Try this: Video game curriculum

This is a guest post by Lisa Nielsen. She’s in charge of technology and teacher training for the New York City public schools, and she is the author of  the book Teaching Generation Text. None of the opinions in this post reflect the views, opinions, or endorsement of her employer. 

At their most basic level video games are similar to books. Books can be anything—trashy novels, historical fiction, non-fiction, classic literature—each type with varying potential for learning. Likewise, video games offer different purposes and varying levels of usefulness when it comes to learning. Adults should focus on the type of learning they want to support in young people, and then consider if games are a good tool for that.

Here are some of the more popular types of games students use for learning today:

Drill and Kill
This type is a boring, rote memory “game” that is really no fun for anyone. If given the choice, most young people would choose a drill and kill game over a worksheet, but that doesn’t mean they’d like it. For instance Study Island is a drill and kill test prep program and more than 40,000 students came together to unite and discuss how much they hate this learning platform with an “I Hate Study Island” page on Facebook. (Note: the original page was taken down. The new one is here with more than 3500 members and growing.) Drill and kill is a game format is generally tolerated better than an old fashioned worksheet, but in the end it’s still drill and kill.

Health and Fitness
You may not have access to a boxing ring, running track, personal trainer, or fancy equipment, but with the new motion sensitive games available for play at home, all that has changed. There has been an explosion of games in the health and fitness market like UFC Personal Trainer from Xbox Kinect and Nintendo’s Wii Fit. These games deliver personal trainers and professional athletes right into our living rooms, offering tremendous value to players as they monitor their motions and expert avatars offer corrective advice. Player fitness data is stored and available for analysis to measure fitness gains.

If given the choice to learn about Roman history by reading, watching, discussing, or being a citizen of the Roman Empire, which would you choose? With simulation games you are no longer a passive recipient of information. You are an active member of a meaning-making experience where you have been transported to an alternate time, place, or reality.  Simulation games hold perhaps the biggest promise for video game-based learning. Players are completely immersed in their environment and develop a complex understanding of the topic at hand.

“I don’t want to study Rome in high school.

Heck, I build Rome every day in my online game (Caesar III).”

– Colin, Age 16

There are simulation games such as Roller Coaster Tycoon which gives players a sense of what it takes to run a large business, or SimCity where players can develop a deep understanding of city planning and infrastructure. Educators are catching on to this too. The Future City competition gives young people an opportunity to do the things that engineers do—identify problems; brainstorm ideas; design solutions; test, retest and build; and share their results, all within the SimCity gaming environment.

Maybe the most exciting game type for learning today is Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games.

Teachers like Peggy Sheehy are learning alongside her secondary students through World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft in School began as part of an after school program for at-risk secondary students to explore reading, writing, arithmetic, digital citizenship, and online safety. After having great success in the first year’s implementation it is now also being used as a fully-developed, standards-aligned language arts course. You can find all curriculum materials here.

Joel Levin joins his primary school students on learning adventures with Minecraft, a game which lends itself easily to science, technology, engineering, and math explorations. Language teachers are using Minecraft to help students strengthen communication skills, civics teachers are using it with students to explore how societies function, and history teachers are having their students recreate ancient civilizations.

The Deicsion
Of course there is such a thing as too much gaming; it would be just as unhealthy to go for days on end without proper food or exercise while studying as it would to do so playing World of Warcraft.

But which would be a more interesting way to learn?

Traditional Learning: Read the chapter and answer the questions at the end.

Game-based Learning: Create your own heroes…battles…encounter…fly.. explore.. take on your friends… master…… perform…

16 replies
  1. Brian Brandes
    Brian Brandes says:

    I’m glad you’re endorsing video games as a means of learning. There have been plenty of articles in the past where they’d find specific aspects of gaming laudable, but seldom go on a full-on endorsement of replacing a large portion of status-quo education with it. Hopefully this will help the opinion sway more mainstream.

    Of course, I agree with this opinion as well. I reflect upon my own life and find that playing games was without a doubt a major factor in my own childhood development. Playing the NES and early DOS games as long as I can remember was undoubtedly beneficial for a multitude of reasons:

    – I was inspired to read; I would memorize which menu items to choose before I could even understand the words. This helped me learn words also by symbolic recognition rather than the phonetics taught in school.

    – Even as my reading comprehension increased, it still stretched my vocabulary. Playing games like “Liberty or Death” (about the American Revolution) made 5th grade social studies a joke; I already knew phrases like “troop morale”, “blockades”, and “gazettes.” If som

    – I had to solve non-cookie cutter problems. The vast majority of games I played didn’t hold your hand; they required very out of the box solutions tapping into the sandbox nature of their game. This is much more real world problem solving than the math worksheets or word problems I’d encounter

    – It empowered me to make decisions for myself. A video game is your own microcosim. To a large extent, it was the first thing (even if virtual) I had ownership of to take care of. My character was mine to craft. I had to choose what I wanted and work within the system to get it. Mommy and daddy couldn’t give me a handout even if they wanted.

