Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

8 Reasons Why We Should Teach to the Game (#GBL)

from James Paul Gee, David Williamson Shaffer : Looking where the light is bad: Video games and the future of assessment


In the past we have referred to games as good “learning engines.” Here we argue that games are good learning engines because they are first good assessment engines. Games require the kind of thinking that we need in the 21st Century because they use actual learning as the basis for assessment. They test not only current knowledge and skills, but also preparation for future learning. They measure 21st Century skills like collaboration, innovation, production, and design by tracking many different kinds of information about a student, over time. Thus we suggest that the road to better schools starts by making the tests in school more like the games that students are already playing out of school.

Key points

Why should schools and other learning sites use the learning principles that are embedded in good video games? Well, good games focus on problem solving. They provide a good mix of practice and guidance.

These good principles for learning are even more important in the 21st Century, where students need to learn to work with others and with digital tools to produce and not just to consume knowledge. They need 21st century skills like innovation, critical thinking, and systems thinking.

So what stands in the way? Why can’t we enter the 21st century in our classrooms?

The answer is simple: assessment.

Our standardized tests, coupled with our accountability policies, force teachers to teach to out-of-date tests. The curriculum is based on reading from text books and listening to teachers talking, on drill and practice. Which leaves too little time for doing, for exploring, and for developing deep understanding of complex topics and issues. Classes focus on facts and formulas that learners need to pass standardized tests, but years of research shows that when people learn that way they have a very hard time applying what they “know” to solve real problems.

In other words, we’ve been looking in the wrong place because we’ve been designing games for learning when we should have been designing games for testing.

The single biggest problem with standardized tests today is that they are built around facts and information in and for themselves, rather than around problem solving.

In assessing students’ problem solving skills, a GA21 (Good Assessment for the 21st century) would also have to assess 21st Century skills. There are now lists of such skills [9], often including things like innovation, collaboration, civic engagement, critical thinking, system thinking, technical skills, ability to produce with digital media, and so on.

In other words, a GA21 would test whether students make the kind of choices that experts do in a domain as they work with other people to solve complex problems of innovation, production, and design.

More and more people in the United States and other developed countries fear that low cost centers like China and India will out-compete us in the global economy. They fear that if our school system continues to focus on skill-and-drill and teaching to standardized tests, it will erase the lead the United States once had in innovation and creativity.

To break out of the old paradigm of teaching to standardized tests of basic facts and skills we need new assessments that:

1. Change what we test by focusing on complex problem solving, 21st Century skills like collaboration, innovation, production, and design, and evaluating students’ preparation for future learning;

2. Change how the assessment takes place by tracking many different kinds of information about a student, over time, and integrate assessment with learning; and

3. Change the purpose of assessment from sorting students and punishing “underperforming” teachers and schools to providing students, administrators, parents and teachers with feedback they can use to make decisions that support good learning,

Some of the key properties of games, and how they create the conditions of a GA21 are:

1. Games are built around problem solving (players have to use facts in the context of making consequential decisions)

2. Games inherently require and assess a set of 21st century skills (“cross-functional” team, modify (mod) the game, designing their own levels and scenarios)

3. Games assess whether a player is ready for future challenges (Good boss levels test whether the player is ready and prepared to learn, and learn well, on the next level.)

4. Games collect information about players on many dimensions (in a game like Civilization, the game keeps track of how players deal with problems across time)

5. Games track information across time (levels are deliberately designed to model the development of the player as the game proceeds)

6. Games integrate learning and assessment (learning and assessment are, in many ways, inseparable)

7. Games provide information that players can use to get better at the game (not to sort the player against other players, allows players—and would allow people who wanted to mentor them—to make decisions about what to do next to get better, have more success, and develop)

8. Games have to be equitable (offer different resources and different rewards for different sorts of players)

epistemic game, game-based learningDeep down, in other words, games do not just “have good assessments built into them.” No, deep down, games are nothing but good assessment.

Too much of the work currently being done on digital tools for assessment takes the same old standardized tests as a model: finding ways to make them cheaper, to use question banks more effectively, to make them more time-efficient by skipping questions a student is likely to get right, to make it harder to cheat, and so on.

The first, and perhaps most evident, is that designers of 21st Century assessments can learn a lot from games. Games offer a radically different example for assessment designers to build from: a kind of working model of what a 21st Century test can look like.

At the end, the paper presented an epistemic games called “Urban Science” as one example of how learning games can—and should—be used as assessment games.

Continuing to focus on learning without paying attention to assessment is an effort doomed to failure. Assessments drive the learning in which a system will engage. So we say: “Teach to the game.” The road to better schools starts by making the tests in school more like the games that students are already playing out of school.

Note: This content is a briefing of the paper, please read it for details.


Gee, J.P. and D.W. Shaffer. Looking where the light is bad: Video games and the future of assessment (Epistemic Games Group Working Paper No. 2010-02). Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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3 Responses »

  1. One thing you mention in your post that I think is really important is feedback for the learners. Only with feedback they can develop and improve. It is essential to weight feedback over evaluation to heat up the cognitive environment as John Tagg writes in his very recommendable book “The Learning Paradigm College”.
    I wrote some thoughts about gamification of work on my blog ( that might fit well to game based learning. One central point I want to make here is that a skill tree is a very powerful tool to track learning and show possibilities for further development.
    Keep up the great work & may the force be with you,


  1. 8 Reasons Why We Should Teach to the Game (#GBL) | Teaching with web 2.0 tools |
  2. trishcloud (trishcloud2) | Pearltrees

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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