Press Start: Playing Video Games to Learn

Despite being associated with such words as “aggression,” “violence,” and “sexism,” video games have found their way into elementary, secondary, and even college classrooms (for many good reasons). Some games are certainly deserving of criticism, and this is one reason why educators should carefully select the games they use with students. Still, many ask questions relating to the “why?” factor. Why play video games? This question can be branched out further to ask what video games can teach us.

In my experience, these questions are frequently asked which is why I would like to lay out some of the reasons I think video games have value as learning tools. In my composition course founded on video games, I used two games in particular: The Oregon Trail and Minecraft. I would like to address the “why?” factor by discussing how my students reacted to playing these texts in class and through my general observations of video games and students. Ultimately, I hope to establish some food for thought regarding video games so that we might start asking “why not?”

Rhetoric, Meaning, & Discourse

In playing Minecraft, which was used as the primary text for a second-semester writing course I taught, my students were encouraged to explore, analyze, and discuss how the game and, by extension, other games and gaming communities make meaning.

Minecraft worked especially well as a text because it leaves so much up to players. The game never tells players what to do. Instead, players have the freedom and flexibility to engage in a variety of activities such as mining, exploring, farming, and building. Perhaps in spite of this freedom, Minecraft and its players create meaning in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways as opposed to other video games which are more obvious in their meanings.

Again, Minecraft is unique because players are essentially dropped into a virtual playground where they create their own meaning with the tools and functions provided. My students built houses, left messages on signs, created traps, fought monsters, offered each other refuge from the darkness, and created symbols such as the iconic Pokémon ball. My point is that players of video games don’t only create meaning through verbal or written communication but also through the actions and functions they perform. This is especially evident in Minecraft because it allows for and encourages players to form their own narratives instead of directly imposing a narrative.

The rhetorical nature of video games goes beyond pixels and coding and filters into their respective communities such as the various online Minecraft communities that have grown throughout the years. Minecraft players are notorious in that they share ideas, creative designs, and knowledge regarding in-game content and features with each other. While it is true that players can start playing Minecraft on their own and without any outside guidance, many turn to guide books and websites such as minecraft.wikia.com for information regarding the game (Minecraft is one of the few notable games that does not provide a tutorial to describe gameplay mechanics and features). These interactions pull players together into discourse communities where information, values, and specialized lingo is shared. 

If the above is not enough to convince you of the rhetorical nature and value of video games, consider the following. I have made reference to James Paul Gee before and his ideas concerning semiotic domains which include “any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g, oral or written language, images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts, etc.) to communicate distinctive types of meanings” (19). In turn, video games are complex texts which create meaning through their pixels, symbols, characters, narratives, and even the very actions and functions they allow players to perform and participate in. This is partly why I had my students work with video games as texts. A Handbook to Literature states that “Traditionally, a text is anything isolated for attention, especially a piece of writing” (549). This definition goes on to say “a ‘text’ is an open process with which one can interact creatively” (549). According to that definition and Gee, texts are not limited to the written word, texts are interactive, and images, sounds, and symbols make meaning. Sounds like video games are rhetorical texts to me. 🙂

Design

Rhetorically speaking, understanding video game design is important for a number of reasons. As a highly consumed medium, video games are shaping a landscape of perceptions regarding how content is delivered through interactive modalities. The same principles that guide video game design may also be applied to other mediums, specifically online platforms.

However, analysis of such design qualities and principles may also prove beneficial for students of visual and digital rhetoric. If people are becoming more and more frequently acclimated to the delivery of content in digital and visual mediums, how might this impact print? What sorts of hybrid mediums will be created? What do these designs say about the people using and consuming them? And how might these designs be manipulated?

Stories & Roleplay (History & Culture)

Just like books, movies, and music, video games often tell significant stories–many of which present themes and ideas ripe for analysis and reflection. The stories told by video games often relate to the human condition and, at times, can push players into and through narratives and experiences of both comfort and discomfort. Such experiences are invaluable since they can introduce players to places, situations, and people they may otherwise never interact with. And, video games whose content directly relates to players can potentially help players heal and cope, which is one reason why roleplaying can be so powerful. Through roleplay, players can virtually try on and see the world via new perspectives such as those presented in That Dragon, Cancer and Firewatch.

In The Oregon Trail, players take on the role of  a 19th century pioneer traversing the American wilderness in search of a suitable settlement in Oregon. Players must select who to travel with and manage supplies while constantly being presented with decisions regarding their journey. The game was incredibly popular as an education tool in elementary schools for 20+ years. Part of its success is that it allows players to experience something that they may have some knowledge of but may not fully understand: the trials of crossing a dangerous land to find a place to call home. The concept is simple, but much can be learned from the various iterations of the 1971 title. 

