Games & education – a contrarian view

My PS3-Games

These are not scripts or courses in waiting…

<image by Thomas Durka>

It is almost a truism to say that games represent a bold new future for education. The Chancellor of the OU, and one of the wisest people around, Lord Puttnam, has often said as much: "The video game is probably the most powerful learning tool that's ever been created, and if we can only get the software right, as it were 'connect up the pieces', we could create something utterly remarkable." 

And the linkages seem irresistible – games create a structured environment where the player has to learn certain procedures to progress. They are given tips, have the opportunity to practice and have regular rewards. Most attractively, they are highly motivating and engaging, with players devoting hours to solving the problems presented to them. The player learns through trial and experimentation, sometimes collaborating with others, in a structured, scaffolded manner. If that doesn't scream 'Education!' at you then you're not paying attention. And, there has been some success in applying game based approaches to learning.

But whenever the logic seems irrefutable, and everyone is lining up to testify how great it is, then a contrarian tick kicks in for me. It's probably because I've read too much Hitchens, but I want to take an opposing view, just to see how it pans out.

So here are my reservations about games as the future of education:

Discipline suitability – although there are open games, such as World of Warcraft, many games have a very definite structure. You have to follow the narrative, and this may work well for some well structured disciplines, but not for more discursive ones.

Creepy treehouse – games are fun and motivating precisely because they are about imaginary worlds where the player is an elven wizard, or a Miami based drug dealer, or a premiership football manager. Making games about the actual stuff we need to learn about removes all of this, and is an example of creepy treehouse syndrome. When my daughter was young we used to occasionally watch Clifford the Big Red Dog, which always ended with Clifford being read a story, at the end of which the girl would pontificate 'Reading is fun!'. Even as a three year old, my daughter could spot this as a sledgehammer message. I think 'let's play a game about quantum physics' would set off similar alarm bells in any savvy 20 year old.

Inappropriate pedagogy – I think this one is less convincing, as you can have constructivist or collaborative approaches in games, but many of the conventional game engines are based around a fairly Skinnerian reinforcement principle. We would need to be wary about adopting this wholesale.

A misleading metaphor – my main concern though is that the seeming similarities between education and gaming mask more fundamental differences. My argument for this lies in observing another industry that has been seduced by the apparent similarities with games, namely the film industry. Adapting games has proven irresistible for the film industry and the logic again seems sound: games have an existing fan base; they have an easy narrative which can be adapted; they are highly visual; much of the design, look, feel, and characterisation has been done already; they're modern and sexy.

Yet, almost without fail, game adaptations have been disasters, artistically speaking. I don't know if they've returned a profit, and if they have, few have gone onto be the real blockbusters the producers would have hoped. Yet they persist because of that damn irresistible logic. Tomb Raider, Doom, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Street Fighter, Prince of Persia – none of these have blazed standards for cinematic achievement. Look at this list of games that have been made into films and tell me of one that you'd bother to see a second time (or even a first).

The danger is that this reliance on games (and comic books, but that's another argument), creates a laziness in film making and a loss of their own creativity. Hollywood (and it is almost exclusively Hollywood that is obsessed with games) has, I would argue, made a mapping error and transferred the wrong elements across from games, and missed what is fundamentally different about films.

Games require less characterisation than films because the player participates in the game. In a movie this participation needs to be achieved through engagement and empathy with the characters. When you transfer a game to a film this lack of character creates a fundamental weakness.

In addition they operate over different time frames – a game that only lasted two hours would be considered light, and a film that endured for forty hours would be a tough sell. In games this prolonged engagement allows the player to become involved, to invest in the game. In a film this has to be compressed so all you are left with is the surface story and action.

Lastly they underestimate the discrimination of their customers. People who play Tomb Raider are quite capable of seeing romcoms or dramas. What they want from movies and what they want from games are quite different.

I wonder if the same misapplication of gaming is happening in education as it has in film. There are interesting things being done with games, letting town planners play with Sim City seems a great thing to do, and I'm sure people can point me at lots of great examples. But I think it's worth noting these reservations and thinking of games as useful in some contexts, not the great educational utopia they are often proclaimed to be.


  1. As an educational games designer I am happy to hear some sensible thought on the matter! People are too eager to just crowbar educational and games together without thinking it through.

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