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Cracking the Code of Electronic Games: Some Lessons for Educators

by Gadi Alexander, Isabelle Eaton & Kieran Egan - 2010

Background/Context: Students’ ready engagement in electronic games and the relative ease with which they sometimes learn complex rules have intrigued some educators and learning researchers. There has been growing interest in studying electronic gaming with the aim of trying to work out how learning principles that are evident in games can be harnessed to make everyday academic learning more engaging and productive. Many studies of students’ learning while gaming have yielded recommendations for teaching and learning in regular classrooms.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus: The intent of this work is to describe various ways in which students’ ready engagement in, and quick learning when playing, electronic games have been assumed to provide useful guidance to educators. This goal is pursued by means of analysis of the relevant research and the prescriptions for classroom teaching and learning that have emerged it. Close critical examination of these attempts to infer educational practices from electronic gaming yields three general strategies that have been pursued. The focus of this study has been on evaluating the relative value of these three general strategies.

Research Design: This is an analytic article that provides a description of an array of attempts to derive educational principles from the perceived success of students’ learning while they are engaged in electronic games, a meta-analytic organization of these attempts into three general categories, and an evaluation of each of these categories’ success in contributing to education or failure to do so.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The analysis leads to the conclusion that the three main approaches to understanding the connection between gaming and education have included, first, seeing games as teaching desirable learning skills through the simple act of playing; second, a focus on the integration of curriculum content into games; and, third, an effort to abstract learning principles embedded in electronic games and applying these to educational content. Close examination of each of these three approaches in turn leads to the conclusion that the third approach is the one that holds the greatest potential value for educational practice.

Educators who observe students playing electronic games commonly witness a rapid discovery of rules and principles, quick understanding of the range of their applicability, and the development and application of a further range of skills that includes quick discrimination of elements on the basis of small cues, precise analysis, problem-solving, decision-making, and sound deductions (Aguilera & Méndiz, 2003; Gredler, 2001; Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2004; Ko, 2002; Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004; Moreno & Mayer, 2007; Rieber, 2005). In addition, educators often see energetic and active learning or a form of intrinsic motivation that leads players to spend hundreds of hours playing with games (Cox, 2001; Malone, 1981). That is, a little ambivalently and often reluctantly, educators see the holy grail of learningimaginative engagement, persistence, sustained interest, frequent collaboration, and other elements widely accepted as prerequisites of effective learning all working together. Not surprisingly, there is growing interest in studying electronic games, with the aim of trying to work out how learning principles that are evident in games can be harnessed to make everyday academic learning more engaging and productive (Becta, 2001; Gee, 2003; Griffiths, Davies, & Chappell, 2003; Kirriemuir, 2002; Squire, 2003).

A persistent problem, however, is discovering how, and in what circumstances, electronic games can and do facilitate both engagement and learning, and cracking the code by which they manage to achieve their magic. Although growing, the body of literature that focuses on these questions is still limited (Aldrich 2005; Moreno & Mayer, 2007), but this should not prevent educators from thinking about how the learning principles embedded in most electronic games could be used to engage and teach students in the classroom. A number of explanations have been proposed to account for the suspicious or reluctant attitude of many educators toward technology at large, and electronic games in particular (McCormick, 2001; McGrail, 2006; Stoll, 1999). On the other side of this conundrum, we see cognitive researchers being reluctant to combine game learning, or the new type of literacy that it affords, with school learning (Gee, 2003).

The difficulty in considering the serious study and wide-ranging application of the learning principles contained in electronic games seems to us grounded in the belief that there exists a firm division between informal and formal learning. Gee (2003), in fact, articulated this idea when he argued that video games . . . will not replace books; they will sit beside them, interact with them, and change them and their role in society in various ways (p. 204; also Moulthrop, 2007). Indeed games probably appeal to children largely because they are excluded from the culture of the school (Moulthrop, p. 54). Both authors believe that the classroom follows its own set of principles and that one cannot expect to simply transfer instances of the supposedly easy learning that occurs when playing electronic games to the classroom environment.

But we can find, on the other hand, several researchers and educators who have begun to consider the intersection of game- and classroom-based learning in a more productive and interesting fashion. These scholars, we believe, are correct in suggesting that the kind of experience gained during interaction with electronic games can help increase our understanding of learning in schools (Squire, 2003; Subrahmanyam, Kraut, Greenfield & Gross, 2000). Yet there remains the significant challenge of translating this perspective into specific and useful teaching methods, which could then be examined for their effectiveness and specific contributions in supporting learning (cf. Amory, 2007; Amory, Naicker, Vincent, & Adams 1999; Berson, 2000; Noris & Soloway, 2003; Rosas et al., 2003).

