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Are Video Games the Learning Tools They’re Cracked Up To Be?

We may have passed the era in which the word “gamification” caused venture capitalists to rush to their checkbooks, but games still have some fight in them. Some people think games can save the world, and others think games can, at the very least, help alleviate social problems. Among the hoped-for functions of games has been that of teaching kids, especially kids who aren’t doing well in school. Perhaps all they need is a little more video gaming in their lives. Or perhaps not. With this in mind, in advance of the Zócalo event “Will Gaming Change the Way We Learn?” we asked several leading education and gaming gurus to offer their thoughts on the following question: Are educational video games overrated as learning tools?

Ann Lee Flynn

Often yes—but God is in the details

It all depends. Early arguments in support of video games to “entertain” students sold their potential short to a public already inclined to believe that “real learning” must not be fun but instead reflect the classrooms they remember from their past. There is a big difference between engagement and entertainment, and few video games have the potential to do both. Some are little more than online quizzes with lots of animation. Still, some games actually do impart content and help develop the skills essential to a 21st century workforce, such as collaboration, critical thinking, and perseverance.

The look of determination on the faces of my young nephews with their online games and their eagerness to share recently acquired skills have personally convinced me that the right game, in the right setting, can be a powerful learning tool. Now entering school, they expect to interact with content in far different ways than I did in the 1960s, and games should be a part of that learning environment.

Local school boards and their district administrators should be open to technology innovation—including video games—but clear about how such tools support their vision for student learning. They must be comfortable articulating that vision to community stakeholders not well versed in the growing cognitive research that supports games for learning and who fear their tax dollars are being wasted. The quality of games, the purpose for which they were developed, and how the teacher incorporates them to support instruction are key to addressing the question of whether they are overrated as learning tools or not. Sweeping generalities rarely work in education.

Ann Lee Flynn, Ed.D. ( is director of education technology and state association services for the National School Boards Association.

Sarina Rapini

The good ones aren’t overrated, but a lot of bad ones make all the money

Many of the so-called “educational” games we have now are overrated, and unfortunately these are the ones parents tend to favor. Games like Mathblaster may be exciting ways to approach math, but they are simply drill-and-practice in format. They may help you learn your multiplication table, but so can flashcards. In order to make a compelling argument for game-based learning, games must offer something that traditional education cannot.

Well-constructed games can be much more than fancy flashcards. First of all, a game can make a student a producer rather than a passive consumer of their education. A typical classroom has a teacher who gives a lecture while the student passively listens and takes notes without context or application. However, games are interactive, and players’ actions shape the game world around them, causing them to reflect on their decisions and form hypotheses. Many games, like Civilization, also allow players to win or play in multiple ways, allowing players to take on challenges with a method that suits their strengths or try a new problem-solving strategy.

However, most importantly, games act as learning scaffolds, delivering information to the player just in time when he needs to use it. For example, SimCity players come into the game knowing little about city planning. The game does not give the player a lecture or a textbook (although they may have a reference guide), but encourages the player to experiment with commercial and residential zoning and taxation while providing guidance and information whenever the player needs it. Players automatically learn the urban management vocabulary and economics embedded in the game’s design as a side-effect through experimentation.

There are several games out there that are valuable learning tools. However, there are no best practices for making these types of games, and they can be much more expensive and difficult to make. It’s much easier to make drill-and-practice games and pawn them off as unique learning tools. While these types of games might be entertaining or engaging, they hardly offer anything substantive to traditional education.


Sarina Rapini is a graduate student at Texas A&M University studying education policy. She prepared a paper for Congress regarding game-based learning in STEM subjects during her time at the Center of Excellence in Education in McLean, Virginia. It is available for download on her website at:

Eric Hanushek

For now, they are overrated, but in the future they could do a lot of good

Three facts about educational video games—and educational technology more generally—are important to consider as we look at their current use and impact. First, video games, educational and otherwise, show that clever technologies can attract and hold the attention of users and can teach them a variety of sophisticated thinking patterns.  Second, educational games have made little dent in education. And, third, advanced technologies will be an important part of education in the future.

