Video Gaming Can Teach Us a Lot about How We Learn

Isthmus | June 10, 2004
Hed: Game Boys

subhed: Kurt Squire and James Paul Gee vow videogaming can teach us a lot about how we learn

By Aaron R. Conklin

You could call it one of those triumph-of-the-geek moments.

Kurt Squire was sitting in his high school history class, and the subject was Caribbean history. The professor asked for a volunteer to expound on the Spanish approach to colonization. There was shifting, there was silence...and then Squire unleashed.

“The Spanish were mostly about getting gold and establishing settlements. The French were more colonizing, the Dutch were more trade, and I can tell you what their ships had, what they were trading, what their cities were, and what the difference was between being a pirate in 1560 versus 1640,” Squire, now 31, recounts with a boyish grin. “All of a sudden, I’m just rattling these things off, and my friends are looking at me, like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

What his friends didn’t know was that Squire had an unexpected secret advantage: Hours logged playing a legendary Commodore 64 computer game called Pirates! that put players in the boots of a cutlass-wielding brigand.

“More or less, I had at least a foundation for studying most of what we were going to learn,” says Squire. “I had a pre-background knowledge of all the geography, all the major cities and all the time periods. And second, I had a belief that I can do this -- wow, I know what’s going on in here.”

James Paul Gee had never played a videogame in his life. But while watching his 6-year-old puzzle through a children’s computer game called Pajama Sam, the XX-year-old linguistics professor realized something: In the interaction between his son and the game, some serious learning was taking place. He ran out and bought a more complex game for himself, and became instantly transfixed. “I was amazed by how powerful it was, and how completely difficult it was,” says Gee, who’s gone from being a boomer newbie to a videogame expert in the span of just three years. “And the first thing that hit me was, people pay for something this hard. It was probably the first time in 20 years where I had learned something truly new.”

Gee and Squire have traveled different paths, but they’ve arrived at the same place, both geographically and intellectually. As professors of educational technology at UW-Madison, they’ve made it their mission to get the public -- and more specifically public education -- to buy into what seems a radical notion: Using the technology and learning principles inherent in videogames to improve the way kids are taught in the classroom.


“We want to see teachers designing their classrooms the way game designers design games,” says Gee, the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning. “To motivate people, give them new identity choices and be able to customize their learning.”

It isn’t mission impossible, but it’s certainly not a piece of Quake, either. Despite an explosion in videogames’ popularity over the last decade, the public still views games as mindless entertainment at best, a dangerous social ill that breeds Columbine-style school shooters at worst.

And while neither prof is advocating that games like Grand Theft Auto 3 take a place in the classroom alongside algebra and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, both Gee and Squire recognize that the application of technology in games offers a powerful model of learning. They hope to spur a conversation between educators and game designers about the ways in which learning in the schools can be improved. After all, the two groups are effectively facing the same problem: How do I get somebody to do something that’s long and difficult?

In the first mission of Age of Mythology, a real-time computer strategy game that lets players create and command mythological heroes and monsters, you’re asked to gather some basic resources, build a small community and crank out a few soldiers. In the second mission, the game asks you to crank out more diversified soldiers and begin leading them into battle. This, says Gee, is a basic example of what cognitive scientists call the cycle of expertise. Simply put, it’s the way in which we become skilled at anything we do.

“The first thing games do is to ask you to practice skills over and over until you’re automatically good at them,” explains Gee. “The second thing is to throw something at you where that won’t work anymore. You have to think again, repackage those skills at a higher level.”

In researching his book, Gee set out to reverse-engineer the games he was so fascinated by, and was surprised to find that the learning principles the games were using were the same ones bandied about by cognitive scientists. For instance, the fact that games, like learning, operate on the outer edge of a person’s regime of confidence, mixing challenge and frustration in a way that keeps players coming back for one more try at that impossible-to-beat level or boss monster.

“These principles didn’t get into videogames because the designers understand educational science,” says Gee. “They got into videogames because the designers have to sell games.”

