On Video Games for Teaching and Learning


Grant Potter asked a question on Mastodon, about how video games are being used for teaching and learning. I’ve done some work on this for my dissertation, and wanted to repurpose bits from a few chapters in response to Grant’s question. I’ll be writing more about my dissertation work, but am still in “pause and recover” mode after finishing it…

Science Theatres 140, as created by students at the University of Calgary

In the dissertation, I explored how the disciplines of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) intersect, using the specific ways in which we design, study, and evaluate video games as the point of integration. From this perspective, there are three categories that describe the use of video games to support teaching and learning:

  1. Gamification.
  2. Teaching and learning with games.
  3. Game design as a model for course design.

Grant’s question points to #2: Teaching and learning with games. This wasn’t the focus of my dissertation, as I was exploring #3: Game design as a model for course design, but I did touch on it a bit.

“Video-game designers did not become familiar with these learning principles from the learning sciences, nor did the learning sciences use video games as a basis for research. Rather, this is a matter of convergent development. Video games are largely just problem-solving spaces; if people could not learn them well and in an engaging fashion, the companies that make the games would go out of business. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that game designers have hit on – and even innovated on – many of the learning principles that contemporary research in the learning sciences has argued work for deep and effective human learning.”

  • James Paul Gee (2009)1 [p.11]

From my dissertation:

This concept of convergent development explains how video games have come to incorporate concepts that contribute to effective teaching and learning, and why research methods designed to formally analyze video games may be adapted to understand what is happening in a classroom session. Convergent development between video games and learning spaces also reinforces the compatibility of the two disciplines. This compatibility has the potential to shift implicit overlap by making the connections explicit, enabling formal integration and enhancing understanding in both HCI and SoTL.

One area where video games differ from classroom teaching is in the voluntary nature of video games, compared with the power dynamics observed in institutional contexts. Students may have difficulty choosing not to participate in classroom activities – if they want to graduate, they want to pass the course, therefore they are compelled to participate. Video games do not have a similar power dynamic – a player can choose to stop playing the game at any time. Looking at teaching and learning through a lens of video games also places an emphasis on agency and control.

Video games are an explicitly designed environment, with actions and interactions carefully considered and enabled through software design. In teaching and learning, much of this is done implicitly, but it happens nonetheless. So, the overlap between the ways in which video games and classroom experiences are designed is much stronger than it may appear. It is the emphasis on agency and control that can make video games so compelling to support teaching and learning - students can take action in video games and virtual worlds, in ways that may not be feasible or safe in (or outside of) the classroom.

After I’ve recovered a bit, I’ll write more about my dissertation, and the framework that I developed to describe the ways in which course design and teaching and learning can be described using concepts adapted from the study of video games. In the meantime…

First, a completely-not-exhaustive cursory list of some academic-y resources:

  • Kinesiology - teaching physical literacy, sport, and rehabilitation
  • Computer Science
  • Language learning
  • Theatre and performance
    • Parker, J. (2012, March). Virtual Theatre: A Practical Introduction. In Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 3737-3742). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).
  • Physics
  • Geoscience
  • Designing games as learning
    • Boller, S., & Kapp, K. (2017). Play to learn: Everything you need to know about designing effective learning games. Association for talent development.
    • Harel, I., & Papert, S. (1990). Software Design as a Learning Environment. Interactive Learning Environments, 1(1), 1–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/1049482900010102
    • Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. The Harvester Press.
    • Papert, S. (1982). Mindstorms, Kinder, Computer und Neues Lernen. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-0348-5357-6
    • Papert, S. (2006). Teaching Children Thinking. Innovations in Education & Training International, 9(5), 245–255. https://doi.org/10.1080/1355800720090503
    • Hayes, E., Gee, J. P., Games, I. A., Torres, R., Peppler, K., Kafai, Y., Pinkard, N., Klopfer, E., Scheintaub, H., Rogers, M., Forssell, K., Martin, C. K., Barron, B., Eugene, W., Daily, S., Acholonu, U., Takeuchi, L., Walter, S., & Briggs, K. (2008). New Perspectives on Learning Through (Game) Design. In G. Kanselaar, V. Jonker, P. A. Kirschner, & F. J. Prins (Eds.), Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference for the Learning Sciences – ICLS 2008 (Vol. 3, pp. 253–257). International Society of the Learning Sciences.
  • General “Games for teaching and learning” resources
    • Fosnot, Catherine Twomey, and Randall Stewart Perry. “Constructivism: A psychological theory of learning.” Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice 2 (1996): 8-33.
    • Gee, J. P. (2007). Good video games+ good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy. Peter Lang.
    • Gee, J. P. (2009). New digital media and learning as an emerging area and" worked examples" as one way forward. Mit Press.
    • Gros, B. (2007). Digital games in education: The design of games-based learning environments. Journal of research on technology in education, 40(1), 23-38.
    • Salen, K., & Tekinbaş, K. S. (Eds.). (2008). The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning. MIT press.
    • Walter, G. A., Marks, S. E., & James, J. E. (1981). Experiential learning and change: Theory design and practice.

Look at the age of those articles! Using video games for teaching and learning is not a new thing. It is foundational, a core part of what teaching and learning is all about. Sure, the video part may be new-ish, and the technology is advancing rapidly, but video games have been used for teaching and learning since the first video games were developed over 50 years ago. Minecraft. Sim-City. Oregon Trail. PLATO. This stuff goes waaaay back…

And some non-academic-y resources and examples:

Almost 20 years ago, Michael Magee was working in our group at the Learning Commons (long before it became the Teaching & Learning Centre and then the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning). He built a version of a temple in Yemen in a video game engine, to allow students to move through the buildings and interact with NPCs who could share info about the culture. Unfortunately, he didn’t publish anything from that work, but it stuck as a great example of how game engines could enable learning beyond simply playing a game.

Years later, and Ubisoft has done similar things with their blockbuster open-world game Assassin’s Creed. When Notre Dame burned in 2014, Ubisoft provided free access to their game Assassin’s Creed Unity, which includes Notre Dame in its game environment. In 2023, Ubisoft released a “Discovery Tour” series that lets players/students explore several time periods, and their game engine provides an incredible sense of “being there”.

Notre Dame cathedral, recreated in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity

Notre Dame cathedral, recreated in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider possible issues of using a video game designed to provide the experience of time-travelling assassins as a platform for teaching and learning…

While commercial video games are being used for teaching - the Ubisoft series is the most recent and shiny example of this - the more interesting and impactful video game experiences may be those that are developed specifically for use in an academic setting. Platforms such as https://cards.ucalgary.ca let instructors - and students - create simple game-based simulations of patient interactions, and to share them with each other. Cards has been used as an open-access patient simulation game by instructors, students, and organizations across North America.

The geoscience team at UCalgary is using a video game engine to provide field experiences to students so they can explore geological formations without having to travel to remote sites. Is it a “video game”? Not in the pure sense - but it uses video game technologies to support teaching and learning.

Because of the strong overlap between video games and teaching-and-learning, others are working on exploring this connection. Steve Mintz published an article in Inside Higher Ed earlier this week, coincidentally describing much of what I came up with in my dissertation… He provides a few more examples of different (mostly historically-focused) video games that are (or can be) used to teach.


  1. Gee, J. P. (2009). New digital media and learning as an emerging area and “worked examples” as one way forward. The MIT Press. ↩︎


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Last updated: March 26, 2023