The bulk of our article is dedicated to discussing the major approaches that both scholars and teachers have put forth to bridge the worlds of electronic games and education. The approaches we describe are not, however, equally based on comprehensive conceptions of education. One of the besetting problems with trying to draw inferences to classroom practice from new technologies, and electronic games in particular, is that the concepts of education held by some proponents of a greater use of technology in teaching are often alarmingly simplisticsometimes little more than efficiency of factual uptake on behalf of students. Learning becomes a crude notion of accumulating bits of information, wholly oblivious to the problem T. S. Eliot pointed to when he asked, Where is the knowledge that is lost in information? and, so, oblivious to concerns about meaning and understanding.

We limit ourselves here to examining three major approaches that have sought to promote the principles that underpin contemporary electronic games as means of refreshing our thinking about education. We recognize that the distinctions we suggest next are a departure from the perspectives generally espoused in the literature on electronic games, but we feel that the distinctions we propose constitute a useful way of dividing up approaches to the study of learning and electronic games. Our concern, in short, is not with attempting to categorize the range of scholarly activities in the field, but rather with exposing a logic in those activities, aimed at deriving principles for everyday educational practice. We will also argue that the two most commonly explored routes from the world of gaming to education seem to us least likely to yield the insights they seek and that the third, still infrequently traveled, route is the one likely to yield the most powerful and interesting educational insights.


Those who favor what we call a separatist approach focus on the skills and abilities that players acquireabilities such as analysis, deduction, discrimination, and rule followingsimply by engaging with electronic games (see, for example, the work of Gee, 2003; Ko, 2002; Moreno & Mayer, 2007). We describe this approach as separatist because the educational value perceived in playing the games is separate from any other deliberate educational instruction or from learning curriculum content. This approach assumes that electronic games are of educational value because, in the act of playing them, players are engaged in significant learning.

Such an approach to deriving educational principles from electronic games is, after all, not so strange: When one sees the energy, commitment, and animation that are commonly exhibited in playing electronic games, sometimes by the very students who are often bored in the classroom, it is hard to think that such games are not doing some good. Gee may be one of the best known proponents of this approach, although there have certainly been earlier attempts to discuss, in a similar fashion, how learning occurs during game-playing (see, for example, Greenfield, 1984, and Loftus & Loftus, 1983). Gee (2003) argued that the learning principles embedded in games and discernable from conversations with gamers clearly show that learning in electronic games is not much different from that found in other informal settings studied by cognitive psychologists and learning sciences researchers.

Proponents of the separatist approach point out that electronic games demand activity and interactivity from players. An electronic game cannot be made to unfold by passively observing it, and its contents, logic, and governing rules will not be disclosed without deliberate input from players. Many proponents of this approach also make the argument that games require more than physical dexterity, drawing on a range of thinking skills in resolving problems (Greenfield, 1984; Jenkins & Cassell, 1999; Johnson, 2005). They suggest that even some of the more grossly violent games often demand considerable memory training, precise observation, and strategic skills for success within the gaming environment. Moreover, they argue that many games call upon players to use their general knowledge of the games background, or of history outside the gaming environment, to make sense of the game and be able to play it successfully. This is particularly evident in games based on pop culture icons, such as Spider-Man and Harry Potter. Game-playing, it is suggested by the separatists, is a highly immersive activity that requires players to draw on, organize, and use knowledge and skills garnered from a range of domains and texts (broadly defined) in order to be successful (Amory et al., 1999). These skills, proponents of this approach insist, are educationally valuable and are attained from playing electronic games no less adequately, and perhaps more adequately, than from typical lessons and units in schools. Popular complex games, such as SimCity, Civilization III, Age of Mythology, Second Life, and Halo 3, to name just a few of a large and growing set, require players to learn quite elaborate planning skills. They often require players to analyze complex situations and learn to balance competing values in designing an ideal world (such as the priority of public transportation over private or the need to efficiently plan residential spaces to allow for more green areas in SimCity). The games responses to the players choices can be powerfully instructive, driving players to more creative thinking and more complex planning. Such games can even form the basis of critical thinking programs. In fact, the kinds of intellectual skills these games foster look very much like those that one sees as the focus of critical thinking programs: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation (Henderson, Klemes, & Eshet, 2000; Rosas et al., 2003).

