nor an obstacle to learning and your post helps to demonstrate why games based learning is so useful and effective.


    • Thanks so much Kevin! I’m intrigued to hear more about your experiences in Spain with Myst. I have downloaded it onto the school iPod Touches, but haven’t quite got around to trying it out with kids yet. I’m sure they’ll love it!


  2. Hi Ollie,

    I think Learning & Teaching Scotland are really paving the way for other countries in the area of GBL, so I’m happy to highlight the good work you’ve been doing!

    I am downloading your presentation as I type – thank you so much for the link! I am really looking forward to watching it.

    Thanks again 🙂


  3. An informative and interesting post. Thanks. I am currently researching gaming and learning, with one project focusing on students’ reflections on their gaming experiences and the learning opportunites within these reflections. It is amazing what primary students will talk about in relation to gaming, and even more so, their eagerness to share experiences with adults from their gaming. It is so important that they receive these opportunities to communicate with parents and teachers about what they experience and learn while gaming. The second project I am working on is an Action research based on students making their own digital games in the classroom (using PowerPoint or GameMaker) and beginning to develop critical gaming literacy skills – based on some of Buckingham and Burn’s work but with basic level programs for primary students and teachers.


  4. Pingback: Blogging about the 1:1 Classroom – Personal Learning Networks « eLearning and economics – digging a little deeper

  5. Pingback: Games – What exactly are kids learning? | U Tech Tips

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