Do Popular Video Games Really Help Students Learn?

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Are popular video games an effective method to help children learn? The answer depends on what type of video game are being discussed.

Spectrum: ‘very educational’ to ‘not educational at all’

Obviously, playing a first-person shooter game isn’t going to teach a child much compared to playing a video game version of Jeopardy! It is best to think of the educational value of video games as being on a scale in which some are very educational while other are not educational at all, with many games falling somewhere in between.

One of the first educational computer games to arrive on the scene was called “Oregon Trail.” The goal of this game was to get you and your virtual family members safely to the destination. Many would argue that “Oregon Trail” was (and still is) an effective teaching aid for students because it teaches players about preparation and resource management. The game itself is also a history lesson that teaches about the challenges and hardships many pioneers faced on their journey west.

Many other popular educational video games came out around the same time as “Oregon Trail.” These games taught children in subjects like math, geography and history. The idea of these games was simple: make learning fun so students will be more engaged and more interested in learning.

Educational video games

Recently, one school has taken this sentiment to heart by centering nearly their entire curriculum around educational video games. The school, named the Quest to Learn School, opened in 2009 and focuses on preparing youngsters for technical careers through the use of video game-based lessons. The school’s curriculum is based on evidence that shows people learn much more effectively when they can immediately put knowledge to use in a social context as opposed to merely being told facts.

Katie Salen, one of the main designers of Quest to Learn educational video games, says that video games often outperform teachers as a learning resource because they “drop kids into problems where they fail and fail, but they try and try again” because the games are engaging and fun.

Educational video games can be viewed as part of a broader theory known as Game Based Learning (GBL). The most effective games that employ Game Based Learning are those that balance game play with subject matter. Also, effective GBL allows the players to apply what they learn in the game to the real world. Like the video games used at the Quest to Learn school, many GBL games are social in nature as they allow players to participate in a community setting, so to speak.

The power of ‘play’

If you believe in Friedrich Schiller’s observation that “humans are only fully human when they play,” you will likely agree that popular video games that also educate have a place in classrooms. Today there are several educational video games from which to choose. Some of these popular games that educate include Nintendo’s “Brain Age” and xBox 360′s “Civilization.”

There are also those popular video games out there that are typically played only for entertainment. However, on closer inspection, one can see that these games are quite educational as well. One game that exemplifies this is Nintendo’s “Zelda” series. At first glance, it is apparent that Zelda games have compelling story lines and interesting characters. But as you play the game, you are constantly challenged with puzzles that force you to think and solve problems as well. In fact, many of the most popular games that are traditionally played for entertainment employ puzzles that require players to think critically in order to solve problems and progress in the game.

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