Can Games Be an Effective Teaching Aid?

Can Games Be an Effective Teaching Aid?

You might have to dig back in your memory a ways before you realize it, but if you grew up with video games, it’s very likely they influenced your schooling and education. Sure, we can recall thinking about games through those long, boring hours in class, but those thoughts weren’t necessarily segregated from the “useful” stuff we learned from eight until three every weekday. Likewise, all of us tackled at least one creative writing assignment using familiar characters. Your sixth grade English teacher probably had no idea who Cloud Strife was or why he’d blow up “Mako reactors,” but nonetheless that’s the story that staggered across the newsprint bundle you turned in.

Barring out-and-out plagiarism, it’s healthy for kids to write out these adventures. True, video games don’t always employ the most subtle of storytelling techniques, but they’re literary gold for a kid who’s new to the idea of a grand adventure starring a hero who’s trying to find his identity in a crazy old world. That’s not to say childhood classics should be chucked out in favor of Square-Enix’s latest, but since video games put us in the driver’s seat, their stories bind to us. In turn, we learn about and are driven to read the pieces of literature that inspired the stories of certain games. Without “The Mist” by Stephen King, there’d be no Half-Life or Silent Hill. Without Vonnegut’s “Sirens of Titan” or “The Notebook” by Agota Kristof, Shigesato Itoi might never have been inspired to develop the beloved SNES classic Earthbound or its long clamored-for sequel on the GBA, Mother 3.

James Paul Gee, a linguist at Arizona State University, believes that institutions like school have leeched the fun out of learning, which should be an enjoyable experience akin to eating and sex. For that reason, Gee says learning should be interactive instead of passive, which would make video games and games in general the ultimate learning tool.

Unorthodox, to be sure. So what do teachers themselves believe?

Stuffy old Miss Bird who taught you math in grade three probably wouldn’t approve. But as younger teachers enter the hallways, some are beginning to realize that games, kids, and education are a natural mix. Michael Abbot of The Brainy Gamer uses video games as a teaching tool. And Kimberly Swanner, who taught English in a Japanese cram school from 2007 through 2008, was in a position where teaching through games in general proved very necessary.

“Students attend juku [cram school] after they have had a full school day in order to get further education on a particular subject,” she recalls. “By the time I’d get to see these kids, they’d all be pretty wiped out from a long day of their regular classes, so I had to make my class seem like a fun and exciting place to be while making sure they learned English at the same time.

“This involved a lot of game playing. I’d do a lot of quiz show-type games where they’d have to answer the question correctly to gain the opportunity to throw magnetic ninja stars for points, or do relays in the classroom that involved speed and accuracy of making sentences based on pictures on cue cards, or manipulate other games (like Jenga) to make the students think on their own and produce sentences using the vocabulary and grammar they were familiar with. It was really great to see their English abilities growing while they had fun at the same time.”

Swanner didn’t have the chance to apply video games to her own classes, but she’s seen success stories throughout her years of teaching. The trick, she says, is finding a way to accommodate all the students in a classroom. “[With] advances in technology and with more and more schools becoming better technologically equipped, it really isn’t all that out of the ordinary to see a classroom of students using remotes at their desk to participate in games via an electronic white board.”

Slowly, schools are shedding paper and pencils in favor of computers and iPads. While undergoing this transition, school boards should keep in mind that kids are far less bleary-eyed on a rainy Monday morning if they have a video game to look forward to.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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