Blank gif
An Educator's Guide to Technology and the Web
Search Internet@Schools
Subscribe Today!

View Current Issue
View Past Issues

Internet @ Schools

Educational Gaming—From Edutainment to Bona Fide 21st-Century Teaching Tool [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Ntiedo Etuk - Posted Nov 1, 2008
Bookmark and Share

There are approximately 145 million video game players in the U.S. today. The average age of a game player is 33 years old (recently graduated teachers are part of this demographic). Of our 53 million K–12 students, 51 million of them (or 93%) play video games.

By the time they are 21, most young adults will have watched 400,000 commercials, 20,000 hours of television, and played 10,000 hours of video games. In terms of 8-hour workdays, that’s 3.5 years of video game playing!

In many ways, the world seems unfamiliar to those of us who grew up in past decades. But this is our kids’ world, and as educators, parents, or friends, if we are going to get today’s youngsters to listen to us, we have to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re doing.

The use of games in education (previously known as edutainment) began around 1984 when a teacher named Jan Davidson created a software program for use on a newfangled contraption called the Apple II personal computer. Math Blaster was a huge success, followed by many other early titles—Reader Rabbit, Oregon Trail, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? These early edutainment hits presented educational subjects in a way that was both new and exciting.

Fast-forward to the new century. Technology and the students who use it have evolved considerably. And so have educational "games," thanks to a new crop of entrepreneur-developers who believe that today’s products must be anchored in more specific pedagogical design principles. They also believe that to stand the test of time, today’s games must not only engage but teach … a requirement that was missing from prior enactments of the genre.

When children pick up a new video game, they know very little about the game. They know little about the world the game operates in: the rules of the world, the rules of their characters, or the rules of interaction in that world. They don’t know what problems they have to solve to advance through the world, and in many cases they don’t even know how to solve those problems ahead of time.

Yet to win (and that is the goal of most video games), they must learn those rules, master those rules, learn the problems, solve the problems, and fail several times before finally succeeding.

This is the basis of today’s most successful educational games. Those that do this well are so ingeniously designed, so pedagogically efficient, that they take children from beginner to master grade in 40 to 60 hours (the standard amount of time a game plays). They force players to fail dozens of times before achieving ultimate success, but they are so inspiring and so engaging that the students solve the problems on their own, actively ask friends for help, and even do research to find answers.

How inspiring it is for educators (and parents) to know that what a child has mastered in these games, what they’re curious about, what they ask for help on, and ultimately what they succeed in is not Super Mario Bros., but, for example, algebra!

Underlying Principles

Many of the educational video games today are built on principles espoused by such noted professors as James Paul Gee, the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, and the author of the book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

Gee was curious about why video games were able to do so much that our education system was having trouble doing—continuously engage students, make students feel that it is safe to fail, make students unafraid to ask questions, and provide contextual learning that makes the learning relevant to the learner.

So he set out to answer these questions. His book is excellent, and I encourage all educators to read it. But for the sake of brevity, I will pull out a core portion of his findings.

In his research, Gee found that commercial video games are built on a set of design principles and that these principles translate into some of the more fundamental learning principles that cognitive theory has validated.

Among them are the following:

1. Active, Critical Learning Principle —[In a video game] all aspects of the learning environment are set up to encourage active and critical, not passive, learning.

2. "Psychosocial Moratorium" Principle —[In a video game] learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences (i.e., grades, risk of looking silly) are lowered.

3. Achievement Principle —[In a video game] there are intrinsic rewards from the beginning, which are customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery and signal the learner’s ongoing achievements.

4. Practice Principle —[In a video game] learners get lots and lots of practice in a context where practice is not boring (i.e., in a virtual world that is compelling to learners on their own terms and where the learners experience ongoing success). They spend lots of time on task.

5. Multimodal Principle —[In a video game] meaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound, etc.), not just words.

These are only five of the 36 principals documented by Gee, but they make clear how video game systems can actually translate into tremendously powerful and flexible learning systems.

Click to view screenshots
Click to view

There are a few companies offering such systems today: My company, Tabula Digita, Inc., with its DimensionM multiplayer educational gaming math software (and soon-to-be-released science games); Knowledge Adventure, Inc., which now owns Math Blaster and JumpStart; Grockit; Muzzy Lane Software; and even IBM with its PowerUP math and science game (see screen shots at right, plus links to Resources at the end of this article).

Student Motivation and Mastery

Tabula Digita’s DimensionM suite of products was recently studied by the University of Central Florida and was found to more than double the test scores on Orange County, Fla., district benchmark exams. The impact such games have on student motivation has been demonstrated as well. Like Tabula Digita, reports from Muzzy Lane indicate that students are staying after school and coming in before class to play their games. Since mastery of subject areas is required to advance in the games, true knowledge is clearly being tested.

Students aren’t the only ones who like the games. Surveys of hundreds of students and teachers who have used the DimensionM program showed that just as many educators as students (approximately 90%) would recommend the product to their peers. And educational gaming companies are addressing the need for robust professional development. IBM, Tabula Digita, and Muzzy Lane all offer lesson plans and professional development activities to help teachers and administrators orient themselves.

Despite the research and despite being embraced by many of the nation’s leading school districts (Tabula Digita alone reports contracts with Broward County, Fla.; New York City; and Chicago, among others), educational gaming is still evolving. But the emergence of a new generation of kids, a generation that demands interactivity in its media and in its software, makes the evolution of educational tools inevitable. If you combine this with the fact that a new generation of teachers is also emerging—a generation that grew up with the internet and games, a generation that is comfortable with such tools—then you have a recipe and a mandate for change.

The real question is whether we rise up and embrace the challenge, pushing the boundaries of what we are comfortable with, or do we get dragged, kicking and screaming, into our children’s future, as relevant to the age of Napster and iTunes as the 8-track or the LP? The time has come to embrace the urgency of the situation and to be bold enough to try something different. Let the games begin!

Ntiedo Etuk is co-founder and CEO of Tabula Digita. He may be reached at



Tabula Digita, Inc. <>

Knowledge Adventure, Inc. <>

Grockit <>

Muzzy Lane Software <>

IBM PowerUP <>



Digital Game-Based Learning by Marc Prensky; McGraw-Hill Co., 2000.

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Second Edition by James Paul Gee; Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Blank gif