    There are so many more reasons why it was great. Was it a panacea? No. Was it invaluable never the less? Absolute.y.

    • Mark K
      Mark K says:

      My son learned to read over a period of time, but he made the largest leap I ever saw in reading fluency over a few weeks playing an xbox game called Morrowind. The subtitles amounted to several books worth of reading that he was highly motivated to plough through many hours a day often.

      To my mind, the most important thing is that if video games are a shared activity with parents, or at least siblings, they bring you closer, providing a shared interest and something to talk about as a point of departure for discussions about life.

      For older kids, online games are very social and can offer valid instruction in getting along with a variety of people and working effectively in teams to accomplish goals.

  2. Chase Miller
    Chase Miller says:

    I loved roller coaster tycoon as a kid! I used to play it all the time when I was a kid (and homeschooled) and it definitely helped me learn business skills.

    For example: I would try to start a new theme park with as little debt/loans as possible and grow the park over time. This is funny cause now I am a Dave Ramsey fan & debt free.

    On the funnier side I use to charge people to go to the bathroom.

    Great Post, it brought back alot of fun memories!


    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      I used to love that game! The big lesson for me was that to sell the most food you should max out the salt and fat content. I never looked at fast food the same way again…

  3. redrock
    redrock says:

    “If given the choice to learn about Roman history by reading, watching, discussing, or being a citizen of the Roman Empire, which would you choose? ” me? I would choose the book, but I also preferred as a kid to play with wood, rock and such things rather than any pre-made, store-bought toy which bored me immensely after a short period of time.
    The book and the game give you very different perspectives, and both can be part of learning. The book gives deeper insight into the connections, the broader perspective of things over centuries, the game in a way always reflects to some degree the rules of the programmer.
    But seriously, exercising requires complicated equipment and a world class trainer? Not really… kids are infinitely more inventive with their exercise, running around, exploring, jumping whatever than you can ever give to them with a video-based exercise thingie.

  4. Karen
    Karen says:

    Wow. I’d never heard of the game Minecraft until 2 days ago when it was mentioned on several blogs I read. Downloaded it last night for my 10 year old Lego enthusiast. He’s now addicted to it and I fear I have lost my computer to him. Highly recommended.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Thanks Lisa for this post on the increasing role video games are being used as part of the education process. There’s a good article at U.S. News and World Report ( ) where Joel Levin and Katie Salen are interviewed.
    I liked this paragraph from the article – “It’s not all fun and games at Quest to Learn, Salen is quick to point out. Students still read books, write essays, and take standardized tests. The games are just one part of the school’s overall mission: to prepare students for the increasingly digital world around them.”
    We need more teachers such as Katie, Joel, and yourself to spread the message that these games and other digital tools have a role in the classroom. It will be a learning experience for everyone – teachers, students, and parents.

  6. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    This post is really well timed as I am agonizing over when to really introduce video games to my boys.
    My fellas are 6 and 8 yo and my 8 yo plays some games at school but pretty minimal. I also bought him “Timez Attack” last year and it had him memorizing his times tables in record time. (It really is a great way to deal with that rote memorization need)
    That’s it, that’s the only exposure the 8 yo has had and the 6 yo old hasn’t had any other than a drawing app on my ipad.
    I loved video games as an older student – high school and beyond, but I’m not sure when to truly open that Pandora’s box for my boys.
    I recently spoke with a man who was homeschooled til college…he went to community college for 2 yrs and then MIT. He has moved his family out to Silicone Valley so his daughters can attend a technology free school there. He is the owner of a very successful web firm.
    I truly believe that this technology is fantastic and incredibly suited for education but my question is…when?
    There are so many important skills my children have to learn that they will not learn from a video game…looking someone in the eye when they speak to them, public speaking, etc. But, this era of gaming may result in far more engaged and educated students than ever before.
    I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on this.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      I don’t know what to think of it. My grown kid started at about age 9 with Oregon Trail. We didn’t use TV or computer in the early years, didn’t have internet for longer, and the impact it had on learning to keep oneself busy and be having creative play without that addictive pull was very noticeable.

      People will argue that there’s plenty of that with TV and computer, but it’s relative. You don’t know how much difference there is until you see it.

      Today’s world is much more involved with technology, so kids are different. I don’t think there’s harm in waiting for a while before introducing it, but it’s so much a part of many people’s lives that it doesn’t make sense to “hide” it from the kids.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      I wouldn’t intentionally supply video games for their educational value without the child being highly interested. There’s time for that later.

