The Educational Value of Commercial Games

Video games, and games in general, are a growing area of interest in learning sciences research. The ubiquity of gaming in contemporary western culture provides a unique platform of study, not only because a large proportion of the population engages in this activity– roughly 155 million Americans (Entertainment Software Association, 2015)– but as Gee (2003) noted, that this many people “engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex” (p. 1). Inherent in games, at least well designed ones, is a requirement that the player invests substantial amounts of focus and cognitive effort, an investment educators often struggle to elicit from their students. And yet, many those very same students voraciously throw themselves, cognitively, at problem after problem, by choice, in their own free time, for fun.


Games and Learning

Games have complex problems, but don’t leave the player on completely to their own devices to learn how to approach these problems. Games themselves act as teachers, guiding the player towards the ways of thinking that lead to success. Gee (2007) outlined qualities of well designed games that are effective at teaching the game while retaining engagement. I argue that not only do games use the qualities listed below to teach the player how to play the game, but can also impart in the player a willingness to apply these learning principles to solving problems in general, outside of games, and that thinking like a gamer is akin to the kind of thinking required in problem solving fields like STEM.

Games commit players to some identity through which they perceive the virtual world, with some set of values and goals (p. 3). Similarly, in STEM education, educators often want students to embrace the identity of “scientist” or “engineer”, for example, and to approach problems from the perspective, values, and goals of scientists and engineers. Games might help students become more comfortable approaching problems from perspectives different than their own. Games also provide constant feedback through player interaction, allowing players to draw their own conclusions about the nature of cause and effect in the game world (p. 4). Practice and experience learning about game worlds through interaction and feedback might encourage students to apply the same philosophy to learning about their own world. Players are not passive consumers of games, they are instead engaged in some form of production, whether simply by influencing the story of the game through their actions, by literally creating objects as part of the game, see Kerbal Space Program below, or re-creating the game itself with level editors (p. 4) like in Starcraft 2, where players can design new maps and game modes. Gamers are, by definition, engaged in active participation of their learning in-game. Games encourage risk taking by allowing the player to embrace failure. Often the best way to move forward in a game is through multiple attempts and failures to understand the underlying system of cause and effect (p. 5). Long (2012) also discusses the idea of “failing better” (p. 17) as it applies to design thinking in STEM education. Programmers and engineers will both attest to the power of embracing failure. Debugging and the iterative process are cornerstones of both professions, and anything that teaches children how to fail productively should not be overlooked. Games often allow for customization based on the player’s interests. This not only serves to maintain player’s immersion and emotional investment in the game, but can also afford players the opportunity to select the difficulty of the game based on their skill level and comfort (Gee, 2007, p. 5). This is a quality that is often absent in traditional science and math education, but it is crucially important to impart on students the idea that there are a multitude of paths to the “correct” solution in any given problem, and that personal flair doesn’t need to be abhorred in the design process.

The above principles impart a sense of agency in the player, the feeling that they are in charge and have ownership of their learning and their progress (p. 6). Highly successful schools have been shown to strive for student agency in similar ways (Rutledge, et al., 2015), by attempting to have students take on different perspectives, learn about their world through active participation and risk taking, and approach problems and engage with their surroundings in ways that appeal to their uniquenesses and individualities.

Games tend to employ well-ordered problems, so the lessons learned throughout the game build on each other, and difficulty gradually increases (Gee, 2007, p. 6). As they become familiar with this style of problem structuring, they can begin to see basic problems for what they are, as building blocks for tackling more complex challenges, as well as the underlying structure of the the game system itself. This exemplifies what learning scientists call Knowledge in Pieces (diSessa, 1988), the view that the transition from intuitive knowledge to scientific understanding involves a structuralization and systematicity of concepts, not simply the acquisition of new facts. Through a cycle of Challenge and Consolidation, games then allow players to tackle particular type of challenge until it becomes routine, then modifies or reframes that challenge in new and interesting ways, requiring the player to rethink their solutions to apply them in novel ways (Gee, 2007, p. 6). This sort of thinking developed by gamers, applying first-principles concepts to novel situations and the big picture, is a major theme in STEM education as well. Games typically give the player information just in time and allows them to access information on demand (p. 7). Gamers get accustomed to not knowing everything, or not being able to do everything, right off the bat,they get comfortable knowing that either the game will supply it, or that they can look it up when it is needed. This can be excellent training for STEM learners in how and when to ask for help, and the value of knowing where to find help, support, or reference when needed. Information and meanings in games are situated in the context of the game world and the goals of the player’s identity, allowing for better retention and understanding by the player (p.7). Players learn to retain facts and skills in games not because of their merit in isolation, but because of their relation to other facts and skills, and the bigger picture of the game world. This interactive valuation of knowledge is similar to situated cognition theory (Scott et. al, 2007), a backbone of inquiry-based learning (p. 45-46).