The promise of educational games can clearly be seen in various action games. They are riveting to many people, both children and adults. While emphasizing quickness and reflexes, the so-called first-person games systematically lead the player into higher levels involving more difficulty. The only way to succeed is by developing strategies of play that “outthink” the game. When taken out of the action game world and when specific learning outcomes are added, these components point to the power of educational games to motivate and to teach.

And yet educational games today have had limited impact on learning. Developers have constructed a wide variety of products without being concerned much about evaluating their use and their impact. We have yet to harness their power, because we have not learned how to select and to integrate them into more traditional educational structures.  Part of this is that we have not figured out how to incentivize teachers to figure out their value and use in the classroom. Part is that the educational game producers themselves have not worked at the integration aspects of their work. In this regard, educational video games are overrated, because having a snazzy stand-alone product is not the same as finding how it can enhance the overall learning experience.

But there is also no doubt that the future is going to be very different. The teacher and the classroom will be around for a long time. Through technology, we can simply do certain learning tasks, particularly those involving the systematic development of basic concepts and skills, better than the average teacher. The student can work at his or her own pace, can repeat parts that are difficult, and can get instantaneous feedback.  Educational video games, if we can work out the integration issues, then offer the chance of freeing time of the teacher for the things that a live teacher can do better, such as individual tutoring on difficulties that the student is having. They also offer a chance for a more efficient educational system—in which teachers do part of the task and technology substitutes for another set of learning tasks. From this perspective, educational games are currently under-rated.

Eric Hanushek, an economist specializing in education policy, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. His writings can be found at

Tracy A. Dennis

They are both overrated and underrated

I believe that while many people overrate the benefits of video games in education, just as many underrate them. Video games are tools like any other. Their pros and cons depend on how, why, when, and for whom the video games are used. The use of video games in education should be tailored, not off-the-rack. However, until we have more direct scientific evidence on this topic, we can only do thought experiments. For my thought experiment, I focus on how video games might influence the broader contexts of learning: relationships and motivation.

Relationships. Do video games influence the teacher-student relationship? A recent study hints at the possibility. This study compared mothers playing with their toddlers with traditional toys versus electronic versions of the same toy. Mothers playing with the electronic toys were less responsive, less likely to be educational, and less encouraging. Might the same apply to teachers and students? Could video games, because they “do the teaching” have a negative impact on a teacher’s ability and motivation to engage with students? Could video games disempower teachers?

Motivation. We use incentives all the time to motivate learning (e.g., grades), but video games may be unique in the degree to which incentives, whether points or rewards, are integral to the learning process. If the motivation for learning becomes too closely tied to these external incentives, the pleasure of learning for learning’s sake may be squelched and children may miss opportunities to appreciate that setbacks—not getting a reward—are opportunities to improve. We must think through the subtle ways in which video games can shape children’s motivation for learning and design video games to encourage the learning style we believe will be most productive.

Whether one believes that video games will lead to shorter attention spans and boredom in the classroom or that they are powerful tools for igniting a child’s passion for learning, video games will soon become a central part of the educational landscape. So, let’s figure out how to do it right.

Tracy A. Dennis, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at Hunter College and in the Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Doctoral Program at the City University of New York. She also blogs on the topic of technology and human development at

David Walsh

They are not overrated—if we keep some major caveats in mind

Video games have come a long way since the days of Pong. While many associate them with entertainment, video games can be harnessed as very powerful teaching tools. Consider some of the unique ways that games can foster learning.

1. Individualized learning. Game-based learning engages students at their “sweet spot of learning.” Our brains disengage when something is too hard or too easy. The reason classroom teachers have such a challenging job is that they have to hit a whole room full of “sweet spots” simultaneously. Games are geared to each student’s unique ability level. Learners can quickly advance through easier material to arrive at a level that matches their knowledge or skills. Games then challenge them to push to the next level, which is, of course, what learning is.

2. Mistakes become learning opportunities. Gamers advance by trial and error. They make choices and get instant feedback. If their answer or strategy is correct they are immediately confronted with another, more difficult, choice or decision. If they make a mistake they keep trying until they “get it right.”

