Video games and learning: Individualization, simulation, and complexity

[cross-posted at

In my post for LeaderTalk this
month, I’m going to quickly address three ideas related to video games,
schools, and learning and offer a short wrap-up at the end…

1. Individualization of learning

The artificial intelligence engines that drive most video games are able to
customize the learning experience for each individual player. In other words,
the game you play is different than the game I play because we have different
skills and knowledge and because we make different choices during the game. The
gaming engine adjusts to our differences, providing each of us with a learning
experience that is both unique and optimally challenging for us as individuals.
That’s a pretty powerful argument for considering the use of video games in
education. As I said in a
post long ago

Video games are structured so that learners constantly operate at the outer
edge of their competence. Participants are continually challenged but the
challenges are not so difficult that learners believe they are undoable. [Dr.
James] Gee refers to this as the regime of competence principle. Lev Vygotsky, a famous
developmental psychologist, called this concept the zone of proximal
– the area in which students are ready to grow. Video games are
similar to teachers in that they take the role of what Vygotsky called the ‘more
knowledgeable other,’ the entity that helps students bridge the gap between
their current ability and new capabilities. In education, we often call this
scaffolding – the idea that learners can progress to new skill levels
with structured, individualized, just-in-time assistance. Video games are very
adept at scaffolding participants’ learning. One of the reasons that video games
are so compelling / engaging / ‘addictive’ is that participants are continually
faced with new challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult. This
motivates them to move forward because the next step is always in sight and is
perceived as being achievable.

We can foresee a day in the hopefully-not-too-distant future when all
students have laptops and teachers, rather than seeing video games as
competitors for their students’ attention, will instead have a wide variety of
powerful educational video games available to them. Teachers then will be able
to work individually with one group of students while other student groups move
forward with the help of meaningful, substantive (not simplistic drill-and-kill)
gaming software. Voila! The age-old dilemma of effective classroom
differentiation just got a huge boost of assistance!

2. Simulation of authentic experience

The sight and sound capabilities of today’s video games are increasingly
realistic. Video game designers are getting better and better at reproducing
reality through the use of sounds, images, and videos. Corporations,
governments, and the military all are using video gaming engines to produce
simulations for employee training. As I said in another
post from my gaming series
a while back:

As the educational and/or ‘serious’ games movement grows, we will begin to
see complex, realistic, accurate simulations of ancient civilizations (e.g.,
Colonial Williamsburg, the Maya, Great Zimbabwe), historical events (e.g., the
Pelopponesian War, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Long March), scientific and
mathematical processes (e.g., space exploration, Archimedean physics, Euclidean
geometry), and the like. I am looking forward to this day. Right now even the
most popular education-oriented games (e.g., Reader Rabbit, JumpStart, Oregon
Trail, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) have been notably simplistic
compared to commercial virtual worlds such as Second Life, EverQuest, and World
of Warcraft. I believe that education-oriented simulations will be much better
at stimulating deeper, richer learning than the textbooks, videos, and learning
games of today. It’s hard to argue that making authentic decisions in the role
of a pharaoh or a slave or a farmer, while immersed in the realistic sights,
sounds, and activities of ancient Egypt, wouldn’t be a better, more meaningful,
and more permanent learning experience than merely reading a few textbook pages,
seeing a few pictures, answering some “drill-and-kill” multiple choice questions
on the computer, or watching a short video on the subject.

Reframing video gaming technologies as productive simulations rather
than time-wasting games will go a long way toward fostering acceptance
among educators. Simulations have a long history of use in K-12 classrooms. What
today’s gaming technologies allow us to do is to create simulations that enable
learners to do the actual work – and make the actual decisions – of whatever
profession or society we wish (past, present, or future). This, of course, makes
them incredibly authentic learning experiences and is why their use is
skyrocketing in the professional world.

3. Intellectual complexity

Many advocates of video games in education focus on the fact that children
find them engaging. They’re fun and they take advantage of powerful learning
principles as described above. But one aspect that often gets neglected, I
believe, is the fact that most good video games are pretty complex. As The
New Yorker noted in its review
of Steven Johnson’s book, Everything
Bad Is Good For You

Most of the people who denounce video games … haven’t actually played them –
at least, not recently. Twenty years ago, games like Tetris or Pac-Man were
simple exercises in motor coördination and pattern recognition. Today’s games
belong to another realm. Johnson points out that one of the “walk-throughs” for
“Grand Theft Auto III” – that is, the informal guides that break down the games
and help players navigate their complexities – is fifty-three thousand words
long, about the length of his book. The contemporary video game involves a fully
realized imaginary world, dense with detail and levels of complexity.