Because of the previous four principles, well designed games are pleasantly frustrating in that they remain constantly towards the upper limit of what the player is capable of (Gee, 2007, p. 7). Gamers, and hopefully STEM students, can become comfortable with the knowledge that though they don’t know everything or have all the skills they might need to complete a problem, they do have access to resources when they need it, some skills and information will be given to them just in time, and, most importantly, that the problems they face are doable, even if they are at the very edge of what the player or student is currently capable of.

Games are inherently about relationships between game objects, because everything is situated in the greater context of the game world, players must engage in systems thinking to fully understand how to succeed (p. 8). Systems thinking, or understanding and interpreting events and processes as the result of many complex interactions between smaller events and processes, and its educational value is a much discussed topic in the learning sciences (Jacobson & Wilensky, 2009) and is critical to STEM education. Many games encourages players to explore, think laterally, and re-think goals, rather than just finding the simple, fast answer (Gee, 2007, p. 8). This kind of lateral thinking is essential for the kind of problem solving and creative thinking involved in STEM (Wak, 1997). Games engage players in the use of smart tools, one form of distributed knowledge. One aspect of gaming skill is understanding how the “tools” of the game (computer controlled characters for example) work and thinking laterally of novel ways to use them(Gee, 2007, p. 8). Some games also allow players to create their own tools or shortcuts based on their needs. In STEM education, we are also striving to have students use and create tools and technology effectively.

Multiplayer games can involve players acting as a member of a cross functional team, where each member has their own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities and must coordinate as a whole to be effective (Gee, 2007, p. 9). This can serve as excellent practice for STEM professions and activities, where problems are rarely dealt with in isolation, and individuals must rely on the unique skill sets brought to the table by their peers and collaborators. Finally, games allow for performance before competence. Players can act in the game world from the very start, and through their actions can gain competence at the skills the game requires of them. This contrasts with traditional education models, where competence is often required before students can start putting it to use in labs and projects(p. 10). Contemporary STEM education, on the other hand, tends to function similarly to gaming in that students are often given the opportunity to interact with concepts and practices as early as possible, as part of competence building, rather than as a result of it.

Schaffer et al. (2015) also noted the “effective social practices … and shared values” (p. 5) that games encourage, not only in-game in the case of multiplayer games, but in the shared social spaces that gamers create and inhabit outside of games to share strategies, insights, and fandom. Likewise, true 21st Century STEM learning happens not only within the scope of formalized school class time, but in the external discussions and sharing that happens online through forums, meme-sharing, and social media (Lombardi, 2007). From outside the classroom, these reinforce and recreate the social practices and shared values of students within the classroom.

A handful of research groups have been working on developing games for learning using these principles (Squire, 2015, Clark et al., 2015), and looking at the intricacies and efficacy of integrating gaming into formal education. This paper, on the other hand, will look at commercially developed games, also mindfully designed with the player’s cognition in mind. The following is an overview of 4 popular games played by students today and the ways they elicit good learning from their players using the principles reviewed above from Gee and Schaffer et al.. Perhaps others will develop curricula around these games, or games like them, but the humbler goal of this overview is to encourage teachers to engage their students in discussion about the games they play and how the ways of thinking they apply to in-game problem solving relate to the thinking and problem solving required of them in STEM practices.