Critical thinking is not, of course, simply a product of using these skills in any form. When people try to elaborate some of the further characteristics of the competent critical thinker, one finds qualities such as clarity in formulating ones response to challenges; good organization in working with complexity; diligence in seeking relevant information; good judgment in selecting and applying criteria; attending carefully to the issue at hand; and persistence through whatever difficulties are encountered. These, too, are characteristics, at least most of them, that are exercised and developed by playing certain electronic games, suggest proponents of the separatist approach (see, for example, the study by Pillay, 2003, p. 336, cited in Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004). Accordingly, suggest the separatists, we should expect the game player to transfer the experience gained from participating in games such as Second Life to similar, learning-intensive situations in real life (see Carter & Click, 2006, and Gredler, 2001, for a longer discussion of the relationship between simulation and virtual environments, and learning).

One of our issues with what we call here the separatist approach is that games possessing many of the valuable characteristics mentioned previously existed long before computers and gaming consoles came about, and that educators have long praised the educational value of many childrens games for the apparent quickening of the mind, the engagement in strategies, and the skills they stimulate. Many board gameschess being the elite examplehave for centuries carried with them a certain respectability because they seem to be a means of learning a range of useful strategic skills. Similarly, people who value the kinds of intellectual skills that seem central to success within capitalism have praised the value of a game like Monopoly. It too teaches important skills in a gaming environment, one that it seems ought to allow players to hone skills that are potentially useful in the real world of business.

The recognition that the games children play for pleasure can also have educational value is, after all, hardly a new insight. Plato recommended learning math through gamesan insight he credited to the Egyptians long ago. And this is one of the chief reasons why we feel the separatist approach is limited with respect to the educational and pedagogical insights it can provide: Its focus on largely artificial distinctions between the structured world of classroom learning and the much more casual one of game-based learning draws attention away from the degree to which the physical and social contexts shape learning. Moreover, this approach fails to take into account or explain satisfactorily why the powerful learning principles embedded in the immense variety of games created and played across generations, cultures, and regions have failed to transfer to more formal learning contexts.

What is perhaps even more problematic is that the recognition of games educational value, as described by the separatists, does not call the educator to do much except perhaps be proactive in suggesting those games that seem to produce the most educational benefit.

Proponents of this separatist approach claim that the cognitive benefits of game-playing come from playing the games as they are. But they say little about how these cognitive benefits transfer to history, science, and social studies. This limitation of the separatist approach is why skeptics can reasonably argue that the kinds of understanding sought, for example, in the history classroom, of what happened, how the student might establish what happened, and how the student can be brought to confront the problems with establishing what happened are a world away from the activities that historically situated electronic games offer. Similarly, it is far from clear that the prodigious chess grandmaster can actually deal any better with the strategies involved in real-world problems; in fact, the history of chess grandmasters (see Hartston, 2006) suggests that many of them seem to have been singularly incompetent in managing anything beyond the 64-square realm in which they had to spend so much time attaining their skills. It is also doubtful that the best Monopoly players can manage the world of business any better than duffers at the game. The arguments for the educational value of playing games as they are and for the rich and varied learning possibilities embedded in current electronic games are, to put it simply, doing a disservice by making dramatic claims that fail to recognize the fundamental principles that are far from unique to electronic games, but rather characteristics of a range of activities and environments that support learning (Guest, 2007).

So, electronic games can obviously have cognitive, social, and entertainment values, but it is far from clear that the skills involved in the gaming world transfer with any directness to education, nor is it clear that the virtual realities of gaming environments lead to skills in the world for which we are educating children. At least, these are the kinds of skeptical responses to the enthusiasm with which some claim that playing electronic games is directly educational. It would be foolish to deny that there are benefits, some of which we have indicated, but also hard to feel confident in the claims of separatist enthusiasts.


