Video Games in Education: How Gaming Can Sharpen the Mind

Last updated: 12/31/2023
11 minutes read

Humans spend 3 billion hours playing video games each week. That’s a lot of time. But is that time wasted or is there more to gaming than meets the eye?

There's certainly an argument for the latter. The importance of video games in education is becoming increasingly obvious.

As well as gaming becoming the preferred pastime for millions, there is more and more research showing that video games are educational.

Before we talk about video games in education, we need to understand the reason behind gaming’s surge in popularity.

Why are video games so popular? Let’s pull back the curtain and use science to explain why people love spending so much time behind a screen.

Video Games & Psychological Needs

Video games – particularly video games in education - hit on a lot of our psychological needs.

It has turned "gamification" into a science with a lot of psychology to back it up.

Gamification is the application of game elements, like earning points and achievements, to non-game settings and it's now being used to explore the potential of video games in education.

People are drawn to games for the following reasons:

  • They give us a clearly defined goal. In the real world the decision to pursue a goal, and deciding which goals to pursue, is left entirely up to us, but in the game world we don’t need to decide - the game tells us which goals to target.
  • They hit on a deep-seated need to feel productive. They make us feel like we’re making progress towards our goals even if they exist in a purely digital world. That’s an important feeling to foster and can be applied to the concept of video games in education.
  • They shoot bursts of dopamine through our brains by rewarding us with badges, achievements, or new gear with every achievement.
  • They typically start off simple and get progressively harder. This makes it easier for us to dive into a state of flow. Flow is when we’re so intensely focused on a task that time seems to melt away.

Some games also have a social aspect, which can draw people in and keep them around to spend time with their new online friends.

The glue that holds all the above things together is the simple fact that gaming is fun.  It’s challenging, rewarding, and entertaining all at the same time.

However, we can also say that video games are educational.

Gamification (gaming in education) is now a science with a lot of psychology to back it up

Using games to teach kids

School isn’t inherently fun. That may not be an earth-shattering revelation but it’s important because it should be.

We learn best when we’re fully engaged - when it doesn’t feel like we’re learning, but simply enjoying ourselves.

Educating or Lecturing?

Think about it: playing is the natural way children learn. We use song and dance to teach the alphabet, and fun noises to teach kids that the cow says “moo”.

We let kids play with arts and crafts to learn colors, basic physics, and to better their hand-eye coordination.

Then, somewhere along the way, education becomes lecturing. You’re talked at for eight hours a day, five days a week, then expected to regurgitate the information on a page.

Straight A's

To make matters worse, you’re pressured to get a good grade, and if you don’t, you’re forced to stay behind while your friends move on without you.

Can you imagine the effect that must have on a person? We’re not here to talk about faults in the educational system but about gaming in education.

Gaming - being inherently fun and engaging - has the ability to teach a great deal of skills. Video games in education have the ability to teach math, English, history, humanities, problem-solving, physics. The list goes on.

Educational Video Games

To help explain, American game designer Jane McGonigal has spoken about how gaming can make the world a better place.

In a nutshell, Jane has created games specifically to prove they work to foster collaboration and build real-world skills. She believes that video games can help us solve global problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, conflict, and obesity.

This is because games make it easy for us to focus intensely on extremely complex and challenging problems.

Education is Complex & Relevant to Our Environment

Furthermore, video games in education - and games in general - are poised to be the solution to problems we all confront when pursuing higher education and entering the job market.

The educational system that we grew up in was created to train people to become workers who would stay at one company for the majority of their lives, then retire. The world simply isn’t like that anymore.

New Generations, New Working Habits

It’s estimated that the average American worker will have had over 10 different jobs by the time they turn 45, a number that's likely to rise as new and different kinds of jobs are created and people increasingly struggle to figure out what they want to do in life.

Additionally, there will be an entirely different set of jobs available in the future, as advances in AI, robotics, and technology kick old jobs to the curb and bring new challenges.

Video games in education, being naturally engaging and complex, can teach a future generation how to hold jobs where they’ll be required to work with and on the robots of the future.

So now you understand how video games work as an educational tool. But how can they help us in the real world?

Let’s take a look at some practical examples of video games in education.

Video Games in Education: Real-World Examples

Minecraft is a game where you build a world around you by mining, combining, and placing resources.

The world is set on a square grid, so it takes planning and basic mathematics to create what gamers call “builds”.

Like other video games in education, Minecraft has been used to help teach coding, math, and collaboration. However, it was taken to the next level in 2016.

Playing Minecraft in School

Mojang partnered with Microsoft to create a version of Minecraft designed specifically for use in schools: Minecraft Education Edition.

Basically, it was built with certain modifications that make it easier to learn to code and collaborate with classmates.

What’s really exciting is the price - it costs a mere $5 per student per year, and schools get the first year free when they upgrade their Windows operating systems.

This means it’s affordable and practical to use - a major concern for budgeters in schools. Minecraft isn’t the only example of gaming in education.

Contemporary Issues Addressed in Educational Video Games

There are others, like SimCityEdu, that teach students skills relevant to life in the 21st century.

For example, SimCity added the “pollution challenge” feature to teach players about science and its complex relationship with the environment.

SimCity also teaches children about urban planning, resource management, and a number of other things. However, there’s something even more exciting that’s evolving the role gaming plays in education.

