Games Have a Long History in American Education

11/20/2009  |  DOUG ADAMS and MARILYN AULT
games in education

In July 1859, the editors of Scientific American magazine made a cautionary plea to their readers.A game was gaining popularity in America, and it was having a deleterious effect on the youth,“robbing the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements.” The game was described as“cheerless,” “pernicious,”and “a mere amusement of inferior character.” It was “mental gladiatorship.” The game in question: chess.

Today, chess is seen as an example of an appropriate game in

schools. It promotes skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and decision-making. Chess is used throughout the world variously as a measure of memory, mathematical aptitude, creative thinking, reasoning, perception and even general intelligence (IQ). Many schools have a chess club and chess tournaments. It might be a form of “mental gladiatorship,” but no one today would describe playing chess as robbing the mind.

Games have a long history in education. Spelling bees, debates, PowerPoint “Jeopardy,”andeven athletics,are all examples of games in the classroom.As far back as Plato, who in the Republic wrote, “Do not, then, my friend, keep children to their studies by compulsion, but by play.” Plato was talking about observing students at play to discern their potential, and that’s mostly how games were used. Games were an assessment tool.

The 1970s saw a dramatic increase in the use of games for educational purpos-es.“As the true character of gaming as a unique communication form becomes clear, its use…will become pervasive,” wrote Richard Duke in Gaming:The Future’s Language (1974). In the 1980s a focus on basic skill development arose, with games like Math Blaster,Verb Viper and Reader Rabbit.

In the first decade of the 21st century, teachers are finding that students are exceptionally prepared to learn using games in the classroom. Students of this generation differ in significant ways from students of earlier eras.

There are many different terms for students who have come of age in the 21st century. Some call these kids “the

millennial generation” or “Millennials.”

Playing on Douglas Coupland’s novel

Generation X, children born in the early 1990s are often referred to as “Generation Z” (“GenerationY” would be kids born between 1980 and the early 90s) or “Generation Next.”The Japanese, recognizing how cell phone use causes kids to interact with the world differently, have labeled this generation as “oyayubizoku” or the “Thumb Tribe.” However, despite all of these differing labels, it is the term “Digital Native” that best describes that generation born around the same time as the Web itself.

A digital native has never known a world without cell phones, or the Inter-net. To this generation, e-mail is an old-fashioned way to communicate, suitable for writing a note to grandma or a message to their boss.And just like with language, digital natives are fluent in their world in ways that someone not born into it can never be.At best, older generations are “immigrants,” who speak DFL (“digital as a foreign language”).

Here are some of the characteristics of the digital native.


In her book Joystick Nation, J.C. Herz wrote,“TV turned kids of the 50s and 60s into a nation of screen watchers, videogames have created a cadre of screen manipulators.” Digital natives are not content to sit and watch. They expect to participate in their world. Whether that is commenting on a You-Tube video (or uploading one of their own), mashing up music, or simply building their MySpace page, kids are hands-on in ways that earlier generations couldn’t imagine. In a Web 2.0 world, everything is a community site and the members construct the world.


Psychologists tell us that the brain is linear in its application, and that there is no true multi-tasking.At best, we are switching our attention frequently from one task to the next. Nevertheless, these kids grew up in a world where this sort of switching is natural and

normal. Perhaps they are not able to

properly give their attention to a single task, but when a student claims that he is studying despite having three Web browsers, two chat windows, a Web cam, and a music player active, he believes that is true.

Non-linear thinking

Hypertext and information on demand allows students to explore.A digital native expects to be able to find information on a whim. Reading an article on one topic provides links to others, and still others, often leading students far off-topic. Depth of thought is often exchanged for breadth of experience, leaving detailed information for on-demand searching — why memorize random facts when you can look it up whenever you need it? Be aware that student research may lead them away from their initial topic idea.


Computers are infinitely forgiving, and usually come with an “undo” but-ton. To digital natives, failing a task just means that you need to back up and do

it differently next time. Learning new technology (which happens all the time) is an “on-demand” activity;simply a matter of just trying something and seeing what happens.

Because of these characteristics, researcher Marc Prensky writes,“Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” And according to professor James Paul Gee,“Better theories of learning are embedded in the video games many children play than in the schools they attend.” What kinds of theories?

Things like user-centered design (aka student-centered learning), individualization, collaboration and role-play. Modern games are complex, and game designers need to teach players how to play the game while still keeping them interested.  They do this with methods familiar to any teacher: scaffolding, peer teaching, frequent practice and meaningful feedback.

Games stimulate our minds in ways that help them grow.According to John Medina in his book Brain Rules, we do our best when we are emotional about our work. Game designers use emotions like excitement, engagement, enthusiasm and exploration to keep players interested. Teachers, to facilitate learning, use these same emotions.Even a “negative” emotion like frustration is important, because game designers know that a game that is too easy is no fun.As MIT professor Henry Jenkins says,“Kids will complain when their homework is too hard, but they will complain when a game is too easy.”

So, what about some of the challenges facing teachers who do want to use games in the classroom? There are many, the first of which is the resistance to the entire concept of video games as appropriate for classroom use. This has to change, and will change. Just as film and television became useful classroom tools in the 60s and 70s, games will be integrated into the classroom of the 21st century.

Commercial, off-the-shelf games (COTS) are usually not designed with education in mind. Costing millions

of dollars and taking years of time to develop, these games need to appeal to a broad audience. Examples are games like Civilization or Sim City. They are rarely aligned to standards, and can even have inaccurate information. Teachers will often have to do a lot of work in order to adapt these games for use in the classroom. However, they are readily available, usually not very expensive and are very fun to play. Compare these games to using Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart. It may not get Scottish history exactly right, and the teacher will have to work in the standards, but the film is compelling.

Games designed for the education market are very different from COTS games. Because the audience is smaller, they don’t have the budget for flashy graphics, sound and music. They are usually more expensive for the amount of game play, or are focused on a very specific part of the curriculum. Examples would be Food Force and Budget Hero. If COTS games are like Brave-heart, these games are a PBS documentary on English-Scottish history — more fun than a lecture, but kids still fall asleep.

Fortunately, in the past few years we have seen the rise of a new class of games often called “casual games.” Casual games are distinguished by their simple rules, lack of long-term time commitment, and relatively low production and distribution costs for the developer.While the traditional, or “hardcore” game market took in an estimated $20 billion in 2007, the casual game market only made about $2.25 billion. However, 200 million plus people, more than half of them female, played casual games like Peggle and Bejeweled in 2007, nearly 10 times the audience of traditional games according to Casual Games Association, 2007. Casual games can be created and distributed by a relatively small number of developers. They work on a wide variety of platforms (Web, Facebook, cell phones), and they do not require a large commitment of time. Using the movie analogy, casual games are like YouTube: short, to the point and made on a budget.

The Web site, has a number of examples of casual games that are appropriate for the classroom. These short games are designed to help students practice basic math and language skills. Many of them are multiplayer games, allowing students to compete against or collaborate with their friends online. They can be played right in the Web browser using Flash, and don’t require students to create an account or supply personal information. The 4Kids games are free and there are no ads on the site.

Helpful Web sites

  • –
  • Mr. Nussbaum’s Games - http://www.

  • Food Force -
  • You are the Historian: Investigat

ing the First Thanksgiving - http://


  • Traveler IQ - http://www.travelpod. com/traveler-iq
  • Budget Hero -
  • Magic Pen -


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