Note: On Tuesday, April 28, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. ET, the Fordham Institute will host a discussion with Greg Toppo on his new book, The Game Believes in You, from which this essay is adapted. See our event page for more information and to register. All are invited to stay for a small reception following the event.
After decades of ambivalence, suspicion, and sometimes outright hostility, educators are beginning to discover the charms of digital games and simulations, in the process rewriting centuries-old rules of learning, motivation, and success.
Teachers have long used cards, dice, pencil-and-paper games, and board games to teach and reinforce key concepts. But digital technology, and games in particular, go even further. Because games look so little like school, they force us to reconsider our most basic assumptions about how children learn: What is school for and what should students do there? Where should kids get their content and how? How important is it that they like what they’re doing? What is our tolerance for failure and what is our standard for success? Who is in control here?
Even the electronic versions of games have a history dating back two generations. The eighth graders who shot buffalo in the first rudimentary version of The Oregon Trail—on a teletype in a Minneapolis classroom in 1971—are now old enough to be grandparents. The movement’s de facto vision statement emerged exactly twenty-five years ago, when an eight-year-old boy in an after-school program at MIT’s Media Lab was showing off a bit of handiwork he’d created with LEGOs and a rudimentary computer program. Asked about the usefulness of the project, he told a skeptical TV reporter, “Yes, this is fun, but it’s hard fun.”
Games focus, inspire, and reassure young people in ways that school often can’t. If you are a young person, games like Minecraft and Clash of Clans give you a chance to learn at your own pace, take risks, and cultivate deeper understanding. While teachers, parents, and friends may encourage and support you, these natural resources are limited. Computers work on a completely different scale and timetable. Your teacher may be overwhelmed, your friends wish you’d finish your homework, and your mom just wants to go to bed. But a well-designed game sits and waits…and waits. It doesn’t care if that wearisome math problem takes you fifteen seconds or four hours. Do it again. Take all day. The game believes in you.
Increasingly, it also knows you, or at least your abilities, better than anyone. At the exact time that states have raised the stakes on annual standardized tests, games have demonstrated the power of embedded, invisible, continuous assessment.
The implications for school are, in a way, staggering. Imagine if every morning, in every school, every child showed up and worked as hard as he or she could. Students would eagerly accept challenges that they knew were not only suited to their abilities but beyond them, trying repeatedly in the face of failure after failure. They would be so engaged that at the sound of the final bell, they’d look up and wonder where the day had gone. What if schools, from the wealthiest suburban nursery school to the grittiest urban high school, thrummed with the sounds of deep immersion? That may sound a bit idealistic, but this is how educators in this field routinely talk about their work. They even have a name for the thing that happens when students are immersed in work that is perfectly suited to their abilities: flow.
We don’t know what’s happening in kids’ heads when they’re playing games. Actually, we think we know what’s happening, and we don’t like it. A peek beneath the hood shows that what’s going on is often exactly the opposite of what it looks like. What looks like escapist fun is really deep concentration. What looks like instant gratification is really delayed gratification in clever disguise. What looks like spectacle is really a system that is training players to ignore the spectacle and focus on the real work at hand. What looks like anything-goes freedom is really submission to strict rules. What looks like a twenty-first-century, flashy, high-tech way to keep kids entertained is really a tool that taps into an ancient way to process, explore, and understand the world.
Unlike many previous education movements, this one seems to defy easy labels. It is neither conservative nor liberal, neither wholly traditional nor wholly experimental. Games have a little something for everyone. For the crunchy and student-centered, they scratch an essential itch, sucking kids into a deep stream of engagement and teaching them to think, negotiate, imagine, and solve problems. Games give children autonomy and agency, helping them design their own solutions, collaborate with friends, and create natural “affinity groups” that bring learning alive outside the classroom. For the skills-and-assessment type, games frontload massive amounts of content, offer focused and efficient drills and practice, build on prior knowledge, strengthen grit, and, at the end of the day, deliver a personalized performance data stream that would make the most hardassed psychometrician smile.
Kids make mud pies and paper airplanes; they climb trees and play the piano. The entire time, they’re exploring and learning about the world. As neurologist Frank Wilson said, “A hand is always in search of a brain and a brain is in search of a hand.” We celebrate play and even fight for children’s right to do more of it when they’re in school. Yet we’re quick to jettison play when we feel it’s not up to the serious task of moving large amounts of material into our children’s minds, especially when they’re older. Let’s rethink that belief. Let’s consider a broader application of play in children’s lives, one that holds out the possibility that more play and playful thinking could, ironically, make our schools more serious, productive places.
As astrophysicist Jodi Asbell-Clarke, who leads a team developing science and math games, once told me, “We’re not trying to turn your students into gamers. We’re trying to turn your gamers into students.”