Video Games: A New Frontier in Pedagogy

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 4, 2011

I’ve been idly curious about the latest research and thought about video games, and what we as educators can learn from them.  So when Pamelia contacted me and asked if she could write about the topic, I jumped on it.  James Gee’s stuff is very interesting to me, and I’ll be curious to hear what others think about his work.  Enjoy!  – Stephanie


When we adults think of video games, our first inclination is to envision that utterly baffling set of box and controllers that has completely brainwashed children born after 1970. When I was a child, my parents actually even banned the use of such completely, and they were not fazed by the argument that video games had educational value. As such, I too, have been very skeptical about any technology that induces a trance-like state in anyone, especially children. At the same time, however, as an unabashed bookworm, I hadn’t realized the level of my hypocrisy.

New research indicates that using video games as an instructional tool can be an effective way of getting children,  to learn and remember new conceptual material very quickly. A renowned Arizona State University pscyholinguistics, sociolinguistics, bilingual education, and literacy researcher, Dr. James Paul Gee, very recently presented research on gaming and learning at a New York City MacArthur Foundation seminar. He explained specific ways in which video games have the potential to unleash children’s learning potential. Gee argued that gamers, especially children, are discerning about which games they choose and complete, and that most game-design companies know that they have to compete for their customers’ attentions. As such, if a child completes a game, she will have spent a significant amount of time quickly learning new concepts and retaining information.

In a Finding Your Science video, Dr. Gee discusses the deep learning principles found in many video games of today. He argues that human beings have a very strong, innate instinct for learning, just as we have a strong instinct for reproduction. Gee goes on to say that traditional schooling inadvertently suppresses this instinct in many ways.

So why, you may be wondering, are games so adept at capturing a learner’s attention? Gee notes that game-design companies create games with a relatively low price of failure.  That is to say, if your avatar “dies,” you can quickly be reborn and start over from a certain point. This encourages the learner to explore new things, to think in different ways, to approach challenges laterally instead of linearly. Gee expands this train of thought by demonstrating that, considering many of the world’s problems in areas like economics, politics, and science, a game-based theory of learning, in which collaboration and multi-dimensional problem-solving, , is best equipped to solve these Big problems. Gee notes, making the connection between gaming and true intelligence:

“You are not intelligent because you rushed to be efficient in a goal you never rethought. You are intelligent when you’ve explored thoroughly…and you have rethought your goals.”

While Dr. Gee is one of the earliest and the most respected researchers on gaming and learning, game-based pedagogy is a rapidly growing field of research. A Chronicle of Higher Education article published last year called “5 Teaching Tips for Professors—from Video Games” gives a brief overview of some research in the field, as well as very concrete pieces of advice that demonstrate why gaming is such an effective learning tool. For one, gaming gives constant and precise feedback, which indicates to players in which areas they need to improve. Gaming implements both narrative and other forms of “fun” such that participants want to continue playing to see “what happens next.” The article does assert, however, that instructors should take a nuanced view toward learning with video games, because not all games are good for learning, and not all subjects are conducive to playing games.

For a few resources that connect video games and learning science in particular, here are a few:

University of Florida’s list of Science Games for Children, lists several online-only games that teach basic science principles.

A Wired article discusses how the proliferation of video games has rapidly increased the science-based vocabulary of young people.

A Popular Science article features an experimental school, Quest to Learn, in which students are taught exclusively through video games.


This guest contribution was submitted by Pamelia Brown, who specializes in writing about associates degree. Questions and comments can be sent to:

Image courtesy of lanniLuca on Wikimedia

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

JAE Sherman May 5, 2011 at 2:10 am

This reminded me of how my mother bought me Math Grand Prix for the Atari 2600. It was an early try at making an outright educational video game. The game was okay, but mostly I just remember how mad it made my brother when he had to stop playing Space Invaders so that I could practice my math. Ha!

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