[cross-posted at LeaderTalk]

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 development - 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 that:

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 easy.


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. Figuring 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 take.