Video Games: An Educational Exploration by a Teacher/Gamer/Graduate Student

On my fifth birthday I received a Nintendo Entertainment System which came with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt.  Eventually I moved up to other systems such as a Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo.  I even played some of the first massive multiplayer online games such as Ultima Online and Everquest as a teenager.  So naturally growing up, video games were part of my life.

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Perspectives on Playing Games

In the 1990’s the perception towards children playing games was somewhat negative.  To me it is no surprise, that some educators expressed concerns that video games could lead to violent behaviour, unhealthy attitudes, and lack of creative play (Squire.  2003). One example is Eugene Provenzo (1992) who criticizes video games for their use of violence, gender bias, and stereotyping; and their social and educational impact, while another example is Tracy Dietz (1998) who wrote that video games often do not portray female characters or portray them as sex objects or victims of ruthless men and suggests that video games may negatively influence the attitudes of children towards women, relationships, and expectations (p.439).  In 2019, looking back, I don’t necessarily agree with Dietz and Provenzo, but I do see where they are coming from. There are numerous game series that do have some “objectionable” content, and I think that there are some concerns with children and adults who play games obsessively.

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There is no consensus as to whether playing videos leads to violent or aggressive behaviour.  There are a number of studies that suggest a correlation (Anderson et al., 2003; Anderson & Dill, 2001;  Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Bushman & Huesmann, 2006; Greitemeyer, 2013) but it is worth noting that not all are in agreement about the relationship between video games and negative social behaviour.  The studies listed above would fall under what Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, and Tosca call the “Active Media Perspective”, this perspective focuses on behaviourism and experimental psychology through controlled studies (2008, p. 225-226).    Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al., write that when other factors are considered in these studies such as gender and parental involvement, the results in the active media studies are radically different (2008, p.231). Annetta (2008) writes that the idea that video games lead to antisocial behaviour and unhealthy children has been proven false, where now games are looked at as a motivating power that can encourage students to cooperate and develop into independent and social people (p.233).  Similarly, Squire (2003) writes that the research regarding video games has failed to show a relationship to aggression, violence, and antisocial behaviour (p. 8). Furthermore, in his meta analysis of video game studies, Ferguson (2007) found that playing violent games “ does not appear to be associated with negative effects in relation to aggressive behavior” (p. 314). Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al., (2008) write that the majority of active media researchers favour a more cautious approach due to a small body of research, noting that the effect of video games is smaller than that of violent television and because of an apparent lack of evidence for firm conclusions (p. 232).

Contradictory findings regarding video games and negative social behaviour, may indicate that there are more factors to consider including type of game, social context of playing, feedback received in game, and game content.   Another perspective of video games and behaviour is “Active User Studies”, which examine the social context and interactions of children who play games and how it relates to behaviour noting the differences of individual experiences playing games, yet the amount of studies in this area is limited (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al., 2008). 

Managing Playing and Screen Time

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As a teacher I have heard many parents say that their child plays too many video games, and I have also had my students tell me that they go home and start playing games at 4pm and don’t stop until midnight.  I hear the same thing with kids and screens, whether it is about someone being glued to their phone, or having a television in their bedroom. It’s not really a surprise to me, that some people are concerned about this.  I think back to when I began teaching, and at this time I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft.  Transitioning from being a university student to a teaching professional forced me to make changes to how I played games, and in a sense how I took care of myself.  I noticed if I was doing a World of Warcraft raid which included coordinating with many more players, using headsets and voice chats, I would go to bed and my head would be filled of imaginary team speak and it was almost like I just came off a shift of playing hockey, it was very difficult to fall asleep.  I decided I had to make some changes, and I set a limit for myself that I would not play past 9 pm, which actually proved to be difficult, but eventually I was able to hold myself to that limit. A friend of mine who is a teacher and a gamer as well, had a similar experience, and set up limits for himself that were similar to my own, where he would stop about an hour before bed to relax (O. Balko, personal communication, February 26, 2019).

