No Need to Reinvent the Wheel to Revolutionize Educational Video Games

(Fellow blogger Tom DeRosa and I are trading posts this week. He runs the excellent blog, I Want to Teach Forever. Be sure and take a look at his book, too.  Details after the article – JR)

I am not a gamer. I don’t own any consoles, and the only game I play with any regularity is Tetris online. When I look at video games today, I usually see them through the eyes of an educator. This is why I’m so convinced that everything we need to make paradigm-shifting educational video games that kids will actually play has already been created. Instead of starting from scratch, educators need to team up with innovative video game studios and merely tweak the powerful learning-based game models that already exist.

My revelation came over winter break as I was visiting my family in New Jersey. What was to be a very busy holiday turned into a week of me sitting on my Dad’s couch, sick as a dog. My father has an xBox 360 and regularly plays games that involve running around and shooting things (first person shooters or FPS in gamer parlance), none of which I’ve had interest in. This year he was focused on a game that was very different, where he was given a wide open world with innumerable choices and methods of achieving goals and completing tasks: Fallout 3, widely regarded as one of the best xBox titles ever (if not best video game ever).

It is a mix of first person shooter, role playing game (RPG), puzzle (in the vein of Myst or Riven) and open-world exploration (like a single player Second Life) on a scale that by all accounts is hard to find elsewhere. In this game, you make decisions that change your character, and who you are changes the possibilities of what you can do.  You solve difficult problems, most of which have more than one answer. It’s the kind of thinking that we want students to do in school, that we know they need for college and beyond, but it often gets buried beneath rote memorization and test-prep strategies.

Fallout 3 represents a world of well-designed, immersive, and most importantly popular video games that have most or all of the structural elements that make learning possible. These elements are now fairly common in top games:

  • Players make decisions that effect not only themselves, but the world around them.
  • Players are faced with multi-step problems that require logic and reasoning skills.
  • Collaboration and cooperation is encouraged (if not required).
  • An engrossing story creates a context that’s fun and far different than their school-influenced concept of “learning”.
  • Players are given small, specific tasks to complete, keeping meaningful goals in clear sight.
  • Each small task completed is often part of a bigger picture, and each one opens up the possibility for other tasks that keep the player going.
  • Most tasks or problems have multiple solutions.
  • A comprehensive, fairly automatic system tracks players’ achievements, and can be referred back to at any time.
  • There’s some level of freedom to explore and to choose which tasks they will do first (or at all).
  • Often, tasks require or would be made easier with background knowledge of a subject players might not already know about. They are often forced to look up and learn about these topics if they truly want to reach their goals.
  • Players are encouraged to go back and replay part or all of the game differently in order to reach measurable goals.

If you replaced the word “players” with “students” above, wouldn’t this list appear to be the features of an excellent, high-achieving classroom?

The immersive video game of today encourages, even requires learning and higher order thinking. The structure is there. More importantly, let’s not forget that these games represent the most popular and ubiquitous games available, with a generally bigger audience than movies and TV shows.

The only thing missing is for educators to partner with the studios to incorporate content across the curriculum, taking advantage of what’s already there. Isn’t that what the best teachers always do?

This is a guest post by Tom DeRosa, aka “Mr. D” of I Want to Teach Forever. You can find more ideas, resources and inspiration for teachers on his blog, or in his book Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition.


  • By Ella Rogers, March 1, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    I’m very pleased to have found your blog: filled with all of my favourite education hubs.

    I have been meaning to tell you about a new maths resource that is one of my new favourite links, Although the site is new, it has a lot to offer and new maths games are being added frequently.

    I have been using it in the classroom and for homework. A great teacher’s resource they have put together is a lesson plan guide:



  • By rylish, March 1, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    i am growing more and more tired of self-professed non-gamers who watch one or two people (usually kids) playing games and suddenly feel compelled to write about [insert whatever social issue you want to here: education, violence, health, etc.] and games.

    i’m sure tom derosa is a fine educator, and i don’t necessarily disagree with his assessment of the educational potential of Fallout 3 and similar games. my complaint rests simply on his disclaimer at the beginning of the post when he states that he is not a gamer and has no intention of becoming a gamer, but he’s convinced that he can comment on an entire industry in which experts across various fields from art to computer science to education to the humanities not only play games, but develop and critique them. i would not deliver a lecture in a colleague’s class on film noir, for example, by stating that i’d never seen an example of the genre, but i talked with someone who had just seen one. . .

    i apologize if this comment is misdirected, as i usually find this blog to be relatively well-informed in the area of game studies and education.

  • By John Rice, March 1, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    @Dr. Moeller (rylish) – I thought Tom was just noting up front that he is not claiming to be an “expert” in the field. His observations as a (mostly) non-playing educator were valuable. His “teacher cred” is pretty good and other teachers reading the post will likely be coming from similar backgrounds: non-gaming educators who might be intrigued with the pedagogical potential of videogames.


  • By Rachel Smith, March 2, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    What interests me is that a self-professed non-gamer can look at a game and instantly see how it could apply to the domain he does know well: teaching and learning. This, to me, speaks volumes about the potential of games. Tom DeRosa doesn’t claim to be able to address the entire domain of gaming at all. Rather, he understands education well enough to know a good thing when he sees it. There is still a great deal of hard work to be done in the field of educational gaming, but as Mr. DeRosa notes, the potential is definitely there. I’m delighted whenever a non-gamer educator “crosses over!”

  • By Tom DeRosa, March 4, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

    I realize that I left out a key piece of information about my assessment of this game’s potential in the classroom: while I was sick that week, I spent pretty much every waking hour playing the game myself. So all of my observation were first hand, not based on watching someone else play. Also, while I’m not a gamer, that doesn’t mean I didn’t grow up playing video games or have never played any of today’s top games. I have–but not with any regularity. In any case, it’s a moot point. As an educator, I look at everything (including a large number of topics I’m not an expert in) for their potential in the classroom.

    I recently worked with a company trying to develop educational software from scratch, and because they were purely an education company, they really didn’t have any idea what they were doing. Their objectives on everything from the design to the content changed on a seemingly week-to-week basis. Not surprisingly, they shuttered the entire project within just a few months. There’s a wide swath of games that could have formed the structure or at the very least a model for what they purportedly were trying to do, which would have allowed myself and others to focus more on the content and how to tie it all together. That’s another reason I feel so strongly about the potential of what’s already out there.

  • By Collette Jackson, March 10, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    I’m reading an interesting book right now called “How Computer Games Help Children Learn” by David Williamson Shaffer that touches on a lot of the points that this article makes. A very boiled down version of his argument is that games help students learn how to think in different ways, ways that will help them compete in a global market that increasingly values innovation and creativity over rote learning.

  • By Mike, March 14, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    I have been experimenting with games in my classes and have found that augmented reality type games seem to hold students attention and create great learning environments. Here is the link to a game I created using Mscape from HP. This type of environment does make students work together to discover and solve problems. This type of interaction and the real world link I believe creates an authentic environment that really motivates students to learn.

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