Information Age Education
   Issue Number 144
August, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Education for Students' Futures
Part 13: The Role of Video Games
in the Education of Young People

Sean Sylwester
Oregon State University Student
Electrical Engineering

The previous article in this series ( suggested that the punch line is the central element in jokes. Our understanding of the physical and social world suggests how a joke's narrative will probably end. Laughter is the release when the punch line provides an unexpected conclusion. Our survival as humans depends on our ability to foresee and effectively respond to unexpected events. Humor helps to develop this capability in young people in a pleasant, non-threatening manner that we maintain throughout adult life. Gossip and play/games play similar roles in that both deal with unexpected outcomes and the responses that people develop.

Sean Sylwester’s Perspectives

Play and games occupy much of early life. Play is unstructured behavior as children master arm/leg movements, share toys, interact with unrelated friends, etc. Children soon begin to compare their capabilities with others and that's what organized rule-bound games and sports do. Most of us enjoy games at one level or another throughout life. Video games have already expanded substantially during the 21st century and this expansion will seemingly continue.

I have long been fascinated by video games. I’ll begin my university program in electrical engineering this fall, hoping to participate in the probable advances that will occur in simulations and video game technology.  What follows is the role that I believe video games played during my earlier years—the things I thought I learned better through video games than during school activities.
Perhaps the most important thing for my generation is that video games became our initial gateway to learn about computers. We have played computerized video games as long as most of us can remember. Video games gave us something that was fun to do on the computer. They thus encouraged us to explore the technology in a way that we probably never would have done otherwise. Video games allowed us to become comfortable with the basic technology of computers. Computers and other forms of electronics are all around us, and their impact on our society will only increase. The natural development of this skill was thus invaluable for my generation.

In addition to providing me with a fun way to explore computer technology, video games also helped me in my mental development. Video games supplemented my education in many ways, and sometimes taught me entirely new things. For example, school instruction rarely encouraged me to solve puzzles. Math and physics classes were based on strict formulas, and teachers tended to discourage us from thinking creatively to solve a problem. Teachers would usually show us one specific way of doing a problem, and then ask us to use the formula in solving the problems they gave us. They rarely explained the logic behind the solution. Video game challenges were fortunately able to fill in this gap for me.

Many current video games have some element of a puzzle or unexpected twists incorporated within them. These include "pure" puzzle games in which solving the puzzle is the entire point of the game, and a staggering variety of these games is on the market for anyone and everyone–first-person or third-person, 3D or 2D, fast-paced action or slow-paced strategy, physics-based or not. Each new game uses new concepts and explores new ideas, encouraging the player to think in different ways. Many popular video games now include puzzles as a secondary focus. These games encourage and reward players who use creativity in their strategy. Developers realize that they must move the field forward in order to sell their games to increasingly sophisticated players.

The development of team-based communicative and collaborative skills is also central to many current video games. I often found this lacking in school instruction. These skills were used in extracurricular activities such as team sports and out-of-school clubs, but they weren't always demonstrated effectively within classrooms. Sports tended to be run by coaches who expected players to do what they were told. I lost interest in team sports at about the fourth grade, and instead learned many social skills through multiplayer video games.

Most Internet games today are multiplayer (see multiplayer video games in Resources). Many players connect to the same game over the Internet, and the teams that emerge have to then figure out how to work together towards the video game goal, generally against a competing team of players. Players can generally communicate with each other by keyboard interaction or by talking over a microphone. These kinds of games are generally "real time" so quick action is important. The team with better collaboration, coordination, and communication generally wins. Development of these skills (and sometimes fast typing) are the keys to success, but the games have many formulas. School instruction does often incorporate group projects, but it is rarely the principal focus of the lesson. Like others who also stopped playing sports, video games played a very influential role in developing my social and collaborative skills. So whether I played online with friends I knew in real life or was matched with random players from across the country, the games developed my mental, physical, and social skills in the same way as sports and other extracurricular activities did for my classmates (see multiplayer video game explanation and cooperative multiplayer video game explanation in Resources).
Classroom instruction seems to have a built-in rigidity. Although most students learn in different ways and at an individual pace, teachers have to work with the whole group, so instruction is often focused on the average students or even on the lowest level students. This not only jeopardizes the learning of students who might not learn in that way, but it also risks losing the focus of students who want to learn at a faster pace.

Video games are thus a more versatile teaching tool, because they let players work at their own individual pace. They're designed to fit individual learning. Lecture or discussion based classes work pretty well for most students although this is becoming a contested point (see Kagan in Resources). Most instruction occurs this way. I had no trouble learning in this style, but I've found that I learned much more quickly and deeply, and I retained the information much more easily, when I learned the concepts on my own without disapproval from teachers. Video games provided my generation with that non-threatening option.

Video games can help some students learn in a more efficient way, more easily maintaining the student’s motivation for learning. Struggling to learn in a way that doesn't suit a particular student, or being made to work much faster or much slower than the student would prefer often diminishes their motivation in school. Solving many of these major problems through supplementary classroom video games could help all students succeed in their own way. Understanding video games as a positive form of learning and building on it could do wonders for school test scores and high school graduation rates (see Another Perspective in Resources).

The next article will take this issue one step further, into the development of increasingly effective teaching machines.
Multiplayer video games. Retrieved 8/11/2014 from (This list is now somewhat dated, but it will give you a sense of the breadth of the field. The number of multiplayer games now runs into the tens of thousands.)

Multiplayer video game explanation. Retrieved 8/11/2014 from

Cooperative multiplayer video game explanation. Retrieved 8/11/2014 from

Another Perspective

IAE Newsletter realizes the existence of good school programs that seek to solve the criticism Sean provides. Many are directed to inservice rather than to preservice teachers. That these programs tend to be well-received by teachers suggests that, once teachers begin to teach, many seek to improve their instruction in the ways that Sean suggested:

Spencer Kagan recently wrote an article for IAE Newsletter in which he described how his very successful program developed social and collaborative skills (

The elements of Susan Kovalik's successful Highly Effective Teaching program (HET) address the kinds of classroom instruction problems that Sean found through video games (

Sean Sylwester

Sean Sylwester recently graduated from South Eugene High School. He has long been interested in computer games. He will begin a major in Electrical Engineering at Oregon State University this fall, with a focus on the technologies involved in simulations and video gaming. Contact information:

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