Can Computer and Video Games Help Students Learn?

Most people learn best while entertained.

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Answer by Daniel Kaplan, classroom teacher for 15 years:

I think games can help in the areas of literacy, mathematics, history, science, and bilingualism. Most people learn best while entertained.

One of the units I enjoy teaching the most in my class is an introduction to the Renaissance. When we talk about various Italian cities, including landmarks and events, a lot of students point to the Assassin’s Creed series. They know the de’Medici family. They know the Borges. They have a very rudimentary knowledge of Renaissance customs and Italian geography, along with the various wars being fought. The same will likely be true of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution for those who have played later games. I was even able to make references to pirates after Black Flag and found that my students knew more about pirates than what they could glean from Pirates of the Caribbean. These games were designed to be enjoyed, but what if games were designed with that kind of quality and an eye for game play and fun, but with the central purpose being to learn?

Games like Sim City and Civilization can be used to teach economics and civics. They don’t really do that now, but redesigned for that purpose, they’d definitely have students paying attention.

When Skyrim came out, I remember students talking about alchemy (also useful when talking about The Canterbury Tales). They kept talking about giant toes and other ingredients with which they’d experimented. They even used the term limiting reagent, something I remembered from my time in chemistry class. What about a game where students learn chemistry? They could learn what happens when you mix chemicals in a virtual lab. They would be rewarded for answering questions, balancing equations, solving reactions, etc. A designer could hide it in a game like Candy Crush. The same could be done with physics and other sciences.

Then we have foreign languages. Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age described a book that would interact with students. I think something similar would be great for teaching foreign languages. You would speak to the program in order to progress. Starting by answering questions and issuing simple commands, you would progress until you’re having complete conversations with a program. Something similar could be done with literacy in English.

Young students have a rough time with number sense. Failing to master number sense is a major stumbling block in a child’s education which can stop him or her from developing mathematically, pushing back the year the student will begin algebra, then geometry, and so on. Pushing classes back will decide whether a student will have the opportunity to take statistics or calculus as a senior. Common Core invests heavily in number sense, but some materials made available to teachers have undergone considerable scrutiny. Several examples of exercises that teach number sense have hit social media with a ton of criticism. 

Games that can bypass these kinds of exercises by hiding the fact that students are learning mathematics would be a huge boon to early mathematics teachers. The ’80s and ’90s had games like Number Muncher, but that was glaringly obvious as a mathematics exercise. Plus, they’re incredibly dated now. The same would be true for algebra. Though some students might find an algebra game fun, I would suggest that a game in which students manipulate objects to solve algebraic problems would be more enjoyable, especially if it doesn’t look like algebra. Imagine using calculus like an astronaut to save the virtual crew of a virtual space mission? Something involving cooperative play or competition would be a bonus as well.

I should be clear that I don’t see this as an alternative to a traditional education, but rather as a supplement. Teachers need all the help we can get.

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