This approach seeks to gain the best of the world of school and the world of gaming. Schools have a long tradition of coating assignments with different types of sweeteners or hooks, and electronic games are only one example. Children are asked to sing popular songs in the classroom, they are sometimes induced to learn chemistry and physics through cooking, and they may be asked to watch commercial TV programs at home to analyze and understand some specific problem. An integration of the electronic game experience into the curriculum seems, therefore, little more than an adaptation of this well-established practice. Starting with the early days of computer-assisted learning, one witnessed simple principles taken from electronic games attached as add-ons to math exercises or grammar drills. But this approach was based on seeing the game as an external motivator for the student to engage in tedious drill and practice. The assumption behind this combination of serious learning and play was that learning is a tough job, and some kind of relief is needed to alleviate some of its burdens. In contrast, proponents of the integrative approach argue that curriculum planners and teachers can today select among several forms of electronic games that do not involve a conflict between gaming and academic learning, but rather tie the two together.

We can identify three general subcategories of attempts to integrate games into the existing curriculum. The first involves the direct use of commercially available games in teaching because the commercial game matches a curricular topic (Caesar III, Age of Empire, or Civilization IV as part of a unit on Greece or Rome, or the history of Western civilization). In the same category are the many so-called educational games that were initially developed for home and commercial use and are marketed specifically as directly contributing to mastery of regular curriculum content, such as Chemicus, Bioscopia, Carmen Sandiego, or the Zoombinis series, to name a few (admittedly older) titles.

The second subcategory involves games being used as templates into which curricular content is inserted instead of the usual, presumably less educational, gaming content; an example is Sauvé and colleagues (2005) project with the Canadian Télé-Université, in which simple flashcard templates (such as a tic-tac-toe game template) are used for spelling assignments or quizzes in geography. In general, the second subcategory involves games that do not, at the onset, contain specific curricular content. The curriculum material is later built into the games by teachers or educational designers to entice students to learn the content in the process of playing the game or to later reflect on their playing experiences (see Dempsey, Haynes, Lucassen, & Casey, 2002; Rosas et al., 2003; also see the links to many examples of this category of games on the list prepared by the Georgia Institute of Technology Interactive Technology Center: http://www.imtc.gatech.edu). The game designers, in this case, hope that the engaging power of electronic games will carry over to the material to be learned and ensure its quick, efficient, and enjoyable acquisition.

We have mentioned SimCity, and the accompanying titles of the Sim series, as a well-known commercial game that was not designed with particular educational purposes but that nonetheless teaches skills that many see as having direct educational value. In some ways, Sim games straddle the boundary between the first and second approach because they often contain materials that appear in some social studies curricula, in civics education, and in earth sciences lessons. However, it is the use of curriculum material deliberately added to games that distinguishes this second subcategory. Impressed by the engaging power of games, some educators and game designers have taken the format of commercially successful games and, instead of the usual shoot-em-up, quest, or adventure content, have built in curricular informational content. Many classrooms already use such commercially available games and integrate them with the curricular objectives that the teachers are aiming to meet. (For accounts of how such games as Civilization III, Europa, Unitatis II, and SimCity have been used in this way, see Bets, 1995, cited in Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004; Bos, 2001; Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005; Squire, 2003).

This approach has been even more common with simulation games, which for years have been used to engage students in learning. Instead of dully teaching about conditions for Southern farmers before and during the Dust Bowl years, for example, the ingenious teacher would let teams of students decide how to spend a fictional farms capital in planting a choice of grains or raising a variety of animals. Each round of the game is a year, and the actual weather conditions are described for each of the relevant past years, along with their effects on crops and animals. Each round is completed by giving the financial returns the students would get in response to the choices they had made about what crops they would sow and what animals they would invest in at the beginning of each year. In further rounds, the students could then make further choices with the income derived from their previous years results. It is not hard to see how such a game, with its emphasis on realistic simulation and with the teams of students arguing the pros and cons of their farming choices, could be hugely more instructive and engaging than lessons that simply give statistics of farm gains and losses during those years.

Simulations of voting systems, communities on desert islands, historical events, or court trials can be powerful aids in exploring some of the complexities of democratic communities and helping students come to understand why people simply do not agree about what they should do in society, and all live happily ever after. That is, such games can introduce students to problems of the real world, often better than, say, visiting ones local legislature. And playing a relevant game preceding a visit to the legislature can make the real-world activities of government much more significant and meaningful. Such observations likely underpin the position of proponents of the integrative approach, who suggest that recent simulation games and massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), such as Everquest or World of Warcraft, or the immensely popular Second Life, are likely to have great potential for educational applications.

