Can Video Games Make You Smarter?

Dana McMahan Writer

New gaming technology is an increasingly important learning tool for kids and adults.

Watching his boys play video games, Karl Kapp wondered how he could leverage their immersion and engagement.

“I kept thinking: Why is online learning so boring and gaming is so exciting?” said the professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University and author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.

Is there anything we can borrow from games to make learning more exciting?”

Or the bigger question: Can video games make you smarter?

As it turns out, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Kids and adults can reap serious educational benefits by integrating gaming technology and play into the learning process.

The Institute of Play was founded in 2007 to address issues around youth engagement in learning, said Robert Gehorsam, the Institute’s Executive Director.

“Research shows kids can be tuned out at school, but they’re super-engaged in productive ways around digital media and games,” he said.

The organization set out to extract what makes games so appealing and transfer that into learning.

“The results are very intriguing when you think about what you want kids and adults to be in the 21st century,” Gehorsam said.

Just what is it that we want people to be in this century? And how exactly do games help that?

“The way we look at information in society is changing,” explained Ross Flatt, assistant principal and founding teacher at Quest to Learn, an Institute project in New York public schools.

“It is really more about how we work with it. It’s less about what we know and more how we can use it.”

These abilities call for deeper learning skills, Gehorsam said, like systems thinking, collaboration and higher-order life skills. “And that was something game-like learning could foster.”

More traditional learning structures that focus on the acquisition of basic skills and content knowledge don’t always teach those capabilities. “[It’s] not like you can take an SAT for these competencies,” Gehorsam said, “but employers want them.”

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While the idea of gamification has recently gained traction, it’s not a new one. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, chess was used to teach war strategies to noblemen, according to the Institute of Play.

These days, even though play continues to be a part of learning, it’s often consigned to early childhood. All too soon, learning becomes a serious matter.

“What’s happened in the digital era is playfulness has extended into adulthood,” Gehorsam said. “As a result of wonderful research in cognitive science, we’re actually able to associate real learning benefits to effective design of games.”

Think about how games work, he continued.

“You’re typically faced with a challenge where you don’t know the answer. You have to call on a lot of skills — strategic thinking and collaboration — to solve problems, rather than regurgitate facts, which has been the dominant model of education.”

Fail and Fail Again

Several things make play such an effective means of learning. One is failure.

While failing may be frowned upon in certain learning environments, it’s a chance to learn in a game.

“You take a test, you fail — you’re done. There are huge negative repercussions for failure,” said Kapp.

“How do you know it’s okay to fail with a game? Well, you might start with three lives. That’s telling you right away it’s okay if you don’t make it the first time.”

In fact, much of play consists of failing to reach the game’s goal, according to the Institute.

But this doesn’t stop players from continuing to try. There’s often something about playing that makes participants feel like they can take risks they’d never take in real life.

This cycle of failing and trying again help develops grit, Gehorsam said.

“Grit is persistence, the ability to stick with a problem until you’ve seen it through and not get demoralized, and give up.” Recent research has shown the quality of grit can be a key indicator of academic success.


A Need to Know

Games also tap into our human need to know and problem solve by beginning with a challenge. “That is what draws people in,” Kapp said.

In adult workshops he leads on game design, Kapp opens with tic-tac-toe.

“Immediately people are laughing,” he said. “Games can be a social lubricant, and suddenly people are interacting. “That ability to play is really one of the things that makes us human.”

Even corporations are catching on. “More companies are using gamification – or elements of games – to teach,” said Kapp.

A company in Mexico, for instance, uses games to teach warehouse employees how to properly unload supplies. Teaching sales conversion to sales reps is another growing use of games in the corporate world.

Quest for Success

There’s a natural connection between play and education.

After all, according to the Institute, many experts argue that games are, first and foremost, learning systems.

Organizations like Quest to Learn are putting that idea to the test as part of the Institute’s mission to “make learning irresistible.”

Early results from assessing Quest to Learn students show that they have strong rates of growth in deeper learning competencies like systems thinking and collaboration, in some cases even greater than college students, Gehorsam said.

“We are really excited by this evidence. Over time, the country will be excited seeing kids come out of middle school with a sophisticated approach to learning.”

Key to this success is teacher development. The Institute of Play’s Mission Lab supports this effort through a design studio that works with teachers to design curriculum and games.

Other programs are bringing play to learning with success as well.

SMALLabs, an Intel-backed initiative, uses motion-capture technology to track students’ movements as they learn in an immersive and interactive space. Building on evidence that language and cognition is grounded in a physical experience, SMALLLabs uses “embodied” physical activities as a means to more effective learning.

Students can learn about a physics concept like velocity with all their senses:

They hear the sound of their actions getting faster, see graphs and equations that represent their motions in real time, and feel the weight of an object in their hand as they interact in real physical space.

Intel Teach provides professional development for educators to engage students with digital learning and help them develop the problem-solving and collaboration skills needed in today’s world.


The program, the largest of its kind, has already trained more than 10 million teachers worldwide with more than 500,000 in the U.S.

As research continues, the practice of gamification has the potential to extend well beyond school.

“Eventually I see companies creating games for time management, leadership and sales conversations,” Kapp said.

Once they’re available, “we’ll start to see more accepted uses of the games.” And one day soon we might find the lines between work, learning and play blurred, if not altogether dissolved.


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