Video Games as Learning Tools

I met her when we were 18 years old. Freshman computer science students full of dreams, questions and of course energy. But she was different.; when we were all working hard on our course projects and lacking sleep, shes was playing video games. When we were  all studying hard and getting prepared for the final exams, she was playing video games. When we were celebrating the end of semester, guess what, she was still playing video games!  Kamelia has been a close friend of mine for more than a decade. We spent undergraduate and Masters programs together. I remember from the first day of our friendship, she clarified for all the classmates that ”I chose computer science because I want to become a game developer!”. This motivation might be common for many students in the U.S., but at my home country, IRAN, gaming is more like a hobby than an inspiration for choosing a major.  Kamelia, though, was brave and persistent. She worked as a game developer in a company for couple of years after graduation in computer science with a minor in psychology. Later, she started her PhD at the University of Luxembourg working on “Computer Games to Treat Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”.

Following are what I learned from Kamelia completed with the crux of resources on this topic:

  • Video games != waste of time. From educational point of view, you can potentially learn what you struggle to listen during a class or among the impractical homework assignments, in an entertaining game experience.
  • Video games == problem solving. All video games are sets of problems which the player should solve. Does not this sound like another form of learning?
  • Video games contain “Embedded Assessment”. A good game, in general,  is designed so that its players cannot go to the next level unless they qualify. This certainly removes the conventional test-and-grade system and replaces it with more encouraging play-and-win system.
  • Gaming based therapy programs help cognitive scientists to address learning issues  and ultimately improve mental health. This is particularly beneficial when it comes to children who are less willing to spend time in hospitals and clinics. You may find the related following TEDx talk interesting.

From struggling undergraduate to PhD student

I was suspended for a semester as an undergraduate. I came to Virginia Tech in 2011 as a freshman. I was thrown into an incoming freshman class of around 5,000 students. My high school graduating class had 23 people in it. We were a small, close-knit group and I had had the same teachers since 10th grade. I came in as a University Studies student with the dream of getting into engineering. In high school I had always been better than average at math and science and I thought that engineering seemed like an obvious fit. After a semester of terrible performance, I was put on probation. After another semester of more of the same, I was suspended. At the time, it was devastating. But looking back on the experience now, I am able to appreciate the positive changes it helped me to realize in my academic career.

There were several reasons for this turn of events – some in my control, and some under the control of the University environment:

  1. I didn’t go to class as much as I should have.
  2. I was not prepared for the anonymity that massive class sizes provided.
  3. I was convinced of my own multitasking skills (i.e. using laptops in class to ‘take notes’).
  4. I was taught entirely in lecture format classes.
  5. I had a lot of growing up to do.

The themes of this week revolve around teaching styles and obstacles to student learning. I’d like to take this time to address lecture-style classes and use of technology in class.

Regarding lectures, as the readings have shown, there are some positives and negatives. For the student, it is useful to be lectured to in a well-balanced education. However, it cannot be the only method that instructors use. In many of the classes that freshmen are expected to take, lecture is the primary teaching tool. It seems as if that norm may be changing in recent years, but students could really benefit from less lecture and more active forms of learning. In the classes that I teach now, I try to mix it up as much as I can. I like assigning in-class group exercises, discussions, and presentations. Yes, lecture is still necessary. And yes, there are still some students who do not engage in class and despite my best efforts, resist my efforts to pull them in. But, overall, when students are given the opportunity to share their thought processes and grapple with tough issues, rather than just listening to someone else talk about them, it seems (in general) that the material sinks in a little more.

Now on to the issue of laptops – a much debated issue. Honestly, after reading about whether they should be allowed in class and engaging in countless discussions with peers and professors, I still don’t know where I stand on this. I truly don’t think that people can multitask. But I also don’t know whether it’s the instructor’s responsibility to ‘force’ students to pay attention, or if that’s even possible. Although smartphones and laptops are recent technological advances, daydreaming has been around for a long time. If you take away one distraction, it’s very possible that students could find another. I will say, that in my own experience, I missed a lot of opportunities to learn as an undergrad due to my laptop use. It wasn’t until I took a class in my first semester back from suspension, when a professor had the whole class complete an exercise designed to show our futile attempts at multitasking that I put away the laptop in class for good. Sure, I got it out now and again when needed. But from that point, I knew that if I had it out, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to what was going on around me. The point of that story is to say that maybe it’s not the instructor’s job to force students to put away the laptops and pay attention. But, maybe it’s a teachable moment. Instructors can demonstrate the harm that laptops are having on their student’s focus and attention and maybe convince a few of them of the benefits of giving the class that they’re in a little more of their attention.

I started out this post with the story of my failures during undergrad. I learned a lot of lessons as I plummeted downwards and I also learned a lot as I struggled to improve. I came out the other side as a pretty decent graduate student. So, while I might have been an undergraduate with some of the worst habits and zero interest in my classes, I learned for myself what it took to succeed and (probably more importantly) learn.

Frustration, Meaning, and Perseverance

In the introduction to his book, “What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy,” James Paul Gee states that “learning is or should be both frustrating and life enhancing” (2003, p.6).

This idea resonates deeply with me and brings up related questions I have pondered through my life, such as, “Can there be true greatness without pain and struggle?” and “Don’t the things that have the most meaning in our lives come from or via difficulty?”

I do believe we need to consider what we mean when we mean when we use this word “frustration”. Obviously, busy work can be frustrating and working on tasks that are not possible to achieve is frustrating. My initial thought was that these are not the types of frustration that we are talking about. Doesn’t the frustration we reference have more of a feel of inspiration and greatness in it? But as I continue to think about the examples of “busy work” and “impossible tasks” that I just mentioned, I begin to realize that this might be exactly how truly great struggles feel at the time. Tasks that require our best work and most perseverance may at the time feel impossible and require multiple attempts. Work that seems mundane, repetitive, and initially meaningless may be what is required for great breakthroughs.

I am still conflicted about whether it is possible to always turn learning into what feels like a game or a fun challenge that draws us in to working on a task without realizing we are doing so. While I certainly believe there are serendipitous instances that this can be achieved, I worry that this may not be the best preparation for some of the realities of life. We may not often have employers who seek to make our work responsibilities feel like a game (or even an enjoyable challenge). Some may, or we may be able to simulate this experience for ourselves in some ways, but in other instances I believe we may simply have to slog through our responsibilities with perseverance and a good attitude. Certainly one can argue that if we are doing something that we love that it will not feel like a chore, but some of us may not be in a situation in which we are able to do what we love as a living. Even if we are in that fortunate position, we will encounter elements of our jobs that are more “frustrating,” boring, or simply not to our liking, but still need to be done.

With these thoughts in mind, I believe that the challenge for us as students, teachers, and employees, and employers is to find the meaning and life enhancing qualities behind the work and learning we are doing. This awareness of meaning is a significant motivator to persevere even when things are not enjoyable. Gee summarizes this idea perfectly by saying “The key is finding ways to make hard things life enhancing so that people keep going and don’t fall back on learning and thinking on what is only simple and easy” (2003, p.6).

I recognize that I am struggling right now to meld the ideas from many of our readings and videos in this class thus far with other values that I hold (when the two may not end up being in conflict at all). I would welcome thoughts on how to incorporate the idea of creating more engaging opportunities for learning with the benefit of teaching/learning the character traits of perseverance and hard work even when one encounters tasks that are not enjoyable.


Gee, James Paul. 2003. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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