The third subcategory consists of games specially designed to fit into a curriculum unit. Such games may be produced by commercial enterprises, book publishers, teachers, or talented students (see Kafai, 1996; Resnick, 2004). This third subcategory is represented by the growing number of games designed specifically for classroom use, such as Sasha Barabs Quest Atlantis (Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Carteaux, & Tuzun, 2005), the Carmen Sandiego series, and the prolific category of Serious Games (which can be accessed at http://www.seriousgames.org/index2.html). Increasingly we see games associated with curricular units bundled with a specific textbook and produced and/or distributed by the book publisher.

It seems undeniable that some of these electronic games have educational value. But the nagging skeptic would like to see clearer evidence that genuine educational aims are achieved. Proponents of this approach tend to see the engagement with, say, the Dust Bowl farmers plight as achieving historical insights directly as a product of playing the game. But, as with the separatists easy expectation of educational benefits, it is not at all clear that game requirements do not inadvertently compete with and displace intended curricular objectives. The competition with other teams to increase ones income and holdings, which is the central feature of the game, is not itself a simulation of the farmers real experience, and even if it were designed more carefully to provide a better simulation of the farmers experience, only a tiny dimension of what we want students to understand about the Dust Bowl experience appears in the game. Again, such a criticism can seem pettifogging in the face of the students actually learning about the plight of those farmers and being engaged in a simulation of their experience, but it is worth taking seriously the concern that it is not clear whether what we really want students to understand can be simulated. We would need to take all the games for which educational value is claimed and subject each one to close analysis to see whether the claims made for its educational value can be sustained. Our concern, however, is that impoverished conceptions of education and relatively trivial notions of what constitutes worthwhile learning seem to underpin the integrative approach and lead to hasty claims of success for too superficial learning.


In this approach, the aim is to analyze what it is about electronic games that makes them engaging and then abstract those principles and apply them to structuring the content of the curriculum to make it engaging in a new way. This third category is the one that we believe holds the most promise for education, but it is the one least developed. We have already noted some of the interesting work that shows how electronic games can be helpful in developing other types of learning (Newman, 2004; Prensky, 2006; Squire 2005), but the approach described in this section is significantly different and worth, we believe, more attention.

Let us begin by listing a few of the important features or components of the kinds of electronic games that players seem most to enjoy. Here are just a few features:   


Narrative structureBeginnings, middles, and ends are found even in cases in which the game does not require a simple resolution and can have several endings; we can, in fact, almost invariably see in games many traces of narrative forms that are influenced by novels, science fiction literature, or text-based fantasy worlds.


Heroic human qualitiesIn the games, sometimes these can be filtered and preselected by the player.


Vivid imagesThese are improving and getting more realistic and richer in color, movement, and detail from one generation of games to the next.


Emotional engagementThis is scaffolded by the collaboration between players, whether in real time or asynchronously, through discussion forums, fanzines, and so on, but also by motives, such as the expressions of aggression and the desire to beat other players and overcome the most difficult challenge.


Extreme and exotic events and locationsThe quest to traverse distances, meet people from other countries, and explore unknown territories has been documented as one feature of games that attracts more and more women to gaming. (For a summary of Nielsens 2006 edutainment report, see Marketing Vox, 2005.)


Binary conflicts and structureThese are usually very evident features of games in which good and evil, or courage and cowardice, or security and fear, or familiarity and strangeness provide structure to the action.


Role-playingOne of the main motives to participate in many games. Sherry Turkle (1995) saw this type of role playing in MUDs, or multi-user domains, as a very positive experience, allowing actors to experience the kinds of roles that they would be reluctant to play, or not allowed to play, in real life.

One might easily add to this set of engaging features of electronic games, but our purpose here is to see how we can learn from the success of electronic games in engaging players imagination and eager learning and participation, and then work out how we might apply these to traditional educational material. We highlight this set also because these features have been shown to be important in engaging learners imagination in curricular content (Egan, 1997). Parsing out the root causes of the immense popularity of games such as Halo 3 and BioShock might seem a trivial exercise, but what is much less obvious is how one might apply the principles that make them popular to engaging students in learning geometry or history, for example. We will explore just three of the identified features to show how a fairly simple analysis can provide some tools for rethinking aspects of teaching and the curriculum.


Why do the most powerfully engaging games have a narrative structure, and what does that mean, anyway? Well, most basically, it means that the games have a beginning that sets up expectations and rules and a middle in which they are worked out and their complexities recognized, and the working out leads to a logically consistent and satisfying end. This is hardly a new insight. Brenda Laurel, a game designer whose PhD dissertation turned into a book entitled Computers as Theater, argued that the design of narratives in games should follow the Aristotelian laws of poetics. She suggested that games should allow the player to discover two types of pleasures: First is the stimulation to imagination and emotion that is created by carefully crafted uncertainty. Second is the satisfaction provided by closure when the action is complete, when the plot has been successfully constructed (Laurel, 1993, p. 64).

