Skip to content Skip to navigation

For now, they are overrated, but in the future they could do a lot of good

Eric A. Hanushek
Published Date: 
December 2012
Zócalo Public Square

Are Video Games the Learning Tools They’re Cracked Up To Be?

Three facts about educational video games—and educational technology more generally—are important to consider as we look at their current use and impact. First, video games, educational and otherwise, show that clever technologies can attract and hold the attention of users and can teach them a variety of sophisticated thinking patterns. Second, educational games have made little dent in education. And, third, advanced technologies will be an important part of education in the future.

The promise of educational games can clearly be seen in various action games. They are riveting to many people, both children and adults. While emphasizing quickness and reflexes, the so-called first-person games systematically lead the player into higher levels involving more difficulty. The only way to succeed is by developing strategies of play that “outthink” the game. When taken out of the action game world and when specific learning outcomes are added, these components point to the power of educational games to motivate and to teach.

And yet educational games today have had limited impact on learning. Developers have constructed a wide variety of products without being concerned much about evaluating their use and their impact. We have yet to harness their power, because we have not learned how to select and to integrate them into more traditional educational structures. Part of this is that we have not figured out how to incentivize teachers to figure out their value and use in the classroom. Part is that the educational game producers themselves have not worked at the integration aspects of their work. In this regard, educational video games are overrated, because having a snazzy stand-alone product is not the same as finding how it can enhance the overall learning experience.

But there is also no doubt that the future is going to be very different. The teacher and the classroom will be around for a long time. Through technology, we can simply do certain learning tasks, particularly those involving the systematic development of basic concepts and skills, better than the average teacher. The student can work at his or her own pace, can repeat parts that are difficult, and can get instantaneous feedback. Educational video games, if we can work out the integration issues, then offer the chance of freeing time of the teacher for the things that a live teacher can do better, such as individual tutoring on difficulties that the student is having. They also offer a chance for a more efficient educational system—in which teachers do part of the task and technology substitutes for another set of learning tasks. From this perspective, educational games are currently under-rated.