Indeed, video games are not games in the sense of those pastimes – like
Monopoly or gin rummy or chess – which most of us grew up with. They don’t have
a set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then followed during the
course of play. This is why many of us find modern video games baffling: we’re
not used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do. We
think we only have to learn how to press the buttons faster. But these games
withhold critical information from the player. Players have to explore and sort
through hypotheses in order to make sense of the game’s environment, which is
why a modern video game can take forty hours to complete. Far from being engines
of instant gratification, as they are often described, video games are actually,
Johnson writes, “all about delayed gratification – sometimes so long delayed
that you wonder if the gratification is ever going to show.”

At the same time, players are required to manage a dizzying array of
information and options. The game presents the player with a series of puzzles,
and you can’t succeed at the game simply by solving the puzzles one at a time.
You have to craft a longer-term strategy, in order to juggle and coordinate
competing interests. In denigrating the video game, Johnson argues, we have
confused it with other phenomena in teen-age life, like multitasking –
simultaneously e-mailing and listening to music and talking on the telephone and
surfing the Internet. Playing a video game is, in fact, an exercise in
“constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the tasks in the
correct sequence,” he writes. “It’s about finding order and meaning in the
world, and making decisions that help create that order.”

If you talk to gamers, they will tell you that one of the key attractions of
their video games is the complexity of their activities. Dr.
Henry Jenkins at MIT has said

The worst thing a kid can say about homework is that it is too hard. The
worst thing a kid can say about a video game is that it’s too


When our students, nearly all of whom have grown up immersed in video game
experiences, complain about school not being interesting or engaging,
they’re not just looking to be entertained (as many teachers claim).
They’re looking for learning experiences like they have at home that are
individualized, authentic, and intellectually complex.
out how to make that happen in our K-12 classrooms is the challenge for us as
leaders as we consider what forms 21st-century learning environments need to

13 Responses to “Video games and learning: Individualization, simulation, and complexity”

  1. I have two arguments with video games and that is one that I spoke about in a post here:

    One question I have about video games is the ways in which they limit creative development. Instead of students creating video games (which would require a higher order skill set), we are content to let them play them. Their involvement is our rationale for using them. But, are we substituting our creativity for their’s? Instead of creating their own characters and situations, instead of learning to program and study some sort of rudimentary game theory, we think to infuse some content in their games and teach through them. Hand/eye coordination notwithstanding, I’m not sure that this is all that different from teaching history and science through videos. Of course, a video gives plenty of multisensory information in a content area and can be very useful, but it can also be a passive tool of teacher sloth and student stupification.

    On that same score, is playing video games of content really the best use of developmental time? Are we really involving them in their subject area or are we substituting our creativity and understanding for theirs?

    My second question about video games is about the well documented research on the impact of video games on chronic video game users. My stepson is a poster child for the negative impact of intense video game use on social development and educational attainment. Do we really want our children online or playing video games all day AND all night? Something tells me that the ruling classes won’t be trained that way. Are we preparing our children for a future in which they have all opportunities or for a future in which they work and go home and plug in until it’s time for them to go to work again?

    I’m not a luddite, which you could see if you look at what I have my students doing, but I do have questions that I think need to be considered even by those who love technology best.

  2. Hi Scott,

    I must take issue with your comments on Vygtosky. I can say most emphatically that Vygtosky would not support video games as the more knowledgeable other. In fact, video games don’t speak to the ZPD at all. I realize that Dr. Gee (et al) often use this terminology but it is not typically used in concordance with Vygtosky’s intentions.

    It’s worth noting that Vygotsky spent little time (6 pages out of thousands) on the ZPD and for the record, the ZPD requires assessment to determine.

    To clarify, Vygotsky supports the ZPD to be used by an educator to determine the exact gap between what a child cannot do, and what a child can do with a little help. You’re right in calling that a growth area, but Vygotsky would not support interaction with video games as a form of this growth. In fact, he advocated interaction between a child and the Ideal Form of Behavior, which he meant as an adult.

    As an aside, Vygotsky would not support peer groups as a form of the ZPD either. I often hear educators use the ZPD as a reason to have students work together on something, but it simply isn’t the case.

    Let me direct you to some resources on the matter.

    Gredler, M. E. & Shields, C. (2008). Vygotsky’s legacy: A foundation for research and practice. New York: Guilford.

    Gredler, M. E. (2005). Learning and instruction: Theory into practice (5th ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.

    Gredler, M. E. & Shields, C. (2004). Does no one read Vygotsky’s words? Commentary on Glassman (201). Educational Researcher, 33(2), 21-25.

