[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