  7. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    My 8 yo is HIGHLY interested while my 6 yo could care less. I also feel that self control will be an issue with my older son. So should I start teaching him how to practice self control with video games…the same way I do with sweets or bedtime? Or should I allow him to further mature so he will have more self control inherent in his personality before I allow him to delve into something so addicting? ( In my own adult youth, I stayed up all night long playing Zelda.)

  8. Gustavo M.
    Gustavo M. says:

    Video games are a red herring. Educators are just starved for ways to make teaching more engaging, but video games are not the answer. Because look, I am absolutely convinced that 40 years ago we had this same discussion about television (disclaimer: I wasn’t there). And how well did that turn out? Key learning: whoever controls the investment controls the message. And video games are already a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, so the means of production are tightly controlled.

    I think that there is space for real innovation in education given our technological advances, and some of the same tech that was used to make video games into a successful entertainment medium can be used to make computer simulations into successful educational tools. And there is definitely some shift in rhetoric lately towards investing in these technological advances for education, and even some real attention being paid to it. But the stuff that is out there today is the playground of the entertainment industry, and it can’t help but condition players to have expectations that are shallow and mundane, leading to a generation that places great importance in Jersey Shore and Justin Bieber. It’s not some grand conspiracy either, it’s just the easiest path: the shallower and simpler, the easier to manufacture and consume, the bigger the profit margins.

    So, if you are out there looking for a way to help your kids become more engaged in learning, be wary of video games and acknowledge the price you’re paying in how your kids’ expectations about the real world are being shaped.

    Don’t trick yourself into believing that you’ll somehow ‘beat the system’ (that’s what everyone tells themselves – you bought that pair of jeans only because they ‘fit nice’ and ‘look/feel good’, the brand’s tens of millions of dollars invested in marketing had absolutely nothing to do with your perception of how a pair of jeans should fit, look, and feel, so you’ve really showed them!).

    The first rule of gaming is that the house always wins. At your expense.

    • Jess
      Jess says:

      I definitely agree, the marketing and profit side of all these things never seems to be acknowledged or to be a concern. The validity of the information contained in the games is a concern for me as well. Does it really help students to have a broad understanding of the historical concepts and how they link to earlier and later civilaizations? Do the “business” games really allow chilren to be innovative or only allow them to succeed in the narrow terms of success that are avaliable by a pressure to “grow” out of every recession type of business thinking.

      Studies I’ve seen on business indicate that the people who study business have a very different view of the world than almost everyone else and its main motivating factor is money, not the principals I want to see embraced and spread.

    • LJM
      LJM says:

      Video games are not THE answer, because there is no single answer. Video games can be a great way for some kids to learn things they wouldn’t have under other circumstances. Depends on the kid. Depends on the game. For some kids it’s not the right thing. For others, it’s absolutely perfect.

    • Helen
      Helen says:

      Have you played any of the games Penelope mentions?
      Minecraft costs £17.95 and you can keep it forever. (Hardly an exploitative cost).

      Everytime you play you can create a different world. You can play alone or with others. You can build things, kill things, mine resources, create complex circuitry, farm crops and animals, and learn about maths, geometry, writing and engineering.

      In fact, the Journal of Adolescent Research published a study comparing kids that played video games to those that didn’t. “Video game players, regardless of gender, reported higher levels of family closeness, activity involvement, attachment to school and positive mental health,” authors Paul J. C. Adachi and Teena Willoughby concluded. “Video game players also had less risky friendship networks and a more favorable self-concept.”

  9. Matthew Arrington
    Matthew Arrington says:

    There has to be balance, because both sides have reason. Has the education failed our young men? Yes. Are video games the answer? No.

    As the co-founder of the worlds first “Failure to Launch” program (, I teach life skills on a daily basis to young adult men. Typically, my students are 18-26 years old and suffer from video game addiction.

    I agree with the others who have voiced a concern socially for the gamers. Their social skills are awkward or all together non-existent because of their large dependence on deriving their social satisfaction digitally. The “friendships” these young men create online are obviously shallow and non-meaningful. Having said that, I do not think that video games are inherently bad or evil. I grew up with video games. From the Atari and the NES and Sega to the N64, Neo Geo, Jaguar, Playstation and XBOX. I own a PS3 myself. However, my generation knew for the most part when to unplug and go outside and play.

    In our program, our modality of teaching has been to create a healthy balance. To coach these young men how to use technology to their benefit, not their detriment. Moderation is key, but I don’t think video games should be the new wave of instruction for young men. Just like everything else, they can be a tool, but you need more than one tool in your tool belt if you want to build a house.

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