Kerbal Space Program

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a computer game that sometimes toes the line between pleasantly frustrating and just downright impossible feeling. KSP is a spaceship simulator, where players design and build spacecraft from a staggering selection of parts including rocket engines, fuel tanks, thrusters, stage separators, wings, and much much more, each with fully simulated physical properties like mass and drag. Then the craft can be launched and piloted, entirely manually, in a simulated galaxy complete with a sun, planets, moons, and asteroids. Though there is a career mode, with budgets and missions to manage, KSP plays like a sandbox, where the player can try to achieve whatever they wish, though any success in the game comes after a long run of trial and error. KSP is a prime example of performance before competence as players can start attempting to fly their rockets within minutes, but only those who fully embrace failure, and learn from it, will ever make it far from the launch platform, let alone into orbit or on to other planets. After each failed flight, it’s either back to the hangar to tweak and customize designs to produce a craft capable of whatever it is the player is aiming for, or off to the internet to learn from the wealth of knowledge developed and put out by an active and healthy shared social community of gamers. The design of spacecrafts and the planning of missions requires deep systems thinking as players need to consider every little detail and its relation to the big picture. Craft design needs to consider things like how much fuel and what type of engines the craft will need, how depleted fuel tanks will be jettisoned during ascent, and where to place smart tools, utility parts like docking rings, solar panels, and landing gear. Mission planning engages the gamer in the process of creating for themselves well ordered problems, as the most lofty of goals, landing on a distant planet for example, involve completing a series of smaller goals, ie. launching the craft, achieving orbit, orbital transfer, and landing, which can be designed for and tackled one at a time.

In addition to the above ways KSP engages players in STEM thinking, another major boon to this game in relation to education is the obvious ties to curricular outcomes. Through playing the game and especially by accessing online resources made by KSP experts, players can gain a situated understanding of science topics such as force, speed and acceleration, projectile motion, orbital physics, forces and free-body diagrams, and aerodynamics and lift. Because of the richness of the simulation and the obvious implications in STEM education, a group of educators are working on a project called Kerbal Edu (TeacherGaming, 2014), a redesigned version of Kerbal Space Program built as a stand-alone curricular tool for teaching science and design. Kerbal Space Program has also been studied in relation to engineering design learning, and was shown to positively impact the design practices and attitudes of post-secondary engineering students (Ranalli & Ritzko, 2013). All this taken together leads to my view that Kerbal Space Program, as an instructional tool or casual pastime, can be a powerful force in many students’ STEM learning.


League of Legends, Dota 2, Heroes of the Storm

Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games have become a staple of the gaming industry in the last five years (Lockley, 2014). This genre of games includes the extremely popular games League of Legends (LoL), Dota 2, and Heroes of the Storm (HotS). Though there is much variety among MOBAs, they typically share similar structures. Players join up with other players online to form teams to play a match against another team. Matches are played on a map with each team controlling a home-base and half of the map. A series of lanes, or paths, connect the two bases. The goal is typically to destroy the other team’s home base, which is made difficult by defensive turrets along each path, and waves of relatively weak non-player creatures that spawn at each team’s base and make their way down each path. Each player controls a character that they choose at the beginning of each match. Characters range from a variety of roles and skills, from fragile damage dealers, to hard to kill defensive characters, to healers and other utility character, and each has their own unique set of abilities. Player must work together with their cross functional team to outplay the other team as they level up and customize their character’s traits and abilities to be able to take down the opposing defenses and ultimately the other team’s base.

MOBAs are typically won and lost by teams’ ability to effectively communicate. The orchestration of team-based tactics and strategies relies on each player’s understanding of the abilities and weaknesses of all of their team members and the characters played by their team members. It is exactly this kind of communication and coordination that is required in collaborative STEM practices, and MOBAs can provide a fun and engaging battleground to develop these skills. Of course, as these games are played online, often with players from anywhere in the world, respectful communication is not always encountered, but there are definitely opportunities in games like these for learning and understanding the power of effective communication. MOBAs also tend to generate shared social spaces outside of the game where players share strategies and develop collective understandings of what strategies and goals should and shouldn’t be valued in-game. Through forums, videos, and social media, these values become known and taken up across all players as the established “meta-game”, leading innovative players to explore, think laterally, and re-think ways of attacking the meta-game to gain advantage.