Teachers have to sell learning to their students as well, but Gee noticed that what was happening in the games isn’t often happening in school. Geometry proofs and verb conjugations may ape the cycle of expertise, but there’s a key element missing -- a meaningful context. “Games always teach you skills as strategies, to carry out functions you’re going to do,” explains Gee. “They don’t make you practice a skill that you have no idea what it’s for, over and over again.”

More important, games often recruit an identity from the player, allowing him to produce and co-design the experience in a way that a typical set of math problems or a book report can’t. “When you make decisions in a game like Morrowind: Elder Scrolls, it actually changes the game,” says Gee. “I can customize the game to my learning and playing style. I’m an actual co-producer. In a school, can I customize the curriculum to my learning?”

Spend even a few moments around him, and it’s clear that Gee is as intense as he is intelligent. He also cares passionately about public education, and he’s concerned about the ways he sees it failing its students.

Gee argues that most school curricula suffer from what he calls a content fetish. “In biology, there are 200 key facts written down, and if we can memorize them all and pass a standardized test on them, we know biology,” he scoffs. “But biology is an activity, it’s something you do. If you know how to do the activity and to learn new activities, you’re going to have a career.”


That’s effectively what happened with Squire. His playing a game like Pirates! (which, incidentally, is being updated for modern PCs and re-released later this year) created a natural feedback cycle. Through playing the game, he discovered that Caribbean history was actually pretty fascinating and was motivated to learn more.

“You start to see yourself as someone who is into history, who could do history, who could be competent,” says Squire, who flirted briefly with graduate work in the topic before settling into education technology. “I think that’s the way we’re going to think about games in the future. Games are an interesting entrée to getting kids to become active thinkers and problem solvers within a domain that can lead very clearly to becoming a scientist, an investigator, or a historian.”

Squire’s research now focuses on cognition in game play, looking at how gamers interact with games, how and what kind of learning occurs through game play. In the Game Suite, also known as room 130 in the UW-Madison’s Education Technology Building at 250 S. Mills St., he and Gee supervise students as they search for the educational possibilities contained in the latest Xbox, Playstation 2, Gamecube and computer games.

So far, the applications are startlingly practical. For instance, Squire is busily helping the UW’s academic co-lab to develop a set of handheld games, including an environmental science game that uses global positioning technology to help scientists-in-training control a real-time environmental disaster on Madison’s isthmus. Another project involves a PDA-based mystery game on the UW campus that could someday augment the standard campus tour for prospective students.

In addition to his work with UW-Madison, Squire is one of the founders of Education Arcade, a consortium of game developers and researchers based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Squire serves as an academic fellow. Funded by the games industry lobby, Education Arcade’s goal is to build bridges between game developers, publishers and content providers. “One of the real drivers behind Education Arcade is, let’s focus the conversation about games on something other than violence for a second and say, ‘What can we get out of this?’” Squire explains.

The answer appears to be, “a lot.” The project is a scant seven months old, but already its clients have included the Royal Shakespeare Company, lured by the possibility of an open-ended virtual world based on The Tempest, and the group that runs Colonial Williamsburg, which is working with Squire and his colleagues to develop Revolution, a online game that aims to allow users to role-play key events in American history circa 1773.

“Imagine being in a role-playing game where you get a newspaper from the time -- we’re actually thinking of embedding primary documents in the game -- and kids are reading historical facts and having to interpret them for meaning,” says Squire. “They’re having to make decisions in a historical context.”

Squire envisions himself as an executive producer, the guy who can raise the funds and connect the talent (in this case, game developers) with interested groups who want to utilize it. He cites an example of medical researchers working with a game company to build a game around internal medicine. Eventually, through projects like these, Squire hopes that Education Arcade can use his gaming expertise to create an equitable model for improving education. “Not just something that works for boys, but something that works for girls as well,” he says. “Something that works for kids who historically have been turned off by school, whether they be the geeks or whether they be a marginalized population who doesn’t think that school is relevant. We’re the only people really prepared to do this from the education side.”


The education tech crowd has readily embraced the possibilities offered by games, but the public and the public education system have been harder to convince. “We know very well from training teachers here that many teachers know absolutely nothing about what’s in these games,” says Gee. More frequently, games are viewed as the enemy of homework and literacy. Yet given the huge numbers of hours kids will often devote to beating a game, they’re not so easily ignored.

