History of Games & Learning

Games and learning enjoy an association that predates digital technology by thousands of years.

Members of Rhode Island’s volunteer played American Kriegsspiel following the U.S. Civil War. And the pioneering work of Friedrich Froebel―which led to the creation of kindergarten in Germany in the early nineteenth century―was premised on the integration of learning through games and play. The game of chess was used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to teach noblemen the strategies of war. And there are some scholars who argue that the methods of dialogue and learning Plato ascribed to Socrates functioned through a kind of verbal play.

Not until the mid twentieth century did the association between games and learning begin to capture the public imagination. The prominent Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, published his landmark study Homo Ludens or Playing Man, which posited play as a primary, necessary activity in the generation of cultures. The Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, connected the development of moral judgement in children to their ability to understand rules in a game. And two analysts at the newly formed RAND Corporation, A.M. Mood and R.D. Specht, released their influential paper, “Gaming as a Technique of Analysis.” In it they observed: “A virtue of gaming that is sometimes overlooked by those seeking grander goals is its unparalleled advantages in training and educational programs. A game can easily be made fascinating enough to put over the dullest facts. To sit down and play through a game is to be convinced as by no argument, however persuasively presented.”

Thanks to the advent of personal computing, the 1980s saw the evolution and commercialization of a new kind of learning game. These games drew from video arcade and console game methods, incorporating narrative and visual elements from popular culture, and they targeted primarily elementary-aged children. Companies like the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC), the Learning Company, McCormick and Davidson and Associates were early pioneers, producing titles like Oregon Trail, Reader Rabbit, Number Munchers and Math Blaster.

The 1990s saw the emergence of a mass market for family-oriented software. The development of digital learning games consolidated under Mattel and Cendant. Distribution centralized through super-stores like CompUSA and Toys R Us. And, in general, the research-oriented ethos of early “edutainment” gave way to a more strictly business orientation. Also, multi-media games began to emerge showcasing popular licensed characters like Barbie, Mickey Mouse and Yoda.

Another category of digital learning game began to emerge as well, in opposition to the skill-and-drill orientation of early computer-based instruction. It focused instead on providing kids with tools for tinkering, authoring and construction. Seymour Papert was an early proponent of this approach in his book Mindstorms and through the programming language he developed, called Logo. Simulation games like SimCity or Droidworks grew out of this tradition.

  • quote: kahne for Context

    Networked participation with new media is reshaping the public sphere. These changes will have major implications for democratic life and democratic institutions, both in the US and abroad.
    Joseph Kahne
    Professor of Education, Mills College
  • Quote: Plato for History

    You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.
    Plato