I think that a lot of youth and children, don’t have the ability yet to self regulate this, and require support and assistance from their parents or caregivers in this matter.  Without this, game playing or really anything else for that matter can dominate their leisure time and begin to interfere with other parts of their lives. There does not seem to be a scientific or academic consensus on this as there are some conflicting perspectives.  Gentile (2009) suggests that pathological video game playing of approximately twenty four hours a week was a significant predictor of poor school performance (p.600). The American Psychiatric Association has now listed Internet Gaming Disorder as a condition for further study in the DSM V, although they note symptoms that involve excessive game playing and its effects on relationships and personal activities, and there are suggestions that “growing evidence of clinically significant harms derived from excessive game playing suggests that this is an important condition from a public health perspective” (Petry, Rehbein, Ko, & O’Brien, 2015, p.7).

On the other hand Fletcher and Wind (2014) argue that the negative relationship between learning at school and video games is just a statistical finding and that it has not been determined that playing video games causes a reduction in school performance, noting that there may actually be a positive effect on school learning from playing games (p.496). Ferguson (2015) suggests that the potential influence of video games on youth continues to be debated throughout the general public, academic, and clinical communities, and that among researchers and clinicians there is no consensus, one way or the other. Ultimately in my opinion, I think that video games themselves may not be the factor that affects school learning, it may be that excessive playing is the true issue.

Some suggestions and ideas to support families in this include:

  • Durkin and Conti-Ramsden (2014) suggest that there are four broad strategies of advice for caregivers in regards to gaming, in their order of most recommended to least recommended these are:  constructive use, restriction, laissez faire, and prohibition. Their recommendation of using constructive use includes strategies of accommodating, supporting, and building on young people’s activities with media, which would help reflect the child’s developmental needs and interests, while promoting social interactions between children and caregivers (Durkin & Conti-Ramsden, 2014).
  • Mike Ribble (2017) defines digital citizenship as “ the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use” and he later writes that“ users need to be taught that there are inherent dangers of technology”.  This could be something that is modeled or discussed with family members or teachers, whether it is in the classroom or at home.
  • Media Smarts, a Canadian not for profit organization makes several recommendations for parents about their children playing video games, these include thinking about children’s interests, seeking advice from other parents, finding games that have appropriate age ratings, looking for games that are still challenging but are not violent, looking for games that have strong non sexualized female characters,  choosing games that require strategy and problem solving skills, and encouraging cooperative play (2012).
  • Anderson et al. suggest that parents and educators might be able to reduce the harmful effects of media exposure through guidance and discussions of interpretations of media, while interventions that reduce a child’s exposure to violent media could also be an effective option (2003, p.64-65).

Benefits of Playing Video Games

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Some of my favourite games include Chrono TriggerFinal Fantasy VIWorld of WarcraftStarcraftBaldur’s GateHearthstoneTetris, The Last of Us, the Halo seriesand  The Legend of Zelda:  Breath of the Wild.  These games featured branching non-linear narratives, multiple endings, complex combat, resource/character management, and a variety of other complex systems and features.  My general feeling is that many of these games offered players the opportunity to learn in ways that schools do not. For example, I remember being eleven or twelve and playing Final Fantasy VI, and being exposed to all of this vocabulary that I had never seen in a book, there were words like “Gladius” the latin word for sword, and “Gilgamesh” a mythological character from an ancient epic poem.  In a similar but albeit different vein, a game like Starcraft used real time strategy based combat missions, where you controlled characters, units, and resources, and often required me to revise my thinking and strategies to complete a given level.

As I began my master’s degree, the learning benefits of video games was something I spent some time researching.  Here are some highlights of what I found.

