Not a gimmick but a gift: five reasons to value computer gaming as an educational tool

Digital game-based learning has been around since Reader Rabbit in the 1980s. We now have a wealth of sophisticated educational computer games available, but they continue to divide experts.

In 2016, researchED director Tom Bennett labelled the use of Minecraft in lessons a ‘gimmick which will get in the way of children actually learning.’ Bennett said he is ‘not anti-all uses of this kind of tech’ but, like many in the conversation, needs evidence of success. We asked Mikael Uusi-Mäkelä, Chief Operating Officer at Finland-based TeacherGaming (which deliver curriculum-aligned games to more than 7000 teachers worldwide) about the success they experience.

1. Computer games are increasingly aligned to curriculums and supported with resources

The TeacherGaming team continually draw strong links between curriculums and the games they work on, as do competitors in the industry. Mikael, a former English teacher, recognizes ‘one of the most challenging tasks for teachers is ensuring children understand how the game links to the wider world.’ To enable teachers to do this, TeacherGaming provides pedagogical resources. They offer lesson plans with their games, each one introducing topics, goals, and reflection aims with students. There is also real-time chat support and teacher consultation on game development.

The founders of TeacherGaming were also behind MinecraftEdu, since sold to Microsoft. MinecraftEdu is one of the most widely known examples of computer games being tailored for educational use, with the government in Northern Ireland provided funding for the game to be rolled out to all secondary schools in 2015. Like TeacherGaming, Microsoft continues to run a support network for its teachers, complete with lesson plans.

A survey of 694 teachers from the US in 2014 by Takeuchi and Vaala, discovered that 81 per cent of teachers who report using games for classroom instruction use specifically designed games.

2. Computer games are another effective ingredient the successful classroom

Improved learning outcomes resulting from educational computer game use are increasingly being measured. In 2015, professors Cyr and Riopel at the Université du Québec à Montréal, found playing ‘Slice Fractions’ significantly improved student performance in record time. Furthermore, 78 per cent of teacher responses to Takeuchi and Vaala’s survey said that games had improved their students’ mastery of curricular content and skills. Again, Backlund and Hendrix’s 2013 research found 29 of the 40 studies they evaluated, showed that game-based learning had a positive impact on learning outcomes—while only two showed negative results.

However Mikael stressed video games should be ‘just one of the tools’ in a successful classroom—complimentary to and not a replacement to the teacher’s usual methods. Mikael emphasized that, in his experience, computer games work best not as a ‘magic trick’ but as a sustained part of a teacher’s programme. He warned against the potential tendency to use computer games as a reward at the end of the school day. This can mean objective setting and reflection, which are critical to success, can be left out.

3. Computer games plant a seed for life-long learning

At TeacherGaming, the team aim to ‘make learning cool, relevant, and to engage children for the long-term.’ In a 2014 study, 55 per cent of the almost 700 US teachers surveyed named games’ capability to motivate low-performing students as their most important feature. Moreover, teachers on MinecraftEdu social channels have reported students being so engaged that they want to continue computer game projects outside of usual learning hours.

4. Computer games can offer learning experiences which would otherwise be impossible

Over the past six months, TeacherGaming has tailored computer games to empower teachers in India to look at the problems of urbanization with their classes. The popular title Cities: Skylines puts students in the shoes of a mayor and requires them to juggle budgets, traffic problems, and healthcare considerations. Initial feedback has included reports of success as children are able to interact with infrastructure directly.

Recently TeacherGaming has also introduced KerbalEdu which enables students to build ships and rockets based on their own mathematical designs. This otherwise inaccessible experience could encourage children to pursue a career in STEM—the original entertainment version, Kerbal Space Programme, surveyed 12,000 recreational players with 97 per cent saying they learned more about space.

5. Computer games can teach a broad range of skills

A 2017 report by US-based Getting Smart, found 88 per cent of teachers surveyed felt MinecraftEdu positively impacted their students’ decision making abilities. 86 per cent reported the same for communication abilities. This, combined with case studies, led Getting Smart to conclude that ‘Minecraft transcends the traditional curriculum, presenting exciting possibilities for social and emotional development in real time.’ Furthermore Clark, Tanner-Smith, and Killingsworth’s paper in 2014 found a 0.33 standard deviation improvement in children who played digital games when assessed for cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal learning outcomes. Mikael noted the critical role of the teacher in guiding children’s learning when gaming.


Author: Megan Thomas, Communications Executive, Oxford University Press Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Oxford University Press.

In conversation with: Mikael Uusi-Mäkelä, Chief Operating Officer and pedagogy specialist, TeacherGaming: Providing over 40 games to more than 7000 teachers worldwide, supercharged for school with lesson plans and learning analytics. @TeacherGaming