This basic beginning-middle-end structure of game narratives is also to be found in almost all the stories of the world. But this basic structure is not by itself what makes stories particularly engaging or, for that matter, useful as teaching tools. Stories embody powerful instructional devices because they can be counted on to tell the listener/viewer/reader/player how to feel about the content they relate. The trouble with life is that we can only feel provisionally about its events. With games that have a narrative structure, we know how to feel about the events once we have reached the end, and they all have an end, however distant it might be (Kermode, 1966).

We are suggesting, in short, that this common narrative structural feature of games is about letting us know how to feel about their contents and to use our feelings in making their contents clear and engaging. This clarity of feelings is what life and history deny us. Drawing on this principle that we see at work in games leads us to recommend that teachers would do well to look for ways to structure their lessons and units of study to have clear beginnings, middles, and ends so that students emotions are both engaged and satisfied.

There is also growing consensus that the commitment to a story adds to the engagement of players and their immersion in a game. The importance of narrative is coming to be seen as an even more fundamental element in games as a result of the growing collaboration between the Hollywood movie industry and the game industry, and because of the tendency to produce sequels to successful games. In a sequel, whether it be a book, movie, or game, one expectation is that some of the elements of the first installment will be incorporated into the current one while new advancements in the story line lead to developments in which the reader/viewer/player can take part. Hamlet noted this too: The plays the thing that captures our emotions, and the plot of the play is its narrative backbone. Whatever the level or source of the narrative movement in electronic games, however, it is clear that the narratives role is to regulate the emotional response of the person involved in the narrative, as has been argued by several game researchers (Aarseth, 1997; Juul, 2002).


Another feature of nearly all electronic games is that they involve heroic human qualities in action. This is not to say that all games involve characters that are human and that only such games have the power to lead to learning. Why should this be important with respect to the learning that players engage in?

Remember what it was like to be 11 years old? One is at the mercy of bus timetables, school rules, parents instructions about what to wear, teachers requirements, and so on. That is, at a time when the ego and sense of independence is beginning to develop, one is hemmed in by the rules of other people and institutions. So what do we do in response? We associate with those people or things that seem best able to overcome what hems us in. So a girl might associate with Hilary Duff because Hilary has the power and freedom that the typical 11-year-old lacks, and Hilary clearly does not have to wear what her mother tells her. Similarly, a boy might associate with the baseball or soccer star because he has the strength, power, and freedom that the boy lacks. That is, we associate with those things that have, in extreme degree, the human qualities in which we feel deficient. So we have abstracted the feature of associating with heroic elements that we see in many games and will later explore how we can use it in teaching everyday curriculum content. The point to emphasize here, however, is that the association is not primarily with the powerful characters in the game, even though that is what is at the surface level and what attracts the players conscious attention. The fundamental association is with the heroic human quality that the hero embodies; that is, it is the power, strength, cunning, beauty, compassion, or whatever. And the point we want to make is that these can be used equally well to teach geometry, grammar, and science as to engage students in playing an electronic game.


One of the oddities of educational folklore is the seemingly universal belief that we should always start new topics from what students already know and connect new knowledge to the everyday world around them, making it relevant to their lives. This is, after all, a central tenet of progressivismthe educational philosophy that has dominated teaching discourse, if not so commonly practice, in North America through the previous century. Yet it is clear that most students are bored out of their minds by the everyday world around them, and those things with which they most eagerly engage, like typical electronic games, have little in them that is, in the sense usually meant by the term, relevant to their lives. What engages students imagination is the strange and exotic, the most bizarre events and people, the things least like the everyday world around them. That is, one of the most commonly articulated beliefs about teaching seems to be almost the opposite of what actually engages students imagination (Egan, 2003). Studies that attempted to track the preferences of gamers revealed that they greatly prefer imaginary settings, mythical creatures, and illogical rules of conduct over more realistic games and simulations featuring familiar events and environments.