    I study under Dr. Gredler, a tenured professor who studied under Robert Gagne (can’t figure out how to put the accent on the e, yikes) and who has spent years researching Vygotsky and has read his entire works many times. She is considered a leading authority on the matter.

    I invite you to revisit Vygotsky and I think your understanding will change a bit, especially in terms of video games.

    I am well familiar with the Schaffer (sp?), Gee, Steinkeuhler (oh gosh what is her husband’s name? drawing a blank, his thesis was Civilization in a high school history class and he’s also at the U of Wisconsin-Madison), Dede, etc etc.

    For an alternate perspective, let me point you to such folks as Feldon at Washington State, Clark, Yates, others at the U of Southern Califorina (his book Learning and Media is excellent, 2001) and others.

    Point is this, there is an alternative viewpoint to the whole debate of video games in education, but many do not accept valid counter arguments due to the “fun” nature of video games.

    To sum it up, after having read much in this area and after having completed a lengthy lit review concerning MUVE’s in K-12, I just don’t see the evidence for video games having a direct effect on learning content matter.

    Notice, I’m looking for researched evidence, not anecdote. In fact, I’d say that video games in education can be harmful to learning content matter.

    Notice I’m talking about content matter, not learning how to design prims in Second Life. I’m talking about learning the basics that we all need to know, the 3 R’s.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I think much clarification is needed here.


  3. @Chris: I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert in Vygotsky and I appreciate the clarification and the additional references. That said, it is clear from both anecdotal and research evidence that video games and simulations scaffold learning and help learners take that learning to newer levels by unlearning and relearning. The subject matter of the games may not always (or even often) be academic, but nonetheless learning does occur, facilitated by the games’ artificial intelligence engines. Now, is that Vygotskian? I have no idea, but it’s something worth paying attention to… Would Jim Gee and others disagree with your assertions?

    On the anecdotal front (and, as a research professor, I’m wary of this too), I can see that my kids and others learn a ton of ‘academic’ content through video games. You only have to play SimCity, Civilization, or other complex games to know that you’re picking up all kinds of contextual knowledge. We know this to be true. This is why corporations and government agencies are adopting simulations left and right: because participants learn both incidental and actual applied knowledge from them.

    So you lost me somewhere, Chris. You (and the few researchers you cite) seem to be arguing against the fact that video games can be helpful to learning, despite a lot of research-based evidence otherwise (see, e.g., Gee, the Halversons, Squire, Steinkuehler, and Shaffer)? What are their arguments that all of the researchers I just cited are full of it?

    Can video games and simulations replace actual, live teachers? Right now I’m leaning toward the belief that, yeah, sometimes they probably can, particularly if they’re done well and oriented toward academic content. And other times not, of course.

    @Audrey: I think you bring up two very important points. I, too, like to see game players actively involved in creating their own games, not just playing them. And many games allow for that, particularly once you’re familiar with the game from playing it. That said, I think there can be learning value in playing too (as evidenced by my exchange with Chris above). Regarding the ‘addictiveness’ issue, I guess I have two thoughts. The first is the ancient Greek maxim: moderation in all things. I limit my kids’ screen time (TV, computers, video games) for just this reason. I want them to go outside too! The second is that we would rarely complain that people were addicted to ‘reading Great Books’ or ‘learning math,’ for example. If we can design gaming / simulation environments that foster more recognizable / applicable-to-the-real-world learning, I think we’ll have fewer complaints that students are ‘addicted’ to them? It’ll be interesting to see what develops over the next few decades as the gaming / simulation industries (and the technologies) continue to mature.

    @Chris and Audrey: Thanks to you both for the amazingly long and thought-provoking comments. Anyone else want to chime in?

  4. Scott, you opened the door – too late to shut it now. 🙂

    The videos that I see my own kids play are mostly beyond my hand/eye coordination ability unless I would really practice, and that is not my desire. There are really some “thinkers” involved that are rudimentary on this skill level too – my 8 year old builds and maintains a zoo that includes hiring, firing, feeding, building, renovating, setting fees, marketing, etc. There is a whole series of these SimCity type things in an array of interest levels and topics. No “blow em up” stuff or quick thinking, but an understanding of supply and demand, cost/benefit, management, finance, LEADERSHIP and VISION are all essentially necessary. In a short time, my whole life as a entrepreneur can be lived out in front of my eyes and then deleted, replayed, etc. What more experience could we ask for to challenge our kids? Answer: Going to a real zoo! Yes, there is a balance, and like Scott says, we have to be realistic and help our children reach that.

