What Education Can Learn From Video Games

Education Can Learn A Lot From Video Games

So recently this idea of ‘gamification’ has been jumping around in my head.

There’s something simultaneously immature and brilliant about it, but I haven’t been sure exactly what.

The Role of Video Games

First, the easy part.

As with all media forms, video games have long lived in isolation. As primarily an independent experience, others may watch over a gamer’s shoulder, or even join in on the couch beside, but that was pretty much it.

Like a great book, if it was really cool, one might talk to others about the experience, but the game—and the gamer’s performance–was in a quiet bubble. While all media forms could communicate to one another through both inspiration and allusion (one game suggesting another, or one game referencing another), but in terms of authentic social interaction, there was little and obviously none in real-time.

Interdependent Video Games

Then progressive video game developers–Hideo Kojima, for one–got really fancy and started having games communicate with one another. Literally. In one entry from his popular video game series Metal Gear Solid, a character from the game would scan your memory card (for non-gamers, this is where you save your progress in games—like a bookmark in a game). In scanning, this digital character would recognize and comment on other games you were playing, your taste in games, and so on.

For context, imagine the author of a book, suddenly sentient, ‘sensing’ through the bookmark other books that mark has been used in—Harold Bloom for example bristling at sharing a bookmark with Stephenie Meyer. Testifying to the potential of this emerging, interactive multimedia form, it was an interesting sort of demonry [2].

Eventually, storylines in games would be interdependent as well: what you did in one game could affect what happened in the next: decisions made by characters in game resonated beyond that game itself in a sort of digital ripple [3]. This degree of connectivity underscored the power of digital media. It was fluid and, on occasion, highly intertextual.

But not yet social.

So when the whole internet thing got off the ground, there was bound to be some evolution—or at least change in that direction. Video games are played on consoles, the three current hardware forms being Sony’s Playstation 5, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, and Nintendo’s Switch (though, in accordance with the tenants of technology, all three have replacements in some stage of development).

All three are also connected to the internet, which allows for communication, from basic user messaging systems to more advanced use APIs. And trophies [4].

Digital Gold Stars

Trophies are like digital gold stars. Accomplish anything of note in a video game—simple or grand—and a little digital trophy will briefly light up in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, then disappear into your trophy case. The kinds of achievements that are rewarded depend on the game designer; some are easy and are rewarded naturally as you complete the levels or missions. Others require for the player to go well out of their way to obtain them.

With trophies, no longer was there a single carrot to motivate the player, but dozens of carrots. With this development, the big idea of a game was no longer simply about getting the ‘high score,’ solving the puzzle, or defeating the boss. Instead of completing entire arcing storylines and epic interactive narratives, trophies now encouraged gamers to seek out more frequent, immediate, and even whimsical matters of gratification, and in doing so recognized new definitions of progress.

Media consumption had become awkwardly fragmented and incremental.

The social angle? Your ‘trophy case’ is shared across your friends list online, and can even be shared via Facebook and other web content. When you accomplish something (no matter how ridiculous), it is broadcast to the world.

And this is no minor change.

The concept of completing the digital narrative through interaction found company—and, one could argue, distraction—in this trophy system, but also an addiction to the constant recognition, visibility, and connectivity that social media itself breeds.

Here, the pursuit of mundane minutiae can become paramount. Traditional goals—’beating the game’—are in effect supplanted by a self-selected, self-paced, and even artistic expression of your interaction with the game. With some achievements so difficult to obtain, requiring huge investments in time, the achievements became both personal expression and social status.

Experience Points (XP)

In addition to trophies is an equally nascent concept of ‘experience points,’ or ‘XP’ in gaming vernacular. XP allows characters to ‘level up’ as they play. As coins are collected or dragons are slain, points are awarded to the gamer that can be spent as a form of digital currency to spend developing their character. In this way, gamers are able to create characters—and gaming experiences—that are personal, with few characters turning out exactly alike.

Gamers become authors, and their digital avatars in effect become self-nuanced protagonists. The media consumer becomes the media creator; no longer simply a consumer, nor an original producer, but rather prosumer [5].

As a media form, what video games lack in dwell time with substance, they compensate for with interaction, authorship, and details. Between trophies and XP, the gravity of gaming has shifted from isolated acts—save the princess, turn the game off–to fully interdependent and borderline sentient systems that connect people and performance.

So this process of gamification is a bigger deal than it seems. Above all else, gamification is about the ability to underscore and emphasize any portion, product, or process.

A Change In Behavior

By maintaining systems of achievement, rewarding detail-oriented tasks, and providing highly-evolved character development systems, the gamification of any media is increases visibility, and an awareness of the intricate. These flexible, digital systems promote crafting and curating of incredibly complex processes, awarding reflection, analysis, metacognition, and social—yet self-directed–revision of thinking and behavior.

Within a gamified curriculum, possible pathways are infinite, passivity is murdered, and performance is transparent to all stakeholders.

Consumers become producers, self-aware and self-directed. The burden of ‘proficiency’ is replaced by the role of curious play, and notions of ‘accountability’ are publically—and permanently–rebalanced.

This is what education stands to gain.


  1. The process of applying game characteristics to non-game entities
  2. Watch just past the 6:00 mark for the reference, or the whole video for the full context
  3. See Bioware’s Mass Effect series
  4. As a matter of semantics, there are both ‘Trophies’ and ‘Achievements,’ but they’re essentially the same thing. Microsoft got the ball rolling on this idea first; when they introduced the idea, they called them ‘Achievements.’ Sony wasn’t interested in what at the time seemed like a subtle layer to the game’s experience. But there can be a lot of genius in subtlety, and when it started costing them consumer dollars, Sony got to work righting the shift and pleasing the masses, and soon Playstation users had their own system to document and curate player performance—and in parallel, unique pathways of media consumption
  5. http://www.georgeritzer.com/docs/Production%20Consumption%20Prosumption.pdf and http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/