Book Review: Video Games and Learning

28 July 2015 1,600 views No Comment

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squireVideo Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age, by Kurt Squire

About the author: Kurt Squire is an assistant professor of Educational Communications and Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is Director of the Games, Learning & Society Initiative.

Summary: “Can we learn socially and academically valuable concepts and skills from video games? How can we best teach the ”gamer generation?” This accessible book describes how educators and curriculum designers can harness the participatory nature of digital media and play. The author presents a comprehensive model of games and learning that integrates analysis of games, games cultures, and educational game design. Building on over 10 years of research, Kurt Squire tells the story of the emerging field of immersive digitally mediated learning environments (or games) and outlines the future of education.”


Video games and learning: Teaching and participatory culture in the digital age explores ways that educators can utilize the interactive nature of digital games. The book provides an analysis of the educational benefits of commercial games and the social interactions they can foster. The book looks at games from three perspectives: (a) designing educational games, (b) teaching with games, and (c) mobile media and education. Squire provides an in-depth analysis of case studies he performed using the commercial game Civilization. He uses his experience with the game as a thread that weaves through the rest of the book. Almost every chapter ends with a section titled “Theory and practice” which reviews the ideas explored in the chapter and provides a bullet-point list of concrete take-aways. He ends off with an eye towards the future of educational gaming with a look at mobile media and independant games and gaming companies that focus on the educational market.

Designing “Good” Educational Games

Squire starts off by analyzing factors that encourage learning in games. Chapters 1 and 2 provide a general overview of how games can facilitate learning. By immersing players in the game world, Squire contends that games encourage players to think about all the details involved in that world in order to successfully navigate it. Games encourage systemic thinking by creating systems that players can manipulate and thereby understand the rules underlying the game world and the relationship between those rules. For example, players learn that if you change one variable, for example the type of ship you choose for your fleet in Civilization, it affects the entire system, for example the placement of cities. This encourages players to think holistically, rather than focusing on single details out of context. This type of thinking transfers better to real world situations outside of the game.

Games are deeply engaging and educators can study general game design principles to incorporate them into instruction. This can make learning more engaging, even without bringing an actual game into the classroom. Some of these principles Squire cites are providing overlapping goals, that is short- medium- and long-term goals that the player can work on at the same time; constructing open-ended problems that have more than one solution; creating open environments in which anything is possible, from battling aliens to developing super powers; providing different identities for players to try on; and engineering social spaces in which players can interact. Games also allow players to participate in a very hands on way with the game environment and with development of the game narrative, in a way that is not always provided in a classroom.

While many educational writers hypothesize that these things are true, Squire cites real world examples of these principles in action through surveys or case studies that he himself collected. Chapter 2 takes a closer look at the ideas raised in Chapter 1 and analyzes several popular games (Civilization, SimCity, and The Sims) through the lens of these ideas.

Teaching With Games

Squire spends the rest of the book expanding on these ideas by writing about his own experiences with games, both as a player and as a teacher. Chapter 3 describes how he connected with students through a mutual love of games and used that love to motivate students to learn in the classroom. He compares the open, but highly structured, nature of games to a typical Montessori classroom, an institution that has a long, proven history of success in education. He briefly mentions a criticism some educators have of the Montessori system being too structured and too rigid, and then glosses over it by explaining that the instructions can be interpreted differently by each instructor.

This illustrates the main problem with this book. While Squire acknowledges limitations of game based learning, he is quick to dismiss them with the belief that a good teacher can overcome these limitations. His belief may very well be true, but without more specific guidelines on how to overcome them, any teacher who is not an avid gamer will have trouble achieving the success that Squire has had. Squire is trying to make the argument that games can be used by any teacher, even one without a hard-core gaming background, yet he fails to convince the reader that that is true. In the end though, this is a minor failing in a book that is replete with concrete advice that is based on real-world experience.

In the next few chapters Squire describes several experiences he had as a researcher in the classroom using games to reach disengaged students and reignite their interest in learning. Until now the book has presented the teacher perspective on the challenges of integrating games into the classroom. This section switches perspective and provides insight into the student experience of using games as a learning tool. Squire provides quotes from students in his class and is able to show the progression from turned off student to engaged game player.

The argument he makes over and over is for the need for well designed educational games, using the analogy of poorly written textbooks. If a teacher bought textbooks written by someone who hates reading and does not know any grammar or spelling – it would be unfair to then say that all textbooks are worthless, since these books did not help students learn. Similarly, many so-called educational games are designed by educators who know little about games and game design. Unfortunately, the potential of all other games is judged by the failure of these games without considering the option to incorporate commercial games into teaching or the existence of well-designed games developed specifically for education (admittedly few and far between).

Mobile Learning and Augmented Reality

The last part of the book moves from digital games like Civilization and Pirates! to custom made augmented reality and simulations. This is perhaps where the book really shines because it shows a much tighter integration between gameplay and how the students apply knowledge gained in the game. Rather than focusing on how students feel about what they are learning or about the game they are playing, quotes from students show the thinking process that develops as students play the game. In these games students can take on different roles within the game and must analyze information discovered through gameplay. This section provides examples for teachers and explores ideas that apply outside the realm of history, which is Squire’s main subject as a teacher and the topic he focuses on in the rest of the book.

It is clear that Squire’s enthusiasm for games transfers well to the classroom and that he is able to utilize games to reach students who are already turned off by traditional learning. It also seems clear that it is not just Squire’s enthusiasm for games that motivates his students, but the interactive nature of the games themselves. However, it is not clear whether this new found engagement with learning history through playing Civilization transfers back to the classroom. Did understanding the underlying systems involved in the development of a certain civilization make it easier for students to remember relevant facts about that civilization? Were they more interested in learning about the real history of those civilizations, or did their interest end with wanting to manipulate history within the game environment?

Given the paucity of hard evidence on game based learning at this point in time, Squire is interested in showing that game based learning can work. Period. We are left with many other questions, however. Can it work with all students? With what type of student does it work best? With which subjects does it work best? What type of knowledge does it teach best? Does it teach content well or is it best used as a motivational tool? Can it replace other teaching tools such as textbooks or should it be used as a supplementary tool? These questions and others still need to be answered before more educators can be convinced that game based learning is a tool that every teacher should be using.

In the coda at the end of the book Squire does a good job of explaining why these kinds of questions are so hard to answer and why research in education in general is harder to do than in a hard science like health care. The gold standard of research is randomized trials, but this is hard to do in educational settings. Classes of students can rarely be manipulated in this way and researchers have to work with existing groups of students who are available and willing to participate. Much of educational research is done through case studies, which do not always generalize across the population. Additionally, the things that games are good at teaching are often hard to measure with standardized assessment tools. This makes it hard to evaluate student learning from games. While it may not raise test scores, it may raise interest in the material being learned and may lead to increased activity around that material, such as writing a letter to the editor.


While Squire clearly wants to be an evangelist for game based learning, and wrote this book to convince educators of its power, he does not blindly exhort people to follow his teachings. He realistically outlines pros and cons of using games for teaching and makes it clear that there is more work to be done to further this field by suggesting future areas of research and development. This book is highly useful to any teacher who is enthusiastic about games and wants to incorporate them into the classroom, as well as anyone interested in designing educational games for use by teachers (especially those teachers who may not themselves be gamers).

Elisa teaches online professional development courses for teachers at
Register now for Teaching With Games - starts Monday January 4, 2016. Save $50 - Register by December 7, 2015!

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