    As for writing the program, sure – why not? But I don’t think those of us that don’t desire to do that are endangered by simply playing the game either. That’s kind of like saying, “Sure, addition is great in 2nd grade, but shouldn’t we challenge them to do calculus?” As in many realities of life, isn’t it what makes you happy and satisfied that drives us? By the way, I don’t even know who Vygotsky is, and I’m OK with that at this point. Maybe later I’ll have the desire to look him up. For now – Game on!

  5. Scott,

    I take issue that it is “it is clear from both anecdotal and research evidence that video games and simulations scaffold learning and help learners take that learning to newer levels by unlearning and relearning”.

    I don’t think it is. Not at all.

    Does the fact that learning does occur make it worthwhile? What is being learned? I guess the big question is can be is transferred to real life?

    As to your question as to whether the learning that happens in video games is in any way Vygotskian, I’d have to say it’s not. I speak with no authority on the topic, but in all my dealings with his work I’d say it’s not at all, since he would have promoted interaction with humans, usually adults, typically parents, as the ideal form of behavior.

    Understand also, sir, that you are mixing terminology that cannot be mixed. There is a strong difference between games and simulations. You seem to mix them in your paragraph beginning with the “anecdotal front”. My Ph.D. happens to focus on medical simulations and cognitive load theory as an instructional design guide, and I study under a leading simulation theorist who has done loads of work with DARPA and the military writ large.

    Please note that games and simulations are quite different. Sims is a whole ‘nother discussion, which I’ll table for the moment.

    Note that the researchers I cite don’t argue at all against video games. That tells me you didn’t look up the articles. Those are primarily human cognition and Vygotsky articles. I’m trying to help you bolster the Vygotsky portion of the argument so that you can see that the way you leverage Vygotsky towards video games is potentially incorrect.

    As for Gee, DW Schaffer, Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkeuhler, et al, sure they’d disagree with me. The trouble is they cannot prove that video games have a positive effect on learning. They can show it to be fun, engaging, etc but as for real learning video games usually don’t come out ahead.

    When you deal with video games, or any other technology, really, it has to be a question of affordances.

    What does the use of a video game really afford me that traditional methods don’t?

    To properly answer that, you have to move beyond the notion that video games are new, fresh, cool, etc and that traditional is bad bad bad. Put that aside and assume that you have an excellent educator on one side and an excellent video game on the other. Which one would come out ahead in a head-to-head?

    I’d put my money on the relationship between excellent educator and kids every time.

    Look, theorists have tried to replace teachers with computers for years. Remember the scripted stuff done by Thorndike? Remember Watson? Remember Anderson’s ACT-R?

    They never stick around because nothing beats a great person interacting on a real level with real kids. That’s where education happens. That’s why you learn so much from Twitter, etc etc.

    And that’s where Vygotsky comes in, interaction with other people, many smarter than you and I, or certainly more knowledgeable in certain areas. We learn from those other folks much more than we learn from a screen with moving images, be it a video game or television or any other media.

    I know this isn’t your area of research, just as I know zip about many topics I would turn to you for advice on. Hence our previous conversations about many legal topics. I still refer to your cyberbullying for administrators (even though I am a classroom educator) often, as it is a valuable resource.

    This is the takeaway, that Vygotsky was all about people-people interaction (as dealt with previously) and that video games are a bit of a feel good topic right now but tend to lack research backing when it comes to performance on content knowledge learning.


  6. I think that learning is social, but that technology can do a great job of posing the problem then allowing two or more people the opportunity to work on it togeter. Video games, even those played by single players, are still a social problem solving experience for kids. They “talk” to each other about strategy either in person or via a number of electronic means. Technology can not replace a teacher in all aspects of education, but I would suggest that it certainly can limit how many teachers we need to facilitate the learning.

  7. Scott – your question, Can video games and simulations replace actual, live teachers? can only be answered with a no. Of course, a teacher may decide to use either games or simulations with her/his students as part of a rich and diverse learning situation, but a teacher is much more than a program.

    Take a look at some of the comments after yours on my last post, By Any Means Human, and you will see that we bring so much more to the table than content. Not one teacher responded that knowledge of their subject matter was the number one quality they brought to their classroom.

    Scaffolding can ONLY happen through teacher assessment. Learning happens through the relationship between learner and teacher and is tempered as learning shifts, in response to assessment.

    …written by a teacher who is passionate about student learning. If I thought that what I did could be done better by a game or simulation on its own, then it’d be time for me to find my passion elsewhere.

