Gaming, cognition, and education - Part 1

Educators and parents are quick to disparage video games - they're a 'waste of time,' they're 'too violent,' or they lead to repetitive stress injuries (nintendinitis). And yet, even non-gamers like myself can recognize that there's something going on when a kid who can't sit still in class for five minutes can be mentally locked in for hours at home playing video games.


Today I kick off a week-long series of posts that discuss gaming, cognition, and education. Although my comments this week primarily will focus on children and adolescents, my discussion also should be relevant to college students and other adult learners. This series of posts is based on the superb book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by Dr. Jim Gee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to discussing some key concepts from Gee's book, each day I will highlight a gaming-related resource for K-12 educators. Next Monday I will wrap up the series and provide a tool that can be used to help teachers and administrators discuss (and maybe reframe) their beliefs about gaming.

So... without further ado, here are some learning principles that are present in most video games, particularly role-playing games where a participant takes on the role of a character interacting with his environment and/or others.

1. Video games are set up to encourage active, not passive, learning

All video games require participants to be actively involved in their own learning. Gamers, particularly those in role-playing games, rarely sit passively and receive information. Instead they must actively explore, hypothesize, experiment, reflect upon, critique, move about, interact, etc. As children navigate complex gaming spaces, they learn to think of these gaming environments as spaces that both manipulate them and can be manipulated by them. This is very much like real life (or 'meatspace,' as some virtual denizens call it!).

2. In video games, 'learners can take risks where real-world consequences are lowered' (Gee, p. 207)

Video games provide places where participants can safely take risks. When a gamer fails, at worst she 'loses a life' or has to start over, often not at the beginning but in a slightly reduced state that allows her to retain nearly all of the skills, knowledge, power, capabilities, progress, etc. that she has gained thus far. This gaming principle entices children to try, even if they (rightly) believe that they will fail at first.

3. Gaming environments are compelling to participants

The proof that gaming environments are compelling to those playing them lies in the fact that gamers are willing to play a game repeatedly and often. Gamers put in a lot of effort as they try different ways of doing things, try to get further than they did before, explore new variations in areas where they already have been successful, etc. Gamers are mentally engaged - often quite deeply - with the learning environment as they try, fail, try again, fail again, try yet again, fail yet again, and so on.

Questions of the day

  • How do the concepts discussed above map on to K-12 education?
  • Are our K-12 classrooms set up . . . to encourage active rather than passive learning? to be places where students can safely take risks? to be mentally-engaging and -compelling learning environments where students will try repeatedly despite possible and/or actual failure?
  • Gaming and education resource 1

    Here's the schedule for the rest of the series:

    • Tuesday: amplification of input, rewards, lots of practice
  • Wednesday: ongoing learning, regime of competence, probing
  • Thursday: multiple routes to success, contextualized meaning, multimodal learning
  • Friday: subset of real domain, bottom-up basic skills, just-in-time information
  • Saturday: discovery learning, learning transfer, learner as producer
  • Monday: wrap-up
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