Sociologists classify our students and young teachers as “Gen Z”—a perennially wired cohort that doesn’t remember a time before mobile phones or the internet. They inhabit what media scholar Dr. Henry Jenkins terms a participatory culture. Unlike people raised on spectatorial media of TV, film, and books, Gen Zs were reared on an interactive diet of the internet, streaming services, social media, and video games. Rather than passively consuming content, Gen Zs are producers who actively participate through texts, comments, likes, digital play, wikis, and an endless array of interactive apps. Their schools, classes, and lecture halls, however, continue to operate along deeply entrenched spectatorial lines. There are exceptions, of course, but schools clearly struggle to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. Some educators may be surprised to discover that games may offer a solution.

Games, whether digital or analog, are exemplary participatory systems, and education has much to gain by learning with games, through games, and from games. Collectively, they are the complete 21st-​century package and an invaluable resource to help us understand how to make learning relevant, rethink instructional design, and, most importantly, meet students where they are. Games also solve one of our most daunting challenges: engagement. This is why so many progressive educators tap game-based learning as a means to make their practice relevant and engaging.

The concept is certainly intriguing; however, there are a few elephants in the room. How can games be used to meet standards? Aren’t video games supposed to be the enemy? What about reluctant teachers and skeptical parents? How can games help with standardized tests? What about the digital divide and tech limitations? These are all valid concerns, but, in truth, games are gathering so much cultural momentum that schools will inevitably change to reflect the digital participatory culture that becomes more game-like by the day. In the meantime, there are many accessible and actionable avenues that might be ventured.

It’s All About Systems

To begin, it is helpful to understand that games are more than just a fad, and they embody a core cultural phenomenon that is predictive of the future of education.

First, schools and games are both systems. Like hospitals, prisons, offices, and a host of other modern institutions, schools emerged from the factory system of the industrial revolution. Some features of this paradigm include mass production and scale, uniformity, repeatability, assembly line, and labor, to name a few. These characteristics, all apparent in schools, gave us mass literacy and public education. However, times have changed, and the factory model has fallen out of step with the needs of a digital generation.

Not only digital games, but all games are aligned with participatory digital sensibilities. This is why New York University scholar Eric Zimmerman writes that, in the 21st century, “the ways that people spend their leisure time and consume art, design, and entertainment will be games—or experiences very much like games.”

This cultural shift from the mechanical industrial to the ludic digital explains why the concept of disruption is so prominent in public discourse. If you examine any disruptive idea in education, you will find a digital paradigm that aims to uproot a factory practice. What we term disruption is actually an institutional realignment to better fit our interactive and participatory current sociocultural moment. The signs are everywhere: rethinking standardized tests, decrying the sage on the stage, and calls for individualized instruction, agency, voice, and choice—to name a few. These are all expressions of the emergent paradigm that is embodied by games, and the evidence is compelling.

The Rise of Games

We don’t have to look hard to discover how game systems have already infiltrated our cultural DNA. Digital games outsell film and music combined in the United States; according to the Entertainment Software Association, 214 million people in the United States played video games one hour or more per week in 2020. Seventy-five percent of U.S. households have at least one person who plays, and 64% of U.S. adults and 70% of kids under 18 regularly play video games. And it’s not just video games: card games, board games, escape rooms, and tabletop role-playing games are all booming. Universities and colleges everywhere offer game design and games studies programs, esports are rivaling traditional sports, games cafes have cropped up in every city, gamification is a staple of corporate training, and we’re seeing the advent of “gamified” TV and film, such as Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch episode. Some scholars claim that games, and digital games in particular, are the consummate art form of the 21st century because they so cleanly reflect our historical moment and, notably, incorporate all previous art forms: painting, dance, theater, architecture, sculpture, music, film, storytelling, and photography.

However, there is a persistent bias that connects video games with violence, addiction, and antisocial behavior—all of which are of genuine concern. But digital games are complex, and, as with all media, they are varied and nuanced. Like film, there are tens of thousands of titles, some violent, but many not. If you play What Remains of Edith Finch, Gone Home, Oxygen Not Included, Outer Wilds, SimCity, or Kerbal Space Program—to name a few used in classrooms—it is easy to see the learning potential of this powerful medium. Furthermore, there is a deliberate and growing effort to design serious games, or video games that grapple with social issues such as homelessness, cancer, race, and LGBTQ+ themes.

Game-Based Learning

Innovative teachers and a massive body of scholarly research are leading the game-based learning charge. A cursory web search will yield case studies, lesson plans, and support organizations that offer tangible examples of how games can be effectively implemented for instruction.

