Why Games & Learning

The meaning of knowing today has shifted from being able to recall and repeat information to being able to find it, evaluate it and use it compellingly at the right time and in the right context.

Education in the early part of the twentieth century tended to focus on the acquisition of basic skills and content knowledge, like reading, writing, calculation, history or science. Many experts believe that success in the twenty-first century depends on education that treats higher order skills, like the ability to think, solve complex problems or interact critically through language and media.

Games naturally support this form of education. They are designed to create a compelling complex problem space or world, which players come to understand through self-directed exploration. They are scaffolded to deliver just-in-time learning and to use data to help players understand how they are doing, what they need to work on and where to go next. Games create a compelling need to know, a need to ask, examine, assimilate and master certain skills and content areas. Some experts argue that games are, first and foremost, learning systems, and that this accounts for the sense of engagement and entertainment players experience.

There are other attributes of games that facilitate learning. One of these is the state of being known as play. Much of the activity of play consists in failing to reach the goal established by a game’s rules. And yet players rarely experience this failure as an obstacle to trying again and again, as they work toward mastery. There is something in play that gives players permission to take risks considered outlandish or impossible in “real life.” There is something in play that activates the tenacity and persistence required for effective learning.

There are three key moments in game play with important implications for learning. The first is when a would-be player approaches a game and expresses a wish to participate: “Can I try? Can I join in?” The second moment comes when a player asks, “Can I save it?” In other words, “I’m deeply invested in this experience, which has value and meaning, and I’d like to pick up where I left off.” The third moment comes when a player attains a level of mastery and offers advice to a novice: “Want me to show you how?” A corollary to this moment occurs in the community of practice that arises around games, when one player asks another, “How did you do that? Will you teach me?”

We are happy to observe the public discourse around games and learning moving beyond the polemics which have tended to cast digital games―on the one hand―as a scourge on civil society and―on the other hand―as a Holy Grail in the quest to keep kids in school and on track. Games are already widely used by teachers, parents, schools and other institutions with an interest in learning. They function as doorways into content areas, introductions into specific skill sets and/or nodes in larger knowledge networks. In fact, games and learning have enjoyed an association that predates digital technology by thousands of years. That’s why when we discuss the properties of games, we mean to refer to games of all types: board games, physical games, puzzle games, online games, console games, mobile games, etc.

The Institute is most interested in games as complex eco-systems extending beyond the game space to involve networks of people in a variety of roles and rich interactions. Learning represents just one activity within this larger, highly engaging system.

Please be in touch with any questions you may have regarding games and learning.

  • quote: plass for Why Games & Learning

    Video games have the power of visualizing things, of creating open-ended environments for people to explore things, of engaging and motivating learners. What you have is a strong learning approach that should be added to the educator's toolbox.
    Jan Plass
    Co-Director, Games for Learning Institute, New York University
  • quote: corbett for Why Games

    If children can build, play and understand games that work, it’s possible that someday they will understand and design systems that work. And the world is full of complicated systems.
    Sara Corbett
    Journalist, New York Times