  • Video games develop a variety of skills in its players, this includes cognitive skills through first person shooter games, problem solving skills through strategy games, and prosocial skills through games that require teamwork, cooperation, and social interactions (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014).  In their 2012 literature review Connolly, E.A. Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey, and J.M. Boyle, suggest that playing entertainment video games can lead to improvements in attention and visual perceptual skills, while supporting competencies in curricular areas such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  
  • Despite concerns already raised about the negative effects of violent games, there are indications that they improve perceptual and attentive skills.  Ferguson’s meta analysis (2008) of violent video game exposure suggests that it appears that violent video game exposure appears connected with increased visual-spatial cognition.  People who play action video games frequently, score higher on cognitive and perceptual measures and performance, while game training has the potential for transfer beyond the specific task being trained for (Boot, Blakely, and Simons, 2011, p. 1).
  • In their 2013 study, Adachi and Willoughby found that there was a relationship between strategic slower paced video game play and self-reported problem solving skills, as well as an indirect relationship between strategic video game play and academic grades.  Basak, Boot, Voss, and Kramer (2008), found that by playing the real time strategy game Rise of Nations, older adults showed benefits to executive control functions, mental rotations, and task switching.
  • Puzzle games are usually played by using various cognitive skills such as executive functions, visual and spatial processing, and attention, in order to complete tasks.  Oei and Patterson (2014) found that undergraduate students showed improved higher order executive function skills through playing twenty hours of the puzzle game Cut The Rope, possibly due to the game demanding the use of higher order cognitive functions to play.  Similarly, Yuda (2011) found that there was a positive effect on elementary school students spatial thinking skills, who played a map based puzzle game once a week for a three week period.
  • Gee (2003) suggests that massive multiplayer games allow players to collaborate using different skills while sharing values and knowledge, which may be better locations for preparation for the modern workplace when compared to traditional schools. Also, Gee (2011) argues that massive multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft build mind simulations, distributed intelligence, cross functional collaborations, and problem solving strategies

Gaming In The Classroom

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As a teacher I feel that video games in the classroom is an idea that has not been explored to its fullest potential.  You don’t usually think of video games as traditional classroom instruction, but it has been suggested that video games can help engage students in a learning activity, as engagement characterized by heightened interest, excitement, and enjoyment, as well as perceived challenge can have a positive effect on learning (Hamari et. al, 2016).  Video games have typically not been used due to difficulty meeting curricular outcomes, yet game-based approaches are being used in areas such as health, business, and social issues, which players seem to enjoy and be motivated by (Connolly et al., 2012, p. 671). Kenny and McDaniel (2011) suggest that many teachers do not implement video games in their classes, which is likely due to their unfamiliarity with them for reasons such as pre-service teachers playing video games less frequently than post-secondary students in other majors, lack of time, and perceived difficulty of games.  It is also possible that video games are not being used frequently in schools, as the decisions to use them may not fall to teachers. Halverson (2005) suggests that ultimately reshaping teaching practices to use video games falls on the hands of school administrators, curriculum and technology coordinators, superintendents, and other school leaders. This being said, if given sufficient autonomy, teachers can implement games as part of instruction or learning opportunities for student.

Despite entertainment based video games not being prevalent in traditional classrooms, there are examples of them being used to benefit students within a classroom environment.  In his book Teaching with Games:  Learning Through Play (2011), Kurt Squire suggests that entertainment games can be implemented in classrooms as long as features are leveraged such as commitment to interest driven learning, teachers acting as advisors and producers/participants in games, and dedication to design of game content and culture  (p. 59).

Squire’s suggestions are rooted in his experience of using a modified version of the game Civilization III to teach disengaged high school students history and geography.  Squire reports that students who played Civilization III learned geography features, paid attention to details and engaged in deeper thinking, learned background information about technologies and civilizations, produced understandings of ordinal relations of historical events, and learned how geography affected civilizations.  While the biggest gains made by the students were interests in history and geography, that eventually led students to subject matter questions and one inquiry project (2011, p.127-128).

As video games can feature a heavy text based narrative, there is also the possibility that they could be used to teach reading.  Megan Glover Adams argues that video games can help reluctant and unsuccessful readers through tutoring programs using role playing games such as Neverwinter Nights to improve confidence, visual literacy, vocabulary acquisition, reading comprehension, and reading for information (2009).  