“Why is it that we can get a kid to work really hard to master a game like Starcraft or Grand Theft Auto 3, but we can’t get him to open a book in algebra?” asks Squire. “Why is it that we can get people in an online game like Everquest or Lineage to organize massive guilds and build Web sites and entire social structures when we can’t get them to finish their homework in school?”

“One of the core things about videogames is that they’re all simulations,” says Gee, who notes that the concept is both cutting-edge science and a core aspect of the way humans think. “They’re simulating worlds and saying, ‘Can you learn to live in this world and solve problems?’”

Although the debate over violence in games exists in a different arena, even a game that contains strong violent elements -- take the oft-cited Grand Theft Auto 3 -- sets players in a moral universe. The choice to steal, kill and run down pedestrians (versus driving, helping and exploring) is entirely up to them.

“If you took out all the bad choices, something you could do that would be considered by some to be morally bad, you would have no choice,” says Squire. “You can’t explore morality if you can’t do anything wrong.”

Rather than killing literacy, Squire and Gee have found that games actually promote it. Some games, like Morrowind: Elder Scrolls or Planescape: Torment, require players to scroll through as much in-game text as a Tolstoy novel. In addition, players read manuals, download cheat sheets and FAQs and actually produce text around games -- on chat sites, in online communities or through fan fiction. As part of his research, Squire discovered that fourth- and fifth-graders who wouldn’t otherwise put pen to paper loved to write game reviews, particularly if they felt there was a chance they’d be read.

Gee, meanwhile, has watched kids as young as 7 play Age of Mythology, and is amazed by the activity it spawns. “They don’t just play the game,” he says. “They go get books on mythology, they search the Internet. And they don’t just play it individually, they also play it socially.” And if kids are taken with the powerful interactivity of games, they will expect similar interactivity from their schooling, says Gee.

If he’s right, that could be troubling news for the public school system, since, at the moment, those forms simply aren’t there. Schools have been slow to adopt technology, and in a country in which schools use computers primarily as typewriters, where computer labs are often understocked and out of date, it’s not particularly surprising that the students Gee interviews for his research report that high school is the least popular level of schooling, a needed credential rather than a place to learn useful content.

“I have no doubt that videogame technology is going to transform large parts of this society,” says Gee. “Whether that will change the grammar of schooling, which has been so resistant for so long, we don’t know. For the first time, there will be genuine alternatives to schools. For those of us who believe in public schools, as I do, it’s very important to get it right.”


Game on

Not every computer or videogame takes full advantage of the learning principles Gee and Squire have identified, but here are six that do.

Rise of Nations (PC). Gee calls this expansive real-time strategy game, in which players manage and expand emerging nation-states, one of the best learning games ever. He credits the ways the game allows players to adapt the game’s parameters to their own skill level.

Morrowind: Elder Scrolls (PC, Playstation 2) This role-playing game, set in a deep medieval/fantasy world, defines the concept of open-ended. Players assume and develop an in-game identity, and every decision affects the way in which the game plays out. In other words, it’s different for every player.

Deus Ex (PC, Playstation 2, Xbox). Not only does this sci-fi action/roleplaying game give players the ability to solve in-game problems in multiple ways (through stealth, firepower or negotiation), but it also hints at the concept of emergent narrative.

Pikmin and Animal Crossing (Gamecube). This pair of cartoony games offer perfect learning tools for kids. There are multiple solutions to every problem, and both foster cooperation, early literacy and language development.

Civilization 3 (PC). Squire calls the third game in Sid Meier’s turn-based strategy series “a long-term, broad-scale simulation of how civilizations rise and fall.” Using a materialist, geographical interpretation, the game proceeds from the premise that that civilizations are inherently tied to their geography.

-- A.R.C.


Isthmus is Madison, Wisconsin's alternative newspaper. Since 1976, Isthmus has built a foundation of fearless reporting, forthright opinion, excellent arts coverage, and innovative perspective. These efforts have been rewarded by numerous sources including the Milwaukee Press Club's statewide Excellence in...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 100 State Street, Suite 301, Madison, WI 53703
  • Phone: (608) 251-5627