Every year, it seems increasingly difficult to predict what tomorrow’s workplace will look like. With the advent of each new technology—like AI, automation, VR/AR, and nanotechnology—comes economic shifts that demand different skills from employees and creates new challenges for both employers and educators. Working in tech and media for the past 20 years, I’ve seen some of these changes firsthand, and one thing has proven consistently true: Engagement is critical when learning new information and mastering new skills.
We know that dips in student engagement have dramatic effects on the metrics we care about: academic performance, social emotional learning (SEL), school climate, and attendance. Maintaining engagement becomes simultaneously more crucial and difficult as classrooms try to keep up with today’s fast-paced world.
I believe the answer has been in front of us this whole time: video games.
You may gasp, but gaming is a multi-billion-dollar industry for a reason. Good video games are incredibly effective at capturing our attention, converting extrinsic rewards into intrinsic motivation, and creating meaningful experiences. If we’re going to make school relevant to today’s students, we must learn to leverage play in new ways.
Here are some key insights we’ve gathered about the ways video games foster learning:
1. Games Fulfill Core Psychological Needs
Incorporating gaming into education doesn’t necessarily mean more screen time. Gamification—borrowing the motivating principles from games and applying them to a non-game setting—can rewire and bolster social dynamics in the classroom when properly implemented.
Games fulfill different core psychological needs. Kids play to explore and act freely, which speaks to their need for autonomy. They play for a sense of challenge (competency), social interaction, consistent feedback and more. These are all valuable components of rethinking the school experience and making it more effective.
We can’t walk away from technology use—not when it’s a mainstay of students’ daily lives and futures. But we can use the cultural relevance of games to blend their physical and virtual learning opportunities in ways that will empower students.
2. Games Make Us More Social
Companies like Google are finding that SEL skills are more important to students’ success than the mastery of STEM subjects alone. That’s a powerful reason to invest in teaching the whole child.
Games are often about collaboration, whether playing with another real-life player who’s on your team or navigating situations and problem-solving solutions in a storyline. A report from the Center for Online Education says that “students who played ‘pro-social’ games that promote cooperation were more likely than others to help out in real-life situations like intervening when someone is being harassed.”
This carries over into daily life in other ways, too. Brock University researchers found that “video game players, regardless of gender, reported higher levels of family closeness, activity involvement, attachment to school, and positive mental health.”
Here’s more proof: University of Glasgow researchers observed that playing video games improves communication, resourcefulness, and adaptability among undergraduates—all important competencies for our students to develop if they’re going to get ahead.
3. Good Games Improve Academic Performance
If a game is too easy or hard, it becomes demotivating. A good game knows how to keep us challenged and in our zone of proximal development—or flow. The book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” discusses how entering “flow” states makes us more productive. Actively fostering this state in our schools could have dramatic effects.
Don’t just take my word for it. Research published in the International Journal of Communication found that teenagers who played games performed better in math, reading, and science. The study’s author said games “appear to equip students to apply and sharpen knowledge learned in school by requiring them to solve a series of puzzles before moving to the next game level.”
Another study concluded that children in elementary school who played five or more hours of games a week performed better socially and academically than peers who did not.
4. Games Make It OK to Fail
Failure is a normal part of learning. But students are often afraid to fail in school because they’re worried about their grades, a permanent indicator of their performance. If we want students to be resilient and confident in taking on new challenges, then we need to teach them that it’s okay to fail. When a kid fails in a game, “game over” doesn’t mean they stop playing. They try again and learn how to fix their mistakes or employ different strategies.
Games also teach us to be critical thinkers. In her book “SuperBetter”, Jane McGonigal writes about how playing games encourages psychological strengths that can help us confront real-life changes in a positive way. These are critical skills our students need to thrive long-term.
5. Games Can Create Meaningful Experiences
There’s a reason most kids have played 10,000 hours of online games by the time they’re 21—which is about the same amount of time they’ve spent in middle and high school. Games are a compelling force, one that’s creating a positive culture. This mimics the solidarity and teamwork seen in physical sports, but at a much larger scale. With Pokémon Go, for example, players got excited to go out and work toward common goals. They were connected through a collective, shared experience.
At Classcraft, we regularly witness the power games have to transform the experience of learning. In education at large, the way we’ll succeed in navigating the changes ahead of us is by creating experiences in school that excite kids and make them genuinely want to be there.
We can’t afford not to.