EducationPedagogyPop QuizTechnology

Pop Quiz: How can we use games in education?

Credit: Tobias Blersch

Aww yeah. One whole megabyte of memory, dawg! Credit: Tobias Blersch

In 1989, my father (very astutely) determined that computers would be the way of the future in his profession and in the world at large, and so one day he came home with a brand spanking new IBM PS/2, our family’s first ever personal computer. It was a day filled with excitement, but also with tears of frustration as my mother–chosen for the task, I suppose, for her facility with the typewriter–spent approximately eight hours trying to complete the OS setup.* That day was also the last time either of my parents would actually operate a computer until approximately 2002.


Credit: Brøderbund

I, however, loved the thing. I vividly remember acquiring my very first computer game a few days later, a copy of the recently released “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego,” the fourth installment in Brøderbund’s classic edutainment series. At this point I can only guess what drew me to it, back in those days before game advertising in mainstream media, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was the unusual (and rather humorous) box art featuring real people in period costume. “Who is that lady in the awesome coat,” I must have wondered, “and why is she riding a snowmobile in Elizabethan England?”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Carmen Sandiego series and the TV franchise it spawned, the basic premise of the games is that international super-thief Carmen Sandiego and her gang of punful purloiners go around the world (or in this case, around history) stealing famous objects. You, the intrepid rookie detective at Acme detective agency, follow the culprit from place to place, using your handy reference book to decode the clues they leave behind. Eventually, provided you don’t run out of time by making too many wrong turns, you catch up to the thief and arrest them (I hope you filled out your warrant!).

While most people think of the Carmen Sandiego series as aimed toward teaching geography and/or history, the larger educational purpose behind the game design was to teach players to use the reference volumes included with each game to find different kinds of information. In “Time,” for example, a witness might mention the criminal planned to meet a famous historical figure; it was then up to the player to look up the figure in the Desk Encyclopedia in order to determine the date and location of the next time jump (with the side benefit, of course, of reading a short article on the figure in question). The kinds of reference works were different for each game (“Where in the USA,” for example, used an atlas), so that players would be exposed to (and collect) a wide variety of useful sources of information.

I loved those games as a kid and played them to death, eventually learning the answers to all the clues by memory through sheer repetition. It is to Carmen Sandiego (along with my DOS copy of PC Globe) that I owe my longstanding fascination with maps, geography, and travel, and I’m certain that it was due to these games that I was able to win my middle school’s geography bee three years in a row, since we had very little real instruction in geography at school.

That is, of course, the power of using games for education: when students are engaged and want to learn, they can make incredible progress in a relatively short amount of time. This is true of all types of games, too. Even those without explicit educational purposes, such as Dungeons and Dragons, nonetheless inspire players to learn extremely complex rule systems and commit huge amounts of new material to memory, merely in the interest of keeping the game entertaining (no one wants to stop an exciting battle or tense encounter to look something up in the rule book).

The important thing to remember, however, is that just making a game–even a fun game–is not sufficient to get students to learn. The students have to want to play the game, they have to find the experience compelling rather than simply entertaining. The latest episode of Extra Credits touches on this point several times in their treatment of the subject:

Anyone of my generation or younger can probably remember many sessions in the school computer lab where everyone was plopped in front of a computer, given a diskette copy of The Oregon Trail or Mickey’s Space Adventure, and left to have fun for an hour or so

Credit: Dos Games Archive

Credit: Dos Games Archive

while the teacher marked papers. And while I’m sure many of us got something out of these experiences (even if it was just dysentery), it seems to me that this kind of structured, time-limited, and mandatory “play” undermines the effectiveness of games as a pedagogical tool. It would be far better to encourage students to experiment with a variety of educational games on their own time and find the ones that really capture their imaginations, and reserve class time for things that require teacher-student interaction. Now, for all I know there could be many teachers and schools doing just this; it is certainly much more achievable now than it was when I was in school, and it seems a logical extension of many districts’ student laptop programmes.

Of course, allowing students this kind of freedom in their use of educational games would make it impossible to integrate games tightly into a given curriculum, as different students would be having very different experiences and likely learning different kinds of information. I suppose, however, that one could try to offer a selection of games with overlapping themes: a unit on Early Modern history could offer a choice of first-person exploration of historical places and situations (like the recreation of Renaissance Florence in Assassin’s Creed), political or military strategy games that include historical events (like Europa Universalis II), visual novels set against historical backdrops, or Carmen Sandiego-style investigations. Students could then take a class session to compare their experiences to others’, and perhaps even see how the same events or issues affected the different games.

Have you ever learned something useful from a game? How do you use games in your instruction? How do you think they should be used? If you could invent a game to teach students something, how would it work?

*If I remember correctly, the troublesome step was creating an (optional) boot disk. Alas I was too young and inexperienced to know exactly why this took eight hours.

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Featured image: Screenshot from  “Defender of the Crown” (Cinemaware, 1986).

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!

1 Comment

  1. August 12, 2013 at 3:53 pm —

    I enjoyed playing all the games mentions in the article. I currenlty like to play A Google a Day which shows how to efficiently use the Google search engine. The Wiki Game sounds fun, but I haven’t tried it before.

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