Why video games are vital to education

I’ve shared several stories about our family’s journey to radical unschooling, and in all of them, there’s a theme: Public school didn’t work for Sarah, who we began homeschooling midway through her sixth-grade year in 2012.

What did work?

Pursuing her passions.

Learning from life.

Ashar loves video games. I do too. And so at first, they just seemed like “a good place to start” in pursuing passions and life learning.

What video games teach about learning

But I quickly found out that there’s WAY more value than “a place to start” when it comes to video games in learning. In fact, I discovered that there’s a lot to learn about how we learn in video game design, and I’ve become kind of a student of video game methodology and educational philosophy myself.

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it's because we really do believe in the book or item!
And that’s why I contributed a chapter on “Learning from video games” to The Big Book of Homeschool Ideas.

I talked about the ways we learn from specific video games in detail – pieces of which you can find in my series on video-game learning from January 2013.

But today, I’d like to tell you a little more about why I think this is so important.

How we can learn about learning from video games

Earlier this year, I took a course on video games and learning from Coursera. Previously, I’d taken one on gamification, or the application of game principles to non-game situations, usually business but education as well.

It was an amazing chance to think more critically about games in general – not just “educational” ones.

I was already seeing Ashar’s interest in what some might consider educational topics that sprang directly from the games she played, from an interest in the Revolutionary War from Assassins Creed III to her problem-solving and math skills from Minecraft.

But among the things I discovered, starting with those Coursera courses, was how much video games of any sort teach players how to learn.

Onboarding is one of the biggest pieces of video-game design. Think of any computer game, console game or game app you use. The levels get harder as you go, right? There are tutorials or tips or early missions or challenges that show you how the game is played. World of Warcraft, one of Ashar’s favorite games, is GREAT for this – the early missions teach you how to use weapons, how to interact with other players and non-player characters and more.

These experiences build on each other, and the game offers less and less direct advice as you go, instead leaving decisions more and more in your hands.

Does that sound like educational mastery? Onboarding in games has taught Ashar, who sometimes struggles with “putting things together,” how to take her skills in one area and transfer them to new problems and questions.

Talk about learning how to learn! That’s a skill that, even more so than math or history, will take her far in life.

Then there are the real-life discussions we have because we game together. What about violence? What about gender roles and gender depictions? What about the treatment of Native Americans? These are ALL conversations – deep ones – we’ve had as a result of our family gaming.

While our family doesn’t enforce any video game “limits,” I say often – and will say again – that it doesn’t mean I think you should give your 10-year-old a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and set ’em loose on their own. But Ashar is 14 (well on the way to 15, sadly!) and able to handle some pretty mature themes, which I’m glad to talk about openly with her.

And then there are the actual topic lessons, which are not insignificant. At an “unconference” earlier this year in nearby Harrisburg, PA, I was privileged to meet the founder of Submrge, a site dedicated to the classroom use of commercial games, which was amazing. Hearing from classroom educators who see the value in this really reinforced my thoughts and made me want to learn even more about learning through games of all types, and I highly encourage you to Google “learning with” your family’s favorite games to see more of this type of material.

In fact, if my work schedule hadn’t gotten in the way, I’d be spending next weekend at THATCamp Games, an unconference in Baltimore, Maryland, about humanities and technology, which I highly recommend if you’re in the area!

Updated to add: I found a link the day after I published this post that I’d forgotten about – a short but good read on Lessons from Assassin’s Creed for Constructing Educational Games on a site I like, Play The Past (about history and gaming).

Read more in The Big Book of Homeschool Ideas

You can find out more about all of the ways we learn from video games – and about a billion other topics – in The Big Book of Homeschool Ideas. Get your copy of The Big Book of Homeschool Ideas for just 99 cents!

The Big Book of Homeschool Ideas contains 103 chapters, more than 560 pages, from 55 authors. The digital e-book comes in three formats for Kindle and other mobile devices.

Get it for just 99 cents now!

You might also like...

41 thoughts on “Why video games are vital to education

    • Phyllis, I know that feeling!! My biggest, most honest recommendation is to play along with them – let THEM teach YOU – if you haven’t already! Sarah loves showing me things. (And I’ll admit it’s NOT really super-exciting for me, but I like how excited Sarah gets about teaching me.)

  1. Other than the occasional educational app, I haven’t even considered games as part of our curriculum. We’re just starting out, so at age 5, I’m not sure which games I could add, but I’m sure Lily would LOVE this sort of learning.

    • Laura, there are actually a TON of games and apps that are great for that age! Anything that involves play money especially, but also anything that builds word recognition. (And again, that’s not just “learning games,” it’s anything Lily is into, whether that’s horses, dolls, Minecraft or any number of other things!)

  2. My boys love all the Zoo Tycoon games. My youngest’s favorite is Nintendo Land. My oldest’s favorite is New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

  3. I personal hate most video game. I can not get into them and find them a brain killer and waste of time. I understand that is not necessarily true but how can I support learning through video games when I see not value in them. I am going to check out the links in the post.

    • Adriane, it sounds like you don’t enjoy games yourself, and I totally can understand that! There are a lot of games Sarah likes that I really am not into and find boring. But the cool part is that because she’s into them, she learns a lot from them. I hope you’ll take a look at some of the links I mentioned as well as just taking some time to talk with your family about the games they enjoy – let them tell you what they value about them, and watch them play for a bit and see what conversational topics come up!

  4. I was watching a World War II documentary last night and Sarah said, “That’s Winston Churchill.” … She knew about him because of Assassin’s Creed.

  5. One child says “Super Smash Brothers Brawl for the Wii” after playing at a friends. We don’t own it! Thank you!

  6. Our family has had a lot of fun playing the Lego games for Wii. Mainly, we enjoy playing as a family on a game night. Lego Batman, Lego Lord of the Rings, and Lego Star Wars are just a few that the whole family enjoys. I can’t wait to read you section in the Big Book!

    • Ooh, we like those too! Sarah’s eyeing up Lego Batman right now, because she’s just recently gotten into those movies. She had played Lego Star Wars pretty hardcore for years!

  7. Guild Wars 2 is our current favorite mmorpg, but we spent many years playing WoW and Guild Wars 1. Our favorite RTS is an old game called Tzar-this is how my hubs got me into gaming. My 7 yr old loves Scribblenauts-this is what got him interested in reading. And he just started playing minecraft. Just found your blog… I’m enjoying reading thru it… You’ve given me lots of ideas. 🙂

    • Ooh, Amber, glad to hear it! We haven’t tried Guild Wars yet but Sarah has some friends who play, so I assume it’s coming soon! I don’t know anything about Tzar either, I’ll have to look that one up!

      I’m glad you found us and I hope you’ll keep reading!

  8. I make sure my boys have educational games to play on their Wii, DSi’s, and computers. Their favorite (and mine too after reading many articles on the positives) is Minecraft.

  9. Our kids love Super Mario Brothers and Super Mario Kart on the Wii and honestly, my husband & I play Wii with them almost everyday. We also play “Call of Duty” with our 9 and 11 year olds on the Wii too. There is nothing educational about these games but it makes for some fun time spent with the kids piled up in the living room playing Wii together.

    • Gretta, those are great games! And there is a ton that you could consider “educational” about them, too. We have had some amazing conversations based on Call of Duty, the reality of war vs. the game depiction, various eras of warfare in history and so on. And in Mario Kart, we talk a TON about what would be considered physics – whether “That can’t really happen!” or how drifting works or how banking around turns works. It’s amazing all the conversations to be had in them!

  10. What are some games you would recommend to assist in I integrating reading lessons? 7 year old daughter loves to game, mostly on roblox though, what are your thoughts on roblox? I don’t see any suggestions for it here. We have been homeschooling/unschooling our 7 and 13 year old kiddos for 5 years, and they love to game. I respect it, although personally I don’t have much interest in playing them. I still check out accomplishments they are excited to show me and do my best to stay involved in their gaming work. Thanks, great article!

    • Chelise, I’m sorry for my delayed reply! For reading – I would say that ANY game is great for that, because if you want to participate, you have to read! When my kid was younger, we played a lot of online games like Moshi Monsters and Webkinz and those were a huge reading boost. Roblox is very cool; we never really got into it but I have some friends whose kids play and it is SUPER neat. Very good for creativity, among other things!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.