The explosion in popularity of video games, coupled with the widespread availability of computers at home and school, has given educational software developers the impetus to harness the power of video games as a way of teaching children. Whether or not such educational games are effective in teaching the three R's is a topic for another day, but an Arizona State University scholar says commercial blockbuster video games can teach educators a thing or two about how to better educate children.

According to James Gee, the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Chair in Literacy Studies in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education at Arizona State University, video games are some of the best learning environments around.

"Commercial video games, the ones that make a lot of money, are nothing but problem-solving spaces," says Gee.

Gee says that video games optimize learning in several ways.

  • First, games provide information when it is needed, rather than all at once in the beginning. "We tend to teach science, for example, by telling you a lot of stuff and then letting you do science. Games teach the other way. They have you do stuff, and then as you need to know information, they tell it to you," he explains.
  • Games also provide an environment that Gee calls "pleasantly frustrating." They are challenging but doable. "That's a very motivating state for human beings. Sometimes it's called the 'flow' state," he says.
  • Many game developers also invite players to modify their products through "modding." The developers share the software and encourage players to create new levels or scenarios. "Think about it. If I have to make the game, or a part of the game, I come to a deep understanding of the game as a rule system. If I had to mod science - that is, I had to make some of my own curriculum or my own experiments - then I'd have an understanding at a deep level of what the rules are," Gee says.
  • Assessment could also take something from video games. Typically, assessment happens through standardized testing. In games, however, learning and assessment are tightly married. The game gives constant feedback and collects information about players' performances. For example, the massive multiplayer online game World of Warcraft, with 15 million players globally, is completely standardized. The company that created the game has collected incredible amounts of information about the players and put it into completely statistical terms. Gee adds that integrating assessment and learning is less expensive than supporting a separate testing industry.

Of course these principles will be nothing new to many educators. It’s called "situated learning", because the student is situated in the actual problem-solving space. And educators do not need to use actual computer-based games to incorporate these educational principles.

As Gee says, “Situated learning can be done with or without a game. Good teachers have always done it."

But it is interesting that games developers have instinctively adopted these principles that have proven to be the most effective and engaging ways for players to solve the problems that the games throw at them.