How video games can help students in class, at home

Adults worry about kids' video game time constantly. A researcher suggests that video games can really help kids at home and in the classroom. (Public domain image via

Adults worry about kids’ video game time constantly. A researcher suggests that video games can really help kids at home and in the classroom. (Public domain image via

Games are a daily part of our existence for most of us.

We play video games on our phones, our tablets, our computers, or TVs … almost everywhere.

We take part in games through rewards programs, accumulating points with our favorite restaurants, hotels and stores to redeem.

Elements of games are showing up more and more in classes and schools, as well. It’s no surprise … at all ages and in all walks of life, we just like to play.

If anybody knows their games, it’s Jane McGonigal. She’s the Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future. (Yes, it’s a real organization!) You might have seen her TED Talk, “Gaming can make a better world.”

Jane was the guest on a favorite podcast of mine, “Note to Self.” It’s an NPR show hosted by Manoush Zomorodi that fashions itself as “the tech show about being human.” (If this new podcast is your main take-away from this post, that’s a pretty good one!)

As they discussed games and what has been learned about them, I kept thinking, “Wow, this could really help students and what we do in the classroom!”

Here are some of my top take-home messages from that episode:

Wondering whether you should add elements of games to your classroom? The benefits can be more than just extra repetitions, McGonigal says. fMRI scans show that video games stimulate the opposite feelings to depression.

Some people can self-medicate depression (to some extent) by playing video games, she said. McGonigal quoted play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith: “The opposite of play isn’t work; the opposite of play is depression.”

We can give students a boost by incorporating some of those game-show-style formative assessment games like Kahoot!, Quizizz and Quizlet Live.

Can video games be a good antidote to problems students have? Yes, McGonigal says. For example, a short burst of a tricky puzzle game like sudoku or Cut the Rope can provide a boost of energy and motivation. Think of it like a dose of medicine: play for a short burst and then turn it off. A quick puzzle-game break could be a nice investment of time during class!

Games that produce a flow state (like Reigns) can reduce anxiety or stress when played for about 20 minutes. If you’re not willing to concede that large a chunk of time, just telling students about this strategy can help them help themselves.

Ever worry that your students spend too much time playing video games? How about your own kids, or yourself? McGonigal says playing video games can instill values like grit, persistence, community and creativity.

So, how can you tell when video games are helping or hurting? One way, McGonigal says, is to ask this: What have you gotten better at since playing this game? If kids (or anyone) can identify the skills they’re gaining from their play, it can be productive. Try asking that question the next time you chat with students about their video games.

[reminder]What do you think of all of this? What has been your experience with video games and yourself and/or your students/children?[/reminder]

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