The first time linguist and game studies theorist James Gee played a video game, he failed many times over. But instead of giving up, he merrily persevered, choosing to exercise “learning muscles” he hadn’t worked out since his grad school days. “Lots of young people pay lots of money to engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex,” he realized. Games were evidence that humans love learning. But why do they seem to love it more during Minecraft than in the classroom?
A game, most simply defined, is nothing more than a set of problems that a player must solve in order to win. And whether played on a board, cards, a computer, an iPad, or a console, games have the ability to intrinsically shape the way we teach and learn language and literacy.
“The human mind learns through well-designed experiences,” Gee wrote in a 2013 report. “It finds patterns and associations across different experiences and—after lots of time, effort, and practice—generalizes these patterns and associations into the sorts of concepts, principles, and generalizations we humans capture in language.”
In a now-classic TED Talk, game theorist Jane McGonigal took this a step further: While absorbed in a well-designed experience like the popular video game Civilization, players often feel more powerful and optimistic than they do in real life, willing to push beyond perceived internal limits to achieve something they’d never have thought possible (otherwise known as an “epic win”). And once you’ve had one epic win, you’re more willing to trust that you’ll have another (and to commit to doing whatever it takes to get there).
But what makes epic wins possible? Successful games steer players through their complex systems incrementally, in a sort of feedback loop between player and game that’s as fun as it is difficult, encouraging success and growth instead of defeat. Of course, as Gee has noted, there’s a capitalist motive at work here (if a game is too easy, it’s boring; if it doesn’t teach players how to win, they’ll just give up).
But that doesn’t change the fact that games make great literacy tools. By building on a student’s existing literacies (such as drawing, spatial reasoning, design, aural learning, or oral storytelling), games can help a student improve incrementally in areas where he or she is struggling (decoding or phonological awareness). In one study from Carnegie Mellon, focusing on a cell phone-based literacy-learning game played by students in rural India, students showed literacy gains across the board—though learning the technology of the game itself introduced a new challenge, especially for learners coming from less academically prepared backgrounds. A Currents in Electronic Literacy report suggests that to put the emphasis on literacy skills (rather than game-play skills) first, classrooms should focus on “games that teach content”; view “games as texts” not unlike books or films; allow students make their own games and be a part of that process; and harness the motivational systems of games.
One N.Y.C. school, Quest to Learn, is a living lab that puts these recommendations into practice as part of an overall game-like approach to learning that constantly evolves based on feedback from teachers and students.
Shula Ehrlich, lead game designer at the Institute of Play—founder of Quest to Learn—explains that learning how to read shares a few key parameters with games, as outlined by McGonigal: goals, rules, feedback systems, and autonomy. “As they go along, players pick up what they need to do, how to do it, get constant feedback about what’s working and what’s not, have a clear goal—and because they want to win, they’re super motivated to keep trying and trying.”
Ehrlich says games also help kids and adults acquire systems thinking. Every game is a system composed of many parts that work together, while also being very concrete and easily manipulatable. “If you play a game and modify just one rule, you’ll immediately experience unexpected consequences on the whole system of the game. It’s a nice entry point to thinking about systems on a larger scale. Once you see the English language as a system, you can see the government is, too.” Systems thinking sets learners up with 21st century skills—from understanding letter-sound relationships to problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.
Because modifying systems is so important to the Institute of Play, nearly all of the games they use in the classroom are board or card games, since learners can dig into the design and underlying concepts of paper games the way they can’t with video games (unless they’re programmers. However, one video game—Minecraft—has been touted by game scholars as particularly effective for literacy learning, building on storytelling, world-building, navigational skills, and spatial reasoning skills. It helps the game’s designers have developed a custom edition for classroom use, available at, MinecraftEdu.
Whether analog or digital, at Quest for Learn or in a home study session, it’s important that educational games be interactive. Players who actively participate experience increased motivation, which means they’ll develop high-level language skills faster and more independently.
Everyone must be a participant at the Institute of Play. It’s one of their key principles for game-like learning. The others include immediate feedback, learning happens by doing, and— perhaps most important—failure is reframed as iteration. In games, making a mistake isn’t the final outcome. It teaches you something, a necessary part of the journey to your next epic win.
Non-traditional learning methods like games might just be what save traditional writing and reading as literacies of the future unfold. At the very least, they give emerging readers and writers a sense of agency through the power of play.
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