There are entire schools being built around the concept of video games in education as a teaching method.

The Next Level of Video Games in Education: Gamifying the Classroom

A non-profit called the Institute of Play was founded in 2007 by a group of game designers in New York City.

They design schools, educator training programs, curricula, and even corporate training seminars - all with the goal of creating learning experiences rooted in the principles of game design.

They don’t just use video games in education - they use games of all kinds. They call these schools their “Quest to Learn”.

Video Games in Education: Learning More than Simple Trivia

There’s even better news: The Institute of Play isn’t the only institution using gaming in education. Codecademy uses gamification to teach students how to code.

And there are others like them as well. Duolingo uses gamification to teach new languages.

One final example: Video games have the potential to be used to train surgeons. Robotic surgery is the practice of using robotics and machinery to help surgeons with complex tasks, like cutting a tumor out of a brain.

As you can imagine, this requires a high level of precision and hand-eye coordination, along with a steady hand and nerves of steel.

According to a study by Kilic and others at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, shooting a character in the head while wall-running in first-person-shooter games might help the next generation of surgeons save lives in the real world.

Much like videogames, robotic surgery controls require the use of both hands and require operators to monitor their activities on a screen. Surgeons are trained to operate these machines on simulators.

Another study in 2007 also found that playing videogames right before surgical drills improved doctors’ skills. Apparently, this stuff really works.

So why isn’t gaming in education more widely accepted? Why do people still scoff at the idea of video games in education?

Setbacks to Video Games in Education

Everything we’ve talked about so far has left gaming poised to lead the next major shift in education. It seems like it can solve many inherent flaws in the system, but that’s only one side of the argument.

The major problem with using video games in education is our sheer lack of understanding. There just isn’t a lot of strong research suggesting the benefits (yet).

“For all of the enthusiasm around games and learning, very few studies have examined whether video games improve classroom performance and academic achievement,” says Emma Blakey, a PhD researcher in developmental psychology at the University of Sheffield in the UK.

“Because we know memory is a crucial cognitive skill for school learning, practice at playing games that challenge memory should, in theory, lead to improvements in classroom behavior and academic skills,” she says. “But only additional research can say if that notion is correct.”

Besides that, there’s the amount of training that must be done to help teachers use video games in education effectively.

Indeed, if you’ve ever taught your grandparents how to use a smartphone, you’ll understand the difficulties of teaching something to someone who’s been doing things the same way for years.

“Digital games cannot be treated like the latest quick fix to the education system,” says Brian Waniewski, former managing director of the Institute of Play. “They can seem like a godsend, a next-generation digital textbook that further reduces the need for human resources,” he notes.

“Yet games alone will not make schools more efficient, replace teachers, or serve as an educational resource that can reach an infinite number of students.”

Educating through Video Games is Expensive

There’s also the problem of cost. Video games require expensive tools, like tablets, computers, access to strong Wi-Fi. Then there’s the cost of the games themselves.

Affordable games like Minecraft Education Edition, along with the lowering cost of technology, are working to fix this issue, but it is still a problem.

Finally, there’s the argument that video games in education are a distraction. That is a valid argument - games can be distracting if students are allowed to do as they please.

However, that doesn’t detract from the idea that video games are educational. In reality, video games in education need to be properly implemented. With the proper guidance, students wouldn’t get distracted.

Video games are educational if used right

Are Video Games in Education a Positive Thing?

Gaming in education certainly has its positives and, as technology improves, it’s going to become more prominent. In fact, we can look to the events of 2020 and the impact COVID-19 had on education. With schools locked down, remote teaching became the norm.

A survey carried out in the UK by YoungMinds found that 74% of teachers felt that closing schools had a negative impact not just on students’ education but their mental health.

Video games can’t fill that void, but there was a rise in gaming activity during the pandemic.

Playing time increased by 1.5 hours during lockdown and 14% of people discovered video games for the first time, according to an Ipsos Mori study.

The Effects of Increased Play

The research also shows that 29% of gamers reported that video games had a positive effect on their mental health during lockdowns. We know that video games in education have plenty of benefits.

Therefore, if lockdowns were to ever close down classrooms again, there could be a role for video games in combatting mental health issues.

Although it would be irresponsible to encourage overuse, some gaming time could help keep students in a positive frame of mind. This would counteract the negative implications of lockdowns, as noted by teachers.

Video Games Shapren Students' Minds

And, in turn, it would help keep students’ minds sharp. We know there are skills that gamers can use in education and vice versa.

So, while gaming wouldn’t be a complete solution to lockdown learning, it could be useful when deployed correctly. Based on this, video games in education clearly have primary and secondary benefits, particularly in certain situations.

Video games in education still have many obstacles to overcome

The Future of Video Games in Education

The future for kids in school now and for future generations is looking promising. Video games in education, such as Minecraft and SimCityEdu, are paving the way for a new genre of educational games.

Funding from major companies like Microsoft, along with a general acceptance of the idea of using games in the classroom, promises an exciting future.

Gaming in education will see major advancements in the coming years. As more research is published and teachers become aware of the benefits of video games in education, new ways of incorporating them into the curriculum will emerge.

And, if nothing else, at least MMOs can teach you how to survive a post-apocalyptic world.