My own college students had fun playing the game even though our primary purpose was to analyze its rhetoric and the stereotypes and assumptions presented in the 1992 The Oregon Trail Deluxe edition. They were able to pinpoint what younger students could learn from the game and exactly where the game fell short. 

The Assassin’s Creed, Civilization, and Age of Empires games could be used to discuss history and conflict, Phoenix Wright could be used to explore the responsibilities and boundaries of attorneys, and The Walking Dead could be used to analyze moral and ethical dilemmas of life and death. The beauty of using video games is that, with a flexible and creative learning environment, the possibilities are endless. 

Creativity

This might be the most obvious category in this list, but many games encourage players to be creative. Kerbal Space Program, Minecraft, Terraria, Scribblenauts, and building simulators like SimCity are especially well-known for the level of creativity they allow players. I don’t think much needs to be said regarding the importance of creative and flexible thinking. With the right video game, students can have access to safe spaces where creativity is encouraged and failure comes at little cost (and can even be incentivized).

Current Issues

Not surprisingly, video games often tackle current issues through their themes and content. For example, more and more games are willing to make mention of and even include LGBTQ characters. More clearly needs to be done in terms of gender and sexual representation, but even these small steps are worthy of analysis since they indicate cultural shifts. Video games have also tackled topics relating to terrorism, genetic mutation, war, disease, politics, and various issues involving ethical and moral intricacies.

Just as an educator might select a novel, short story, film, or news article for its content, the same can be said for video games and the timeliness of their content.

Critical Thinking & (Collaborative) Problem Solving

When my students first started playing Minecraft, I set up some lab times for students, specifically newer players, to get acquainted with the game and receive help if they wanted it. During these lab times I mostly observed my students and provided help only when needed. 

During these lab times, I noticed students becoming more comfortable with the game and each other. Some students learned together and, as they learned, began sharing and teaching what they knew to help others. Students worked out problems and talked out ideas while figuring out how Minecraft worked and how they could manipulate its digital world.

I think it’s safe to say that most games require players to think critically in order to solve puzzles, beat bosses, and even to build the best character. In order to play The Witness, players must recognize the intricacies and rules of each puzzle type, and multiplayer games and games with co-op modes provide regular opportunities for collaborative play so players can beat especially hard bosses, levels, and to advance. This requires teamwork and communication. Just this past week, I joined up with some random players to beat the dailies (daily challenges) in The Division. Such collaboration is simply a facet of gaming. 

Social Interaction

During both lab times and regular class sessions, I overheard my students asking each other questions regarding Minecraft. Questions ranged from “How do you do x?” to “When are you playing this week?” Not only did playing Minecraft and discussing its online communities help students make observations about discourse communities and the rhetorical nature of video games, but this implementation of a video game in the classroom built a sense of community within the classroom.

Students who were reserved or reluctant to speak during class found their voices when playing a video game with their peers. They used the in-game chat feature to communicate, they helped each other build, explore, and plant, and, most importantly, they started to talk to each other outside of the game! As students became comfortable interacting with their peers in the game they simultaneously became more comfortable in the classroom. They participated, helped, and spoke more.

This reason alone is enough for me to continue implementing and researching the educational use of video games as a community-building tool in college classrooms.

For Educators

For as much as students can learn from video games, the same applies to educators. Educators can learn all of the above while familiarizing themselves with the digital literacies of their students and rhetorical texts of increasing significance. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I believe it is important as educators to be aware of what our students are consuming, playing, and creating.

I hope that something out of the above has made you pause and think even briefly about the value of video games and their potential in education. Typically when video games are discussed in terms of education, they are being used in K-12. While I believe this is a natural place to begin integrating and analyzing technologies and media into education, I hope my ideas and observations have demonstrated why video games can and should be used in college classrooms as well.

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I am still working on breaking down all the particulars for why and how video games should be used as educational tools. In doing so, I have started to trace the cultural significance of video games and their potential as markers of digital literacy. As an educator, I simply cannot escape the reality that, according to the Entertainment Software Association, video games are present in nearly half of all American homes and, in turn, have become a medium in which millions are literate.

Through my research, I have started to identify broad categories relating to the educational and cultural significance of video games, which you can see in the figure above. As much as I would like to focus solely on the application of video games in classrooms, there is still room for expanding the rationale behind that application. I hope to be able to contribute to both of these areas, and I welcome any feedback.


Entertainment Software Association. Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. 2015. PDF file. 

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning
and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2003. Print.

Author: Tabitha

I game. I teach. I write. Soon to be graduate student pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing. Interested in the use of video games in education, digital rhetoric, and literacy.

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