There has also been success using video games with students with disabilities.  Marino et al. (2014) argue that video games can promote achievement and engagement in students with high-incidence disabilities by aligning selected game based materials with universal design for learning.  This could benefit students through increased motivation , repetition of game based learning, and game performance assessment instead of paper pencil problem solving tasks.

Recently, the game Minecraft has received attention through research and classroom use.  Minecraft is an open world sandbox type game where players can interact and construct buildings and objects using in game resources.  Minecraft has been used in classrooms as a cross curricular learning tool in many school subjects such as history, biology, chemistry, and computer programming (Baek and Touati, 2017, p.350).  Jami Roberts-Woychesin’s 2015 research study looked at Minecraft as a teaching tool and found “ a gained increase in understanding regarding the attainment of other knowledge through the use of 3-D spaces in a game-based learning environment” (p.97).

Squire (2011) suggests strategies for teachers using games in the classroom such as knowing the game, game play driving the learning, just-in time lectures, creating a supporting game community, and facilitating inquiry and knowledge sharing (p. 139).  New entertainment based games are released every year, and although content changes, many of the gameplay mechanics remain the same. An area that could be researched further are general guidelines for implementing games in classrooms, regardless of specific titles.

Some considerations for selecting games for the classroom include

  • Well designed (good) video games use learning principles that are supported by cognitive science research, as they give information on demand, remain challenging and doable, allow players to be producers and decision makers, they use progressively more difficult problems, and are highly motivating (Gee, 2003).
  • Tobias, Fletcher, and Wind suggest recommendations for game design for instruction such as: using human not synthetic voices, pictorial not textual instruction support, using the first person in dialogue, maximizing user involvement, reducing cognitive load, increasing prosocial content, reducing aggressive content, and more.   These elements can be considered when choosing games to ensure that engaging games that benefit instruction are chosen.
  • Malone and Lepper (1987) suggest that games and instructional environments can be improved by utilizing functions such as score keeping, audio effects, random elements, and multiple individual intrinsic motivations which include: challenge, explicit and emergent goals, uncertain outcome, performance feedback, and engagement of the learner’s sense of self esteem and personal relevance.

Some of my ideas for using games in schools ( a very brief summary).

  • For language arts assignments have students review games that they play.  This can let students practice critical thinking and communication skills in relation to their own interests.
  • I suggested for a family studies/human ecology class that students could work in groups to develop a fair play rotation system for taking turns on a video game console with 5 people and only 3 controllers.  They could plan it out, try it, then do a reflection exercise.
  • If you have computer/device time, find some games that are fun, but also target specific learning outcomes and content.  Don’t just give kids free time to play with games, let them play with a purpose.
  • Talk to kids about playing video games and what are healthy game play habits.  This could also be a great thing to talk to parents about as well.


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Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L. R., Johnson, J. D., Linz, D., … & Wartella, E. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological science in the public interest4(3), 81-110.

Annetta, L. A. (2008). Video games in education: Why they should be used and how they are being used. Theory into practice47(3), 229-239.

Dickey, M. D. (2005). Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development53(2), 67-83

Durkin, K., & Conti-Ramsden, G. (2014). Turn off or tune in? what advice can SLTs, educational psychologists and teachers provide about uses of new media and children with language impairments? Child Language Teaching and Therapy,30(2), 187-205. doi:

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Malone, T. W., & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. Aptitude, learning, and instruction3(1987), 223-253.

Media Smarts. “Choosing Good Video Games.” Video Games. N.p., 2012. Web. 05 Mar. 2017. <;.

Ribble, Mike. “Nine Elements.” Nine Elements. N.p., 2017. Web. 05 Mar. 2017. <>.

Squire, K. (2011). Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. Technology, Education–Connections (the TEC Series). Teachers College Press. 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027.

Squire, K. (2003). Video games in education. Int. J. Intell. Games & Simulation2(1), 49-62.  Retrieved from

Tobias, S., Fletcher, J. D., & Wind, A. P. (2014). Game-based learning. In Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 485-503). Springer New York

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