New Understandings

Learning in video games has several key differences from learning as it often happens in school.

Goals:  tasks are not undertaken for their own sake, or to learn a skill.  They are part of a larger story or goal.

Feedback:  In school, marks are often perceived by students as being taken away.  If a perfect mark is 100%, then every mistake you make takes you farther away from your goal.  In a game, everything you do takes you closer to the goal.  You gain points until you level up, gain more points and level up again, and so on.

Failure:  Gamers expect that failure is part of the process.  A really big fail is even something to be admired, an ‘epic fail’.  For many students, failure is a source of shame.  At Quest to Learn, an attempt that is not fully successful is called an iteration, and is followed by the next iteration.   Game designers, in fact, have a saying that they live by.  Fail faster.  By failing early, you discover what can be changed to make a game better.

Assessment:  In video games, assessment is built into the game play.  In many games, players work together to reach a goal.  Players must be able to assess their own skills and their teammates’ and potential teammates’ skills in order to build a team that is likely to succeed.  Games give feedback as players complete tasks and reward them accordingly with points, levels, and hard challenges.  Some teachers, like C. Ross Flatt, use immersive games to allow students to learn and to show their learning.  Flatt’s game Galactic Mappers, challenges teams of students to create geologically diverse continents.  Flatt can observe and ask questions as students play, and see  not only their geography knowledge and skills, but critical thinking and teamwork as well.  see (, Feb 21, 2016).

At Quest to Learn, a school in New York that bases its learning on game design, students learn by finding challenges in the school, choosing whether or not to accept them and then building a team to attempt the challenge.  Students master competencies and level up by completing challenges.

An important thing that I learned about Quest to Learn is that it generates its learning experiences through a team that includes teachers and video game designers.  Different experience and points of view are necessary to create the rich learning experiences that the school offers.  Collaboration is valued not only for the students, but the staff as well, and the design of the immersive curriculum requires a number of people.

Video game designers, because their livelihood relies on producing engaging experiences, have learned how to draw a person in to an experience and keep them there.  Gamers no longer read instruction manuals, and many games no longer even have manuals.  The skills and information about how to play a game must be discoverable within seconds of beginning to play a game, and the learning process must be paced to keep the player interested.

The environment of the video game invites exploration.  The positioning and context of elements give the player clues to what to do and how to do it.

The first Super Mario Bros game, in its first screen and first few seconds, introduced the player to all the main moves -jumping, moving right, hitting bricks from below, and stomping enemies- by the design of the screen.  Although the character stays in the middle of the screen for most of the game, he starts in the bottom left corner.  This invites the player to move right, which is the direction the character moves almost all the time.  This is explained in detail on the Youtube channel Extra Credits at

I also want to acknowledge that there are game elements that would not enrich our teaching.  Some games use behaviour modification techniques that create player engagement through simple reward systems.  These games pass over thoughtfulness and richness in favour of the equivalent of giving out sparkly stickers.  The purpose of these games is often to keep players buying small in-game items to create a steady revenue stream.  Gamers call these games Skinner boxes.



There are communities who create and curate sites of video games that are useful for education.  One of these sites is called GlassLab.

The Wise Education Hub is another.