Reginald T. Gardner, Department of Informatics

How Videogames Teach

Videogames often use reward and punishment systems, grading systems, soft resets, and other techniques to push players towards learning specific skills in order to proceed in their games. The most known example is Super Mario Bros’ level 1-1. In the first few frames of the game, designers illicit behaviors from players. Mario is positioned on the left but cannot travel any further left. Mario is centered when moving right. The first few blocks and the single slow-moving enemy are the first encounters. And, failure at this early point sets the player only second back (to be the beginning). All of these decisions give time for new players to experiment and learn about how objects in this digital space interact. This type of engagement, along with other aspects of games, presents unique opportunities for learning, not only in the design of work, but in educating university students about play, interaction, social science, and humanities.

Teaching Social Sciences with Games

We can use games to teach about games. Students across disciplines (like computer science, software engineers, graphic design, painting, creative writing, etc.) are engaged in topics used by games to evoke emotion, tell stories, make arguments, and entertain. Through games, we can build on students’ academic specialties and tacit knowledge to critique and advocate for the choices made by game developers, designers, and companies. Students can further engage those choices by investigating how small changes can influence players and gameplay. This opens the door for social scientists (Taylor, 2018), psychologists (Ferguson, 2010), business folks (Scholz, 2019), and education scientists (Steinkuehler, 2012) to understand how technical or aesthetic changes can create new and exciting interactions between humans and technologies as well as between people (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2016; Drachen, 2018).

Teaching Humanities with Games

As we delve more into the artistic, we can see that games evoke responses from physical artists, musicians, literary theorists, and other humanities scholarship, all of which engage players. (Harper, 2018) Connections are made through online communities and affinity groups, fan works in many mediums, and other related paratexts. Academic research in games and learning has taken many forms and supports these ideas. From Game-based learning to informal learning and affinity groups (Gee, 2004; Black, 2006, Jenkins, 2009), towards connected learning models incorporating different modalities across our linked landscape, (Salen, 2008; Ito, 2013) to Serious Games developed explicitly to communicate a skillset, much of games research tells us positive things about learning.

Against the Current

It seems that despite the prevailing rhetoric, and the spaces created for other toxic behaviors – things we still must address, games generally help people. Games expose us to the difficult questions that some of our greatest authors posed, but through a multimodal interactive medium. They give us a way to act and enact different types of thinking, and to test our knowledge against designers, whether through physics engines or puzzles. So, I ask you not to fall into the trap of promoting negative narrative in an under-researched field. Have the courage to engage with the entertainment that your students do, seek to understand them and why they love what they do, and leverage that knowledge to better communicate with them, and help them develop in many areas.


Black, R. W. (2006). Language, Culture, and Identity in Online Fanfiction. E-Learning and Digital Media, 3(2), 170–184.

Drachen, A., Mirza-Babaei, P., & Nacke, L. E. (2018). Games user research. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0198794844

Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S., Smith, J, Tosca, S. (2016). Understanding Video Games, 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge. ISBN-13: 978-1138849822

Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Blazing Angels or Resident Evil? Can Violent Video Games be a Force for Good? Review of General Psychology, 14(2), 68–81.

Gee, J. P. (2004). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN-13: 978-1403984531

Harper, T., Adams, M. B., Taylor, N., & Voorhees, G. (2018). Queerness in play. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN-13: 978-3319905419

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., … & Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN-13: 978-0262513623

Salen, K. (2008). The ecology of games: connecting youth, games, and learning. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. ISBN-13: 978-0262693646

Scholz, T. (2019). ESports is business: management in the world of competitive gaming. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN-13: 978-3030111984

Steinkuehler, C., Squire, K., & Barab, S. A. (2012). Games, Learning, and Society: learning and meaning in the digital age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0521196239

Taylor, T. L. (2018). Watch me play twitch and the rise of game live streaming. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0691183558

 Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 11th, 2020.