  8. On #3 – intellectual complexity – I think there’s a whole other level to modern games that you miss. Above and beyond the fact that the games themselves are dizzyingly complex, requiring the player to constantly collect data, form (and re-form) strategies, and analyze the results, with the advent of online multiplayer games there is a dimension of social complexity, too. I think that trying to beat the computer is no longer enough of a challenge for many kids; they would rather the computer throw at them missions that cannot be completed all by a single player but must instead be tackled by a functioning and effective team. These players recognize collaboration as a difficult but engaging and potentially rewarding challenge. The key to successful raiding in World of Warcraft is the ability to communicate goals and strategies to all participants and to work as a group to problem-solve as new situations arise – oftentimes in the timespan of only a few seconds. The challenge of coordinating a diverse team goes above and beyond the best puzzle that an AI engine can throw at a gamer. And obviously, like the cognitive skills that you and Johnson identify, these social skills continue to grow in their value in the real world:

    Johnson’s book is great, by the way; a must-read for educators and parents. I don’t know why it hasn’t gotten as much attention as Wikinomics, Here Comes Everybody, and The Long Tail.

  9. great read…Are some technological capabilities available that could make the entire experience more contextual and personalized and that could help connect the dots back to traditional education?

  10. FYI pther sites will make them die, i know it will stay here…forever 😉

    A brand new national survey (the first of its kind) finds that nearly all American teens play computer, console, or cell phone games and that their gaming experiences include a significant amount of social interaction. The survey was conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, , and was supported by the MacArthur Foundation.
    Pew conducted phone interviews with 1,102 kids aged 12-17, as well as with their parents and found the following things:

    97% of American teens ages 12-17 play some kind of video game.
    99% of boys say they are gamers and 94% of girls report that they play games.
    A typical teen plays at least five different types of games
    40% of them play eight or more different game types.
    While some teens play violent video games, those who do generally also play non-violent games.
    76% of gaming teens play games with others at least some of the time.
    82% play games alone at least occasionally, though 71% of this group also plays games with others.

    65% of gaming teens play with others in the same room.76% of youth report helping others while gaming.

    “The stereotype that gaming is a solitary, violent, anti-social activity just doesn’t hold up. The average teen plays all different kinds of games and generally plays them with friends and family both online and offline,” said Amanda Lenhart, author of a report on the survey and a Senior Research Specialist with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which conducted the survey. “Gaming is a ubiquitous part of life for both boys and girls. For most teens, gaming runs the spectrum from blow-‘em-up mayhem to building communities; from cute-and-simple to complex; from brief private sessions to hours’ long interactions with masses of others.”

    On the subject of ratings, and age-appropriate gaming the report found that:

    32% of kids aged 12-16 play games that are listed as appropriate only for people older than they are.

    32% of gaming teens report that at least one of their favorite games is rated Mature or Adults Only.

    12-14 year olds are equally as likely to play Mature and Adults Only rated games as their 15-17 year old counterparts.

    While the responses tackling Mature games are probably to be expected (what kids don’t aspire up to things intended for those older than they are?) the note about Adults Only games gave us pause. There are currently only 23 games that have ever been given the AO rating by the ESRB, and the current console and retail situation means that it’s very difficult to even find these products. What They Play has a feature about the Adults Only rating that can be found here. It seems more likely that the “Adults Only” content cited in the report refers to anecdotal comments about games, rather than the specific rating.

    When it comes to the parents surveyed in the report:

    90% of parents say they always or sometimes know what games their children play.

    72% say they always or sometimes check the ratings before their children are allowed to play a game.

    62% of parents of gamers say video games have no effect on their child.

    19% of parents of gamers say video games have a positive influence on their child.

    13% of parents of gamers say video games have a negative influence on their child.

    5% of parents of gamers say gaming has some negative influence/some positive influence, but it depends on the game.

    If you’d like to read the full report, you can download a pdf file of it here. Please leave any throughts and comments on the subject in the comments below.

    and at Huffington

  11. “We can foresee a day in the hopefully-not-too-distant future when all students have laptops and teachers, rather than seeing video games as competitors for their students’ attention, will instead have a wide variety of powerful educational video games available to them.”

    Very true, and considering the growing reliance of military forces around the world using simulation techniques to teach the use of weapons, vehicles and new technologies along with proper tactical behaviour, I believe we aren’t that far off. Just look at how many military technologies have found their way into our everyday life (with a delay of a decade or two). There are a number of shooter games that have the potential to be turned into training grounds, so we aren’t doing that bad yet. The real problem might lie in the small range of cultural/social effects of games at the current time, which will no doubt change. I do envision the day, when not only each of us will play/learn in a unique way, but when each of us, by mere interaction with a game, will be creating content for others to see and feel (just as we do in the real world.) A while back I wrote up an article in three parts about one such game that you might find interesting.

  12. @Babak: Thanks for sharing these links. Can’t wait to check ’em out!


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