Educational video games?…Huxley and Postman role over in their graves

@missnoor28 is a terrific person to follow on twitter for teachers as she shares an abundance of sources and is always ready to answer a personal request or offer her help.  Last week, she asked me to explain a recent tweet of mine:  “@ginrob_pt I wish we could block twts with key words. I’d block “Educational Video Games” & pretend tht Huxley was wrong #EduJo#EdTech#Edchat#Gaming,” and then she asked me, “What was wrong with educational video games?”

In order to answer her question, I need to discuss Adios Huxley and Neil Postman.  Huxley wrote a dystopia novel entitled “Brave New World” and Neil Postman wrote a book in the 80’s entitled “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Both these books write about the emergence of a culture based on entertainment and about the possible/actual consequences of such a culture.  For a quick explanation of “Brave New World” (and a contrast to “1984”) please refer to this link:  which is a visual presentation of Postman’s forward.  For more information regarding Postman’s point, refer to page 185 in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in Chapter 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity.

Both works talk about the consequences of arranging discourse along an entertaining focus; this would also hold true in education.  When students learn through games, the arguments extends, they learn a shadow curriculum that learning is easy, and that learning is fun.  They do not learn that it is fun to learn.  The difference is vast. 

Feeling that it is fun to learn motivates and rewards engagement and effort; it offers a reward for learning; it makes the learning its goal and focus; it makes the struggle of learning worth it.

The video game “learning is fun“ offers surface engagement; it distracts from the learning and offers a fun activity; it trains students to learn effortlessly, but also to be less tolerant of exerting effort to learn.  I think that it was summed up well by the following 2 tweets:

@intrepidteacherJabiz Raisdana    Students become frustrated and bored when they realize even what they love requires hard work. They’re too used to surface engagement.

@davemorinDave Morin     “Gamification is the high fructose corn syrup of engagement.” – Kathy Sierra

As an analogy consider T.V.  Imagine using T.V to provide a language rich environment for your students:  This would seem ideally suited to the educational needs of the student.  They would be provided an almost endless stream of language that they enjoy and that could be tailored to their level and needs; problem with phonemic awareness—Sesame street; problems with sequence – Dora; problem with social rules – Thomas.  T.V. offers a rich variety of experiences presented by the Backyardigans or even the news which brought an entire American generation the experiences of Vietnam, the moon landing, and the Kennedy assassination.  T.V. is a medium that constantly provides attainable data to the viewer and can tolerate a variety of engagement levels.  Would we be comfortable with placing a student in front of a T.V. for even a portion of the day?  I suspect that we wouldn’t, even though teachers use T.V. and movies, not just to entertain, but with the purpose of furthering their student’s education.  Even though, we sometimes view T.V. as a powerful educational strategy, intuitively, and because of the works of such theorists like Neil Postman we know that T.V. is an entertainment medium, not well suited to instruct or to educate.  In fact, we used to blame T.V. for the quality of our students or their motivation, that is, before computers became so prevalent. 

After unpacking this analogy and applying its principles to video games, can someone tell me exactly how video games are advantageous over other modes of learning? Surely they can work (for limited purposes) but is it worth it?  Don’t they train our student to reject struggle?  Are they in a sense bribing our studetns to learn?  Won’t it ultimately back fire like all bribery based incentive systems?

That is a little of what I meant when I posted my earlier tweet.  We should consider what learning with video games undoes-I have, and have not found them worth the cost.


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  1. #1 by Nancy C on May 14, 2011 - 1:18 pm

    Interesting post. I had never looked at using games in the classroom the way you have here. I think using games engages the kids while making learning fun. But you bring up a good point…are they learning or just playing. I hadn’t thought about the difference between ” When students learn through games, the arguments extends, they learn a shadow curriculum that learning is easy, and that learning is fun. They do not learn that it is fun to learn.” I will explore this more. Thanks for bringing up the gaming topic in this light.

    Thanks for sharing

  2. #2 by Patrick Tucker on May 14, 2011 - 8:42 pm

    thank you for taking the time to comment both here and on Twitter. I am glad that I was able to share with you a different opinion.

  3. #3 by Zoe Branigan-Pipe (@zbpipe) on September 18, 2011 - 12:57 pm

    Thanks for pointing me to your post. I have read both the authors that support your questions about gaming and education and agree that as educators it is important that we consider many perspectives, especially in times that are changing exponentially as it relates to learning and knowledge.
    While I provided examples of digital gaming in my post, when I think of gaming, it isn’t just about sitting in front of a screen and interacting with virtual worlds or characters. Using geocashing to engage students during field trips is an excellent way to ‘gamify’ learning and I can tell you from experience, it is not easy. It is hard work. Board games (or ipad board games) are a valuable tool in helping children with social relationships. Maybe more valuable than having them participate in a social skills program that they see or feel no relevance. As you have indicated in your posts, there are so many valuable ways to use gaming, however, we need to be constantly asking ourselves if we are sacrificing other important pedagogues. Are we?

    There is no question that this is a messy topic because knowledge acquisition itself is changing. The use of colour, interactive print, the participatory nature of text and the interaction between learners has changed the learning platform for so many and has given opportunity for the huge population of students that never before had a chance to move beyond applied subjects in high school. Consider taking a look at the recent ‘unplugd’ publication, chapter 3 where this issue is further explored by other educators giving thought about these issues.

    Your questions are fantastic – I have copied them for a couple of my own students to ponder. Thank you.

    BTW, Your blog is just wonderful. I have added it to my reader and I look forward to further discussions!

  4. #4 by Patrick Tucker on September 18, 2011 - 2:57 pm

    Thank you very much for your comments. I agree with you about the value but still have misgivings; are games in school a kind of skinner box that will eventually lead our students into the hands of zynga or any marketing strategy that involves gamification?

  5. #5 by Ian Budgell on February 5, 2016 - 11:12 am


    I really do think that certain video games have big benefits to the school environment not just exposing us to the world it also expose to situation that a really hard to replicate in real life

    but what I hate is when people say were going to play a game when I think that I think of games i play but then when we start it is a small flash game like match the words or pick the answer an example is quizlet those are not games that students want to play and if they are not have at least a tiny bit of fun there absorbing most of the information that the game is trying to teach us since I am a student and also really love play games I think playing descent team work based games would boost the school environment. but of course it also depends on the class you are teaching and whether you think they can handle it

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