Lessons from video games: Getting students invested in learning

Lessons from video games: Getting students invested in learning

Note: This is Part Seven in a series of posts related to what teachers can learn from video games. The entire series and a presentation can be seen here.

During the first week at school, I used come home at the end of the day with no voice left. After a summer spent rather quietly, I’d do a lot of talking during those first few days back to school. I don’t have the gift of giving enthralling lectures, but I thought I had something really important to say. After all, I had to introduce my students to a variety of brand new concepts. I had to tell my students all about them so I could make learning happen.

After studying how  learning actually takes place, and how video games engage players in the process of learning, I don’t lose my voice any more.

Learning About vs. Learning Through

If all you know – in any domain – is general meaning, then you really don’t know anything that makes sense to you.” – Dr. James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy

Dr. James Gee creates a wonderful analogy of learning as a tree. Students who master concepts grow tall and seem to rise higher than their peers. However, it’s easy to take for granted that these students also have deep enough roots to support their growth. Students only develop roots through experiences; through applying knowledge. These roots are what keep the tree anchored and sustain the growth of the tree. If we succeed in only filling our students’ minds with general concepts and trivia, they may appear impressive until they leave the school setting, when they will fall or wilt for lack of proper roots.

In good video games, as in school, true learning only happens when students are able to situate learning with experience. Sarah, an honor student of mine, talks about what a really effective embodied learning experience feels like in the game Mirror’s Edge.

Inside vs Outside

Sarah does a great job of recognizing and demonstrating what embodied learning is all about. She picked up the important concepts of the game and learned meanings in context with actions. She also developed a way of thinking consistent with the scientific method. In order to act confidently in this world, she had to;

  • probe the world to understand her situation,
  • create a hypothesis about actions she can and should take,
  • test that hypothesis through action, and then
  • go forward in the world with the learning that just occurred, either advancing or retesting.

All of this happens automatically for Sarah in this game. In addition to that, she has no problem with failing. In fact, she admits that the game would have “no point” if failure was removed. She says that school would be more exciting, active, and engaging if learning looked the same way as it does Mirror’s Edge.

An investment of self

In school, kids learn to be a lot more cautious about experiential learning because the consequence of failing is often high. Taking lecture notes and memorizing keywords from textbook chapters is a lot safer for most students than risking a part of their identities through involving themselves in an experience. Experience involves an investment of self. A student risks something of themselves by participating in an experience, especially if failure and learning are the expected outcomes of that experience. Once a student has invested something of himself in learning, learning becomes meaningful. This is an expected behavior in video games – a player must pick up a controller in order to play – but it’s absent in many classrooms. Some students go through an entire day at school without ever choosing to pick up the controller. Creating this culture in the classroom takes intention and persistence from a teacher.

Although I’ve already written about using failure as a pathway to understanding, this TEDx talk by Diana Laufenberg further solidifies how important it is to create a culture in a classroom where failure is valuable. In order to get to the place in your classroom where students are willing to experience learning, it’s worth learning from this video.

How games encourage learning

Dr. Gee says that good games are “crafted in ways that encourage and facilitate active and critical learning and thinking.” Game designers have to do a lot of work behind the scenes to scaffold this type of learning. Dylan Mansur, a former student of mine with a Bachelor of Science in Game Design, describes what goes into creating an experience where a player wants to learn.

Dylan talks about giving gamers a tool set and then presenting them with situations in which the player will need to use those tools to solve problems. The designers make these situations increasingly complex, leading the player toward doing amazing things – things they wouldn’t have been able even to imagine when first playing the game.

He mentions that, in a school situation that mirrors game design, students would be applying everything they learned to solve difficult problems and navigate challenging situations.

I know that if my classroom functioned in this same way, much more – and much deeper – learning would take place.


I’ve recognized that no actual learning occurs without students putting a part of themselves at stake. Instead of losing my voice during the first week of school, I now try to help my students lose their hesitation to involve themselves in learning.

I’ve started designing experiences and problems for students to solve on the first day of class. I ask them to build a community with each other through succeeding and failing together on increasingly meaningful tasks. During the first days of class, they may be building structures out of crazy building materials (an activity that has no real risk in failure), and as the class moves on they work on more educationally meaningful projects and through more rigorous challenges. It takes a long time for some students to stop worrying and start investing themselves, but no real learning can take place until a student has decided to make that investment.

In addition to that, I’ve started presenting students with learning experiences where the outcomes aren’t already known. I ask them to be designers – creating solutions to problems that haven’t already been solved.

I look at my role as a teacher as equipping my students with the tools and knowledge they’ll need to address these problems then then letting them get to work. Becoming proficient at leading my classes in this way is going to take time and energy, but the work I’ve done so far has convinced me that the results will be transformative and rewarding for my students. That’s the whole reason I’m a teacher.

I may lose some class time to these activities and it takes more time for students to experience a concept than for me to read off a definition, but this is necessary. It’s truly the only way that deep learning occurs.

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  • Lisa

    So how is it going? I have come to the same conclusion and I too am sick of being the broken record that is never listened to anyway. I have noticed a drastic change in my students’ invested interest in their own learning, and success, over the past few years. They have the “Oh, it will do” mentality rather than the, “I can do this better” flip side. I have decided that next year I am going to try and deliver and teach lessons differently. I like what you are saying and would love some feedback about what you have implemented and how it has worked.