Digital Games and
Learning: A World
Digital learning has come a long way since the “Oregon Trail” boom of the late 80s. Or has it?
Despite mounting evidence proving the value of gamification, it is not uncommon to hear
parents and teachers bemoaning students’ extensive screen time. In fact, according to a recent
survey by Common Sense Media, most adults today perceive digital games as distractions.
James Paul Gee, a landmark thinker on video games and learning, describes these
misconceptions as the problem of content. The problem of content refers to the commonly held
belief that games are a waste of time because students don’t learn new academic content while playing them.
However, Gee argues that learning requires the exact kind of “doing” that games provide.
Current trends in gaming reflect what we’ve known in the field of cognitive science for decades:
■ Challenges are getting harder and more complex. (e.g., DragonBox teaches elementary-age kids to do
■ Opportunities to work in teams are
becoming more prevalent. (e.g., World of
Warcraft requires players to collaborate
■ Goals are becoming less linear. (e.g.,
Minecraft can go down many different paths
depending on the desires of the player.)
Well-designed games can be used to promote
and hone learning. However, this doesn’t mean
that every single iPad app or video game helps
student achieve meaningful learning outcomes.
In fact, a recent article by the Center for
American Progress concludes that most iPad
apps and other mobile games focus on the mere
acquisition of skills and knowledge.
Games that are worthy of kids’ screen time
should require kids to transfer their learning to
different contexts and situations. This ensures that
they’ll develop competencies that they can use
well beyond the simulated constructs of the game.
So, in a world of countless digital games and
apps, how do educators know what to choose?
Research by BrightBytes and Zynga recommends
focusing on three requirements within the game:
simulations, social elements, and feedback.
See the chart (excerpted from research by
BrightBytes and Zynga’s Co-Lab) below:
Educators and school leaders have an
enormous opportunity AND responsibility
to enhance learning by selecting games that
encourage students to tackle complex problems.
So go ahead, play a little!
Kristen Swanson is the author of Professional
Learning in the Digital Age and founder of