Challenging this belief does not, of course, mean that we want to propose methods of teaching that are irrelevant to students lives! Rather, we feel that what has been missing from much of the literature on the study of learning through gaming, and gaming in education, is a careful analysis of the characteristics of typical electronic games that attract students, followed by an elaboration of the sorts of educational activities that would likely prove both engaging and truly relevant to their lives. We believe that doing so requires stepping outside the gaming environment and comparing games with other forms of content that regularly succeed in engaging students, and from there, to embark on the task of working out why the exotic and strange should so attract students, or why such odd information as who had the longest fingernails or who pulled the heaviest vehicle with his or her teeth is of such interest to students. Why, that is, are Ripleys Believe It or Not and The Guinness Book of World Records attractive to students in a way not dissimilar to the way that electronic games are?

We can get some sense of why if we consider how we behave when we find ourselves in a new environment. We do not focus on the familiar but on what is unusual because it is to the unusual that we have to accommodate to make sense of the new environment. If we found ourselves in a small town in a European country we had never before visited, it would be sensible to set about locating the main square and the cathedral, discovering where the town walls are, and examining the more unusual buildings. Our attention would also be drawn to behaviors, clothing, artifacts, and customs that are most unfamiliar to us. That is, in any new environment, we strive to orient ourselves by establishing the limits of the environment and its most outstanding and unfamiliar features.

Both the content of many electronic games and the preferences of the players who have a choice in selecting characters, sequences, and landscapes demonstrate our human fascination with the bizarre, extreme, and exotic. In many games, animals behave in human ways, humans take the qualities of monsters and magicians, and inanimate objects come to life. You can never know if the cliff will not open its mouth, the dwarf will not reveal some unexpected ability to lift heavy weights, or the priest will cast a spell that will change the results of a fight.

So when we suggest that teaching will be more effective by engaging students with the exotic and extremes of the real world and human experience, and buttress this argument by drawing on the features of electronic games that seem key to player engagement, we do not mean to suggest that the focus on students everyday world must be abandoned. Evidently, a primary goal of education is precisely to empower students to deal better with this everyday world. We are simply suggesting that, as a careful analysis of electronic games convincingly shows, the everyday world of students can be made more meaningful, and meaningful in a new way, if teachers can help to orient the learners to it through attention to the extreme limits within which it exists.


It was important to address just these three features common to many electronic games. Further discussions of role-play and forming affective images could be provided; however, much has been written on these topics (see Griffiths et al., 2003; Turkle, 1995), and the few items we have raised will be sufficient to demonstrate our central point. Our central point is that the engaging power of games lies in part in their use of such principles of imaginative engagement as narrative structure, heroic human qualities, and extreme and exotic events and locations and that teachers can, with small ingenuity, deploy these characteristics in the everyday classroom for educational purposes.

We take just a single example to demonstrate how this can work. We chose more or less randomly a topic that is part of our local science curriculum in British Columbia. We will show how these principles of engagement can infuse a unit of study on eels by addressing the question of how a teacher could make a unit on eels engaging, using the characteristics abstracted from why electronic games are so attractive. Good teachers commonly show children eels in a tank and may take students out to a stream where eels can be seen. To rethink teaching the topic using the mentioned principles, we need first to find a narrative structure for our unit.

The Ancient Romans and Greeks considered the eel a great delicacy, but no one had ever seen a pregnant eel. Where did they all come from? The rivers of Europe and also the east coast of North America were rich in eels. There were many theories in the ancient world. A common belief was that when horses drank from rivers, hair from their manes would fall into the water and then break up in the mud at the bottom of the rivers; it would then turn into elversbaby eels. In the late 19th century, scientists were eagerly classifying all kinds of phenomena. One group took some larvae they found floating in the Mediterranean Sea and let them grow in tanks. The larvae turned into elvers and then grew into eels. But where were they coming from, and how?

Johannes Schmidt spent 20 years trying to track down the source of the eels. First, he discovered that the larvae were bigger the further into the Mediterranean they were found, and smaller the closer they were to the Straits of Gibraltar. So, he realized, they must be coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. This seemed crazy, but he traveled from the Arctic Ocean to the Bahamas, to the Azores, and back and forth trawling for the larvae. He enlisted the help of dozens of sea captains, who took samples of water, labeling where and when they were taken. He was interrupted by little events like the First World War, but gradually he located the source of all the eels of Europe and the eastern rivers of North America. The eels all came from the Sargasso Sea. They floated on the currents, sometimes for years, and then came back to the rivers of Europe or North America, grew for 10 years, and then set off on their mysterious trip back to the Sargasso Sea to breed. We still have a lot to find out about the life cycle of eels, but thats the exotic narrative of our current knowledge.