3. Games are immersive and teach by doing. Showing a student how to do something is not as effective as her doing it on her own. Imagine the science student assuming the avatar of a climate scientist tasked with advising developers where to build houses in light of rising sea levels.

There are, however, some important caveats. First, these advantages—and others—assume high-quality learning games. Computer or Internet based games do not de facto offer good educational experiences. Games should foster higher-order skills such as strategic thinking and execution, synthesis, problem solving, persistence, and focused attention.

Secondly, game-based learning should be part of the learning experience and not a replacement for face-to-face teaching. Research shows that heavy technology-using students show deficits in real-world social skills.

With proper funding, creativity, and attention to outcome research, gaming can improve the ways students learn in the 21st century.


Dr. David Walsh founded the National Institute on Media and the Family, which he led until 2010. He recently founded Mind Positive Parenting to help caring adults better understand how to help kids thrive in the 21st century.

Judy Willis

They are in many ways underrated

Educational video games are underrated and underused as neurological learning tools. When technological advances in the best video learning games align with breakthroughs in neuroscience research, it creates an unprecedented educational opportunity. This is especially true for underserved or developmentally delayed students, who benefit from the individualization offered by best designed learning games.

Well-designed online learning capitalizes on the brain’s powerful dopamine-reward system. The neurotransmitter dopamine, released as a reward for accurate predictions and challenges achieved, promotes deep satisfaction, increased focus, perseverance, and motivation. The requirements for activation of this system include brain awareness that there is challenge, awareness that it is achievable, and adequate frequency of feedback about challenges achieved. (Most games have levels and players receive acknowledgment of challenges achieved, such as being moved to the next level.) Once there is pleasure-reward for challenge achieved, the brain wants harder work, as it seeks that dopamine reward again.

Evidence of this power of the video game model is that it can be successfully applied to classroom instruction (even without the games). The model of achievable challenge and progress feedback works, and if the classroom lacks a challenge, the student will lose interest, as the brain no longer expects the dopamine reward. With learning experiences that provide individualized challenges and feedback, learners are in the ideal state for the sustained motivation and perseverance for building mastery, despite recurrent setbacks.

As more students achieve the foundational knowledge needed to go beyond fact acquisition to learning application, teachers can use their skills and creativity to design interactive, exploratory, and investigative learning experiences in which students apply learning in meaningful, personally relevant ways that reinforce the learning and the overall relevance of school and prepare students to transfer learning to the challenges and opportunities that await them beyond the classroom doors.


Dr. Judy Willis, M.D. M.Ed. is an authority on brain research regarding learning and the brain. With her unique background as both a neurologist and classroom teacher, she has written six books, including How Your Child Learns Best, contributes regularly to professional educational journals, and gives presentations nationally and internationally about applying neuroscience research to education. Visit her website

Lisa Guernsey

No—but they should change how we teach

If the question were “Will gaming change schools?” or “Will gaming change the way we’re taught?” I would say yes. In preschools and elementary schools—the realm I study—smart teachers know that the days of failed one-size-fits-all teaching methods are over and that children make the most progress when given individualized challenges that motivate them to reach new heights. Well-designed games and quests—online or off, in teams or played solo, over minutes or months—offer those challenges. There’s a reason children lose the fire in their eyes at school but become obsessed with video games at home.

But I wouldn’t want gaming to change the way we learn. Scientists are still uncovering the myriad and sometimes mysterious ways human beings learn—how we ingest information from observation or hands-on experience, store and retrieve it through repeated practice, make unexpected connections through serendipitous interactions, transfer what we’ve learned in one arena to another, or encounter new cognitive flexibility after a good night’s sleep. (For interesting reporting on the science of learning, follow Dan Willingham, Annie Murphy Paul andEllen Galinsky.) I wouldn’t want an influx of games—whether well-designed or digital dreck—to mess with these core components or swing them out of balance.

What we should be demanding instead of better games are new educational approaches, starting at young ages, that give all children a fair chance to experience these components of learning, to grow and explore with mentoring adults at their side. Still, to the extent that the “challenge” model of gaming (in person, online, or both) gives more chances for learning to more children who wouldn’t otherwise get them, let’s go for it.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. She is author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012).