Fundamentally, games are inextricably tied to learning because play is nature’s most potent incentive to learn. Young animals and children, for example, are innately motivated to practice life skills through play. Pups brawl to prepare to survive in the wild, and toddler imagination play is a dress rehearsal for adult society. Arguably, it is impossible to play a game without learning something. For instance, we practice strategic thinking through chess, teamwork with the board game Pandemic, numeracy with Monopoly, negotiation through Diplomacy, spelling and vocabulary with Scrabble, deductive logic with Clue, and, if nothing else, a player learns how to improve at playing the game itself. All of these bestow obvious and subtle cognitive and social benefits. It is also important to remember that many digital games are, in fact, simulations where players manage economies, run cities and households, make political decisions, and explore the streets of ancient cities. Simulations allow students to learn in situ by doing, arguably the best way to learn.

The brief examples that follow illustrate how games are used to support every aspect of school life. Any of these cases can be further researched and, collectively, they provide a birds-eye view of the state of game-based learning.

  • Core Curriculum: Countless teachers and instructional designers now share standards-aligned lesson plans and models of using digital games, escape rooms, card games, and tabletop role-playing games to teach STEM, English language arts, civics, history, geography, moral philosophy, media literacy, and ethics. Minecraft Education alone offers free lesson plans for every age group and subject, while games like Portal 2, Assassin’s Creed, and even The Walking Dead are used to teach physics, history, and moral philosophy, respectively.
  • Assessment: Context is key to meeting learning objectives with games. Contextual evaluations and activities can resemble traditional forms of assessment. Additionally, games operate within a massive ecology of paratexts: advertisements, trailers, walkthrough videos, forums, reviews, strategy guides, YouTube analysis videos, parodies, machinima memes, etc. Any of these can become a relevant way to gather evidence of learning. Finally, game design itself may be the most potent form of assessment, as it can be used in any subject, is not tech-reliant, channels the maker ethos, requires deep content knowledge, and cultivates a host of literacies under the mantle of design thinking.
  • 21st-Century Competencies: Gameplay genuinely employs the gamut of what we term 21st-century learning skills or competencies. These include communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, digital literacy, resilience, mastery, and design thinking. This occurs precisely because games, as previously discussed, are directly expressive of 21st-century sensibilities. Games also exemplify the idea of safely learning through failure (Game over. Try again!), a much-lauded but rarely practiced ambition of contemporary education. Breakout EDU’s escape tools and resources, for example, can help nourish transferable competencies in all subjects.
  • Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Teachers, researchers, and therapists are increasingly using games to support SEL. They can be used to explore action and consequences with branching narratives, explore identity with role-playing games, cultivate empathy and perspective-taking through avatars, build resilience through trial and error, or connect kids socially and work on conflict resolution through collaborative gameplay. The iThrive Games Foundation, for example, provides standards-aligned resources for role play, game design, and curriculum to support SEL through games.
  • Extracurricular: After-school game clubs have become fixtures in many schools, as kids come together to play Minecraft, Dungeons & Dragons, Roblox, and competitive esports. Esports is now a staggering global industry—with hundreds of millions of fans who fill stadiums and watch streams—and colleges now offer esports scholarships. Organizations such as the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) can help shepherd a team into a league but also provide classroom curriculum support.

These are only some ways that games can be used in schools, and our students can teach us even more. Games not only occasion meaningful learning but also empower our students to help envision and implement new models from the worlds they inhabit. Kids are more deeply invested in learning when we recruit them to teach us and work with us.

Game Design as Instructional Design

One of my favorite edu-proverbs is, “Don’t teach, but create the conditions where learning takes place.” In light of the internet, apps, and emerging AI (Artificial Intelligence), teachers must reconsider their role as dispensers of knowledge. They will profit from reimagining themselves as learning curators and experience designers. To that end, game design principles are an invaluable resource to inspire progressive instructional design.

Many educators with whom I work assure me that they are not designers when we start a course or workshop, but they inevitably walk away with a confident designer swagger and a new superpower. My approach is relatively simple: We examine how games are made. We play games, read relevant research and case studies, learn some basic design principles and, finally, build a prototype. Remarkably, rather than reskin Monopoly for science, or create thinly disguised math flash cards, they consistently make unique and engaging games that effectively meet targeted learning goals. Many could be published. Why? Because teachers are designers, and we all have much more game in us than we suspect. All it takes is a little artful midwifery and a mindset adjustment to bring these latent skills to light.

The real benefit, however, is that in the guise of making game systems, they are really designing engaging learning systems. Every game is a model that can potentially be mined to inform instructional design: homework, grades, and bonuses can become quests, experience points, and power-ups. Moreover, fostering a game design culture for both teachers and students—whether through dedicated game design courses, extracurricular game design clubs, game design as assessment, game jams, or as a resource to inform instructional design—will yield valuable dividends. In addition to online material offered by the Connected Learning Alliance, organizations such as Global Game Jam and Epic Games Inc. offer tools and resources to support various game-design initiatives.

Educators, including my preservice and education grad students who are introduced to the power of games, often claim this mindset and approach is transformative. It causes them to reconsider what it means to teach and learn, they see themselves in a new light, and it energizes their practice. Best of all, the students love it. This is the magic that happens when we tap into the right approach at the right time.

Paul Darvasi, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada. He is also a founding member of Play Lab.