Again, we are here giving just a bare-bones outline of a unit of study. Any teacher can see ways in which this could be dramatized further (a fuller account of such a unit is given by the Imaginative Education Research Group, 2006). Our aim is simply to show how the principles of imaginative engagement derived from electronic games can, without too much strain, be extended to making typical lessons and units of study more engaging and meaningful. None of the above sacrifices education to entertainmentwhich is one of the accusations sometimes directed, sometimes fairly, at attempts to introduce gaming ideas into education. In this case, it will be obvious that the educational objective is always front and center; our aim is to work out how to make that educational objective most vividly engaging and meaningful to students.

We have created a narrative for our story: the mystery of where eels come from and its resolution. We have a heroic character and would spend class time showing the characteristics of persistence and ingenuity that Johannes Schmidt displayed in the search for the source of eels. And, we will also spend time looking at the exotic locales in which he searched and examine what we know about the astonishing Sargasso Sea and also of the bizarre features of the lives of eels (among other things, they typically change sex a few times as larvae.) Our narrative is satisfied with the discovery of the source of the eels and also with knowledge of their remarkable life cycle. By building in further characteristics whose engaging power we can see in electronic games, we can enhance the engaging power of our narrative of Schmidt and eels further.


In this third approach, which we have argued is the one that holds the most promise of learning something of educational value from electronic gaming, we began with a small set of principles of games that seem responsible for engaging players. We wanted to see how we could use some of those features for educational purposes. We abstracted those principles, described them, and then used them to design a unit of study. This procedure could be used on any curriculum content and in any curriculum area (for multiple examples, see http://ierg.net/lessonplans/unit_plans.php). Although there may be some slippage in the steps of our procedure from games to teaching, at least we think we have demonstrated a way in which the engaging power of games can be put to educational use in a more subtle and more powerful way than is found in the other main procedures for trying to use electronic games to benefit education. This third approach also pays attention to the distinctiveness of education and does not run the risk, as do the other approaches, of diminishing or confusing the purposes and goals of education to fit the world of gaming.

We could go further and work out how such principles might be built together to help teachers plan regular lessons and units. It would not be difficult to design a new kind of planning framework based on principles that contrast somewhat with the currently dominant frameworks that follow Tylers (1949) objectives-content-methods-evaluation procedures. This is not the place for continuing this line of exploration, though we have done something similar elsewhere (http://www.ierg.net/teaching/plan-frameworks/index.html). Here we want only to emphasize that perhaps the most fruitful way of moving from the engaging power of electronic gaming is one that has been little followed in the literature but one that seems to offer education more benefits than those that have been more widely explored. Our skepticism that the first two approaches will be equally fruitful in moving from the world of electronic gaming to education is based on the inadequate concepts of learning and of education pervasive in that literature.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 7, 2010, p. 1830-1850
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15917, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 1:07:27 PM

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About the Author
  • Gadi Alexander
    Ben Gurion University
    GADI ALEXANDER completed his PhD in 1976 in curriculum planning at UCLA (with John I. Goodlad). Since then, he has been a member of the department of education at Ben Gurion University in Israel. He has been involved in many educational reform projects in Israel and the United States focusing on creative thinking and the integration of computers in schools. He has headed the curriculum development division in a computer company for 3 years and served as chair of several academic programs at his department. He is currently chairing a special master’s program, called the Educators program, at Ben Gurion University, focusing on a the promises and disappointments of educational innovations.
  • Isabelle Eaton
    Canadian Council on Learning
    ISABELLE EATON is a researcher with the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), an independent nonprofit corporation that promotes and supports research to improve all aspects of learning across all walks of life. Before joining CCL, she worked as a research associate with the Imaginative Education Research Group at Simon Fraser University. She has pursued studies in political science and economics and graduate research in education, focusing her work on children’s understanding of the narratives of video games. She is interested in children’s understanding of stories and their use of information and communication technologies (ITC), in health literacy and ITC use by adult learners, and in factors that support knowledge mobilization and knowledge exchange, particularly through new media.
  • Kieran Egan
    Simon Fraser University
    KIERAN EGAN is a professor of education interested in roles of the imagination in learning. His recent publications include An Imaginative Approach to Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass) and The Future of Education: Reimagining the School From the Ground Up (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
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