MOBA players represent a massive market share of gamers; as of 2014 League of Legends reported over 67 million players (Riot Games, 2014). Such a ubiquitous pastime as this, that engages participants in team-based, communication-reliant play is almost certain to impact students’ performance in collaborative practices in STEM programs. Activities in which students are given separate and unique tasks to collectively achieve some goal might lend some amount of familiarity to students who spend their pastime playing MOBA games. For example, in competitive team-based robotics programs like the FIRST Robotics Competition, groups of students often need to work separately on electronics, mechanical systems, and computer programming to produce one functioning robot. In this way, they are acting like members of a team in a MOBA game, each with their own set of skills and strengths. As in the games, communication between the separate units is critical as is a willingness to reach out to the vast bodies of technical knowledge on the internet to find solutions to problems. In fact, with around 75,000 participants worldwide (FIRST, 2016), these competitions might already be the MOBAs of STEM education.


Magic: The Gathering

Magic: the Gathering is a long-standing trading card game (TCG), produced by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) since 1992. In a game of Magic, each player brings to the game their own customized deck of Magic cards. These cards represent creatures, spells, and items to cast, and the resources to cast them with. Players go back and forth taking game actions and interacting in ways dictated by a lengthy and comprehensive set of rules to try to reduce their opponent’s life-points to zero. The game is played by more than 20 million people worldwide, both in traditional paper form and online, and there are thriving competitive and professional tournament circuits.

Magic is unique in that unlike traditional board and card games, where the pieces and rules are fixed in place, Magic is in a state of constant flux, along multiple axes, requiring deep systems thinking from the player to formulate paths to success. Players have agency over which cards they put in their deck, picking from thousands of different cards, and the skill of deckbuilding is equal parts creativity and criticality. This means that every game of Magic one plays could be radically different than the last. Further, four times a year, WotC releases a new set of cards, with new rules, mechanics, and themes. This opens up new possibilities for competitive and casual decks. As in the MOBAs described above, competitive decks are designed to operate in the context of what other styles of decks are getting played and putting up results, the meta-game. As new cards become available, and as deckbuilders find new, innovative ways to use existing cards, the metagame shifts, and competitive deckbuilders tweak their designs to follow these shifts by exploring alternatives, think laterally, re-thinking goals. All this is accomplished through a network of shared social spaces, through either online forums or in person at live events. It is possible that engaging in the Magic meta-game in these ways could help students feel more comfortable searching for and accessing outside resources and looking for alternate viewpoints in other contexts, such as their formal education.

Some attempts have been made to harness the potential educational value of the deckbuilding and social aspects of games like Magic (Turkay et al., 2012). Edge of Extinction (Strohm, 2015) is a recently developed collectible card game that involves the deckbuilding process and strategic gameplay of Magic in a context that promotes “ a greater understanding of wildlife and how everything in nature connects”.

Learning and Gaming

These three are just a few examples of the vast array of games that students are currently engaging in during their spare time. Within each of them it is possible to identify aspects that not only encourage, but also guide players towards modes of thought and problem solving that are very applicable outside of gaming and in STEM learning. Whether or not the skills and practices naturally transfer from gaming to education, and whether there are feasible ways of incorporating gaming into formal education still need further study, though as described above, some attempts have already been made. What is clear is that gaming, as a staple of the culture of our students, is here to stay, and there is certainly value in attempting to harness the voracity and tenacity with which gamers throw themselves at these challenging and complex problems. These attempts could take many forms. Teachers may try to find ways of integrating gaming within their lessons, or as supplemental exercises outside of school. The principles of engaging game design can be used in the design of lessons, activities, and courses themselves (Andersen, 2011). At the very base level, teachers can engage in discussion with their gamer students about the games that they play, the strategies they come up with and execute, and the ways they learn about the collective knowledge shared by other gamers in online discourse.



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