Towards a brighter education

Here’s an idea: games can improve education.

One of the main reasons I wanted to be a Computer Engineer was because of my desire to create games. I knew nothing about the subject but I was set to do the next Zelda. Oh, foolish me.

As I grew older, I went from thinking of games as just a way of recreation and started to think if there could be something more. Seasons passed and I saw games under a new perspective; they had hidden potential. It was tiresome to hear time after time how society kept treating them as something childish in nature, specially from close family. Misjudgment, unfortunately, is part of society.

Please notice that I’m not particularly talking about gamifying education, at all. Gamification is the process of making an activity more engaging by using game design principles; it’s applying the theory that makes games so catchy to something that could be mundane, for example. And while there’s certainly the word “game” in the definition, gamification doesn’t necessarily involve any particular game whatsoever in the process.

Although the ultimate goal must be a reformed educational system, something only achievable by fundamentally building it up from scratch, there’s some work that could and should be done in the meantime.

For a deeper understanding on how future education should be designed, check what the folks at Extra Credits have to say in their YouTube channel.

Having made that point clear, what I’m referring to is the use of games as tools that can be used during the teaching process to positively improve the learning.

Before tackling the subject further, let’s see why modern the education system needs to be improved.

Sir Ken Robinson is an educationalist that believes that the current education system is broken. As he states in one of his most known speeches, public education “was designed and conceived for a different age” (i.e. the Industrial Age).

The system is exclusive in nature as it standardizes and idealizes the profile of its participants. Everyone is expected to fit into the mold, but the fact is that there’s diversity; not everyone has the same skills and preferences.

Gabe Zichermann, one of the most renowned proposers of gamification, during his participation in the TEDxBerlin 2012, stated that students are expected to sit down and listen, something that contradicts the very nature of humans. We are creatures that rationalize and do; in other words, we solve problems.

Zichermann, although talking mainly about the gamification of education, uses one particular example, Monopoly, as a tool. More on that later.

As he says, games in education are not meant to replace the teacher but to substitute (I’d rather say complement) the existing books and material. By using games, lessons shift from a static, monotone and unidirectional activity towards a dynamic and participative activity. Students can learn by doing and interacting with games. Also, games can dynamically adapt to the learning rate of the player and offer challenges accordingly and players can have the liberties to explore and play the game the way they want to.

While everyone has a different set of skills and abilities, the wide range of courses that we must learn in school is something that will (and should) not be changed (only revised to rebalance priorities). Through education, people must become functional and integral members of society, so we can’t expect to only study what interest us. Even more, the world has changed and the required professional profile changed as well. In the episode How Games Prepare You for Life – Education: 21st Century Skills, Extra Credits highlights that the skills for the 21st Century are: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity; skills that games promote and players keep practicing unconsciously.

Deutsch Monopoly
Deutsch Monopoly

Back to the example of Monopoly, it’s a famous boardgame based on The Landlord’s Game, originally “intended as an educational tool to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies.” Zichermann mentions Tim Vandenberg, a teacher that uses a modified version of Monopoly to teach his students things such as probability, collaboration, economics, negotiation.

Other people, like Extra Credits, have talked about historical games and their capacity to teach history. One argument they make that I’d like to share is that history should be about learning from it, instead of just remembering names, dates and facts. And in order for them to be effective as a way to teach history, their mechanics should be accurate regarding the restraints and characteristics of the eras and events. While they explicitly state that historical games aren’t by any means exclusive to the strategy genre (e.g. Assassin’s Creed, while not historical accurate, is a good example on how to make History appealing), they mention some strategy games such as Rome: Total War.

Chess and other strategy games can teach us planification, resource management, analysis, probability, decision making and plenty of other things.

Age of Empires 2 HD
Age of Empires 2 HD

Trading Card Games could teach us chemistry; Simulators like Kerbal Space Program could be used to promote the marvels and importance of physics; Sim CityCaesar or any other city-building game being used to teach urbanism. Even MMOs can teach economy.

Einstein once replied to a statement from Thomas Edison, with:

It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.

Talking about influential games in education, Minecraft has been perhaps one of the most successful games ever accepted as a tool to improve it due to its ability to adapt to almost any teaching context. By the way, you should watch Minecraft: The Story of Mojang; it’s like Indie Game: The Movie sans the drama and the whole misrepresentation of game developers as asocial or hipster people.

Two things that are noteworthy regarding this topic are that:

  • Not all games were, are or will be useful for educational purposes; just like not all movies are films.
  • Although edutainment (i.e. content designed to educate and entertain) exists since a long time, they are targeted towards very young audiences and have lackluster foundations regarding game design. Extra Credits has given examples of great educational games with a strong game design basis, such as Counting Kingdom.

But how viable is this idea of using games as tools to improve the learning process? Well…

First of all, there is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. Trying to immediately change longtime conventions is a titanic task with high chances of failure; typically, violent events are the ones that have produced quick changes (*certain conditions apply) while peaceful movements are longterm.

Second, as The Idea Channel expresses in an episode called Is Minecraft The Ultimate Educational Tool?, this idea is unlikely to be adopted on a short or medium term for two reasons: they require huge investments in technology and technical proficiency by the teachers. However, that statement is mainly for video games; board games and other physical activities are cheap, something that Zichermann does mention (Classic Monopoly costs around $8 in Amazon, as of December 2014).

Minecraft Edu
Special Minecraft edition tailored for educational purposes

Third, games should not replace all traditional tools, they should complement them. You cannot force people to play games, as Extra Credits mentions.


To expect an overnight change is both foolish and irresponsible. This is a long and winding road, full of obstacles, resistance and in the need of constant feedback and debate.

Games are certainly not a panacea. All by themselves they could be ineffective, distractive and, worse, counterproductive. It’s imperative the presence of someone in charge to guide and attend the students.

And, as I said, the ultimate goal is to update education to the current age. That certainly involves a lot of studies, planification and collaboration but, if done correctly, could benefit everyone. Many of the current problems in our societies come from a lack of proper education in our children.

Simón Bolívar, liberator of Venezuela, said:

Morality and enlightenment are our primary needs.

Oh, in what world would we be living in.

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