Learning Through Play (Microessay #3)

Terence Gogarty

Professor Jong


A teacher awarding a student with a gold star for achieving a high mark on a test is nothing new. This reward not only congratulates the student on their academic performance but also serves as an incentive for them to maintain this performance in the future. However, why does this system not engage every single student? How come not all students are motivated or driven to earn these rewards? With the introduction of video games to the learning process, it is apparent that this reward system is due for an update. Not only do games create new incentives for achievement, but they also introduce new systems for learning and cause reflection for previously established measurements of students’ abilities.

James Gee claims that by having students participate in this ‘edutainment’, teachers are now able to effectively measure what he calls ‘collective intelligence.’ (Mackay) He posits that humans are not meant to function in a solitary environment, but rather collaboratively. By having students play certain games, they are able to exercise this ‘collective intelligence’ analysis can be done on how they interact with their environment and others players. While some games do not explicitly teach educational skills, it is argued that these games teach equally important ‘non-cognitive’ skills such as discipline.

The general consensus seems to be that games should not be viewed as a replacement to education, but to rather complement it and to aid in analyzing the learning patterns of students. For example, Constance Steinkuehler conducted an experiment studying the educational merit of video games and seems to have found a correlation between poor academic performance and lack of motivation. She conducted this experiment using a group of boys who read, in an academic setting, read several levels below their grade. However, these same boys excelled at reading texts within video games they played. When presented with these texts, they actually read above their grade level. Her conclusion was that because these boys had a choice when it came to their reading material, they were more motivated to overcome challenging passages. This calls into question the validity of the standardized tests that are being used to measure these levels and whether the results are truly indicative of the ability of the students.

When a game has been specifically designed to be used as an educational tool, it can be beneficial for educators. When a student plays with a game, it will log every single input. By having a game quantify every aspect of the student’s interactions and actions, this can provide the teacher with a more clear view of their understanding of the material. If the student is struggling in a certain area or is not absorbing the intended purpose of the game, the teacher will receive automatic feedback and will have an opportunity to correct these errors, thereby expediting the learning process.

While these developments seem to resemble the early stages of a reformation, the questions remains on how these new methods of learning are translating to overall academic performance. At the moment, there are fews studies which analyze this aspect and instead focus on the broader effects of edutainment. Studies on the effects of brain training games on transferable skills have not been positive. They found that the skills acquired and improved upon in one game did not necessarily translate into another game. In fact, the initial improvement was attributed to practicing repetitive actions. (Malykhina)

Despite initially praising the potential educational benefits of video games, Mark Griffiths fears of the negative reinforcement that certain games promote. In his article from 2002, he commented that the most popular games were typically violent and that games which did not promote prosocial behaviour had the potential of leading the player/student to developing ‘negative behaviours and emotions.’

Outside of the classroom, the implementation of game mechanics into learning tools is widespread. Duolingo, the number one language learning tool on Apple’s App Store, uses many of these mechanics. A person’s progression through various language-learning stages is measured in ‘XP’, their score is ranked amongst their friends on a ‘leaderboard’, they can spend in-game currency on outfits for their avatar and they are given a ‘life bar’ of three hearts. In addition to providing an accommodating and familiar environment, these game mechanics provide incentive, or motivation, for the player to progress through the language learning tutorials.

HabitRPG is a self-improvement tool that applies a progression and reward system, similar to what is found in an RPG, with the goal of having the ‘player’ develop positive habits. While not resembling a game in the typical sense, the player will engage with a user-friendly task manager wherein they take various habits from their life and apply them to the game’s progression system. A certain number of points will be applied to a habit that the player would like to maintain and if they carry out this habit in real life, they will earn in-game ‘gold’. Gold acts as currency in HabitRPG and can be spent on indulgent habits, such as eating unhealthy food, watching a movie, etc. In order to ensure the repetition of positive habits, players that neglect to play HabitRPG will cause their ‘in-game’ character’s health to decrease. The philosophy of this tool seems to be to empower the player by having them view themselves as the hero in their own game in order to help them break patterns of procrastination and develop self discipline.

While still nascent in its development, the progress of edutainment at this point in time makes the future look promising. Fair points have been made in regards to lack of proven results, but it is undeniable of the effect that it has on the dynamic between teacher and student. As the world progresses towards automation, it is difficult to imagine an educational system that neglects the use of interactive media.

Sethi, Chitra. “Can Videogames Reshape STEM Education?” ASME. 1 Sept. 2012. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Olson, Samantha. “Storytelling In Video Games May Improve Social Skills, Emotional Capacity In Kids With Autism.” Medical Daily. 12 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Mackay, R.F. “Playing to Learn: Panelists at Stanford Discussion Say Using Games as an Educational Tool Provides Opportunities for Deeper Learning.” Stanford News. 1 Mar. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Malikyhina, Elena. “Fact or Fiction?: Video Games Are the Future of Education.” Scientific American. 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Griffiths, Mark. “The Educational Benefits of Videogames.” Education and Health 20.3 (2002): 47-51. SHEU. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.


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