Pretty far, compared with typical learning environments. Not just for kids either: according to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of video-gamers these days is 37, with 29% over the age of 50! (You know who you are. . .)

Oh, sorry: some of you may not know that Skyrim is a game. From a company called Bethesda Softworks. A video game. A role playing game.

According to sources I’m connected to who know this well (who are now banging their heads on their keyboards and calling me “the aging bald guy” at home and away), that’s like saying a Bentley is a passenger car. Yesss, it is, but. . . arghh!

Why can’t learning be more like this?

It’s the fifth in a long-running series of massive games that allow you to freely explore a very large world. (The explorable map for Skyrim is about 16 square miles of virtual northlands terrain.) And when I say freely, I mean just start running, dude. Any direction.You will hit stories, or they will hit you.Compare that with the standard, low-fi, rail-shooter that is a normal learning environment. Is it any wonder that those with below-champion standards of motivation lose the plot?

Think of what’s in this Skyrim thing: you can choose a wide array of specialties to pursue from the beginning. Your ability to get good at something depends only on your ability and willingness to work at it, though if you don’t keep challenging your growing skills, you’ll slow down your rate of improvement. You can accelerate your progress by periodically going in for training – but you also have to build up experience between trainings to benefit from more training. There’s a wide variety of goals tied to stories, large and small, short and long, in which your success – and skills – are critical.

Sounds pretty good, actually.

Indeed, these environments are designed to be better than the real world, at least as most learners experience it: Challenges come to you when you’re ready for them, not when the real world happens to create them. If you fail a challenge, you can go back, try it again or work your skills farther, think about what didn’t work – and challenge the goal again. The performance task that defines a goal remains invigorating, frustrating, implacable, challenging – there’s no multiple choice quiz to get you by, you actually have to have the skills you need, or get refused (with prejudice!).

Such games include good story-telling to help drive the work and personal goal-setting. You do repeat simple actions over and over, at a number of levels: Watching someone play one of these game without seeing the screen or hearing the sound is bizarre – they mash buttons, wiggle a mouse, twitch around – how hard can it be? Within the world, a player repeats some of the earlier-mastered skills over and over as new things come up, new problems get solved, new skills (highly anticipated) become available, but the massive amount of repetition that leads to fluency is buried under the goals of the latest and greatest challenge. (So they tell me.)

Behind the scenes, these game companies have figured out how to use massive amounts of data about a player’s interaction with the world to adjust the challenges, and continuously evaluate the learner’s (oops) player’s state of skills. No need for “tests” – plenty of information pouring in about what challenges the player is ready for, and not ready for, to adjust the experience – the experience/practiceis the test. And the bulk of data from all players is used to adjust the challenges over time, through new releases that improve every players’ experience based on how all the players’, in all their variety, have found things.

These companies’ very existence depends on them making learning compelling: if the challenges are not right, if the stories are not right, if the practice ends up tedious rather than compelling and effective, if players cannot succeed, then players/learners lose interest, move on to other things, and the title (often the company) dies. Harsh Darwinian conditions to build and deliver learning!

Well? Well? Well? Where are the learning environments that are “just like games?”

Plenty of enthusiasm to date – much writing about the links between the powerfully compelling game experience and research on learning, e.g. by Valerie Shute, James Paul GeeJan Cannon-BowersHenry Jenkins IIIChris Dede, and many more. True, earlier generations thought “for sure” radio, films, or television were the answer to learning – but no magic bullet was found. Yet, the argument goes, those media were far less interactive – far fewer parallels to what learning science suggests really drives learning.

Unfortunately, real evidence showing empirical benefits for learning is thin on the ground compared with well-designed alternatives to (expensive!) games. There are efforts to tease out general principles from compelling game-play, e.g. Jan Plass at NYU with the Microsoft Games institute, but with the massive expense (multiple millions of dollars) to develop commercial games, is it worth it?

So there’s no Skyrim for Science. No Mass Effect for Mathematics. No Resident Evil for Reading (and that may be a good thing. . .). No Legend of Zelda for Literature. No Portal for Physics. No Bioshock for Biology. No Half-Life for History.

The tools are better than ever, the links to learning are closer than any other media before,  experienced story-tellers know how to compel major skill progression effort, maturing and successful video-game developers (and players) have their own teen-agers in learning-environments that don’t look anything like the engrossing challenges they’ve already built (and played), several generations of students find the mechanics of gaming to be a part of living. . .

Who’s got a match? 😉


Bror Saxberg ran this blog on his site on 11/14/11.  



  1. Portal game makers launched a great education program in which middle schoolers create their own modules, learning problem solving, creative thinking, critical thinking, and physics in the process. This approach of adapting a hit game to educational needs, rather than trying to create an educational game that’s a hit, seems like the easier path to success.

  2. An interesting point, no question. Where it fits the time and objective, using an existing game to make a point or drive some skills is a good thing.

    The difficulty is that commercial games are designed for a different purpose. Their capacity to immerse a participant (for hours and hours) in a virtual world with virtual goals can end up displacing hours of time that (if well designed) might have been more efficient for the specific objective at hand.

    The tradeoff is not simple. Would you use the entire film Gone with the Wind in a high-school AP history class about the civil war? The answer isn’t exactly “yes” or “no” – it depends on the objectives, the alternatives available to you for the same amount of time, and other factors. But there’s a reasonable chance that, if you apply good instructional design principles, you would design a compelling but more efficient way to master the objectives you have for the course, given the limits of time you’ve got for students to master the materials.

    Note that key assumption: “if you apply good instructional design principles.” Many instructors simply don’t have the time to do this on their own, even if they had the inclination, or the skills (e.g., applying the principles from Clark and Mayer’s E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, even in a classroom setting).

    So that’s where scale needs to come in: figure out how to apply the good principles up-front, collect evidence to show that it works well, and then get it out to multiple folks to use, at (hopefully) a reasonable cost-per-learner.

    That would work for well-designed virtual learning games (assuming they can be made to work better than less expensive other alternatives) just as it can for other building-intensive learning environments.

    This also fits how most industries have evolved over the last 100 years – more care and investment up-front in tooling and skill-building, leading to higher-quality and lower-cost (on a per-unit-delivered basis) services delivered at scale. Use, and payment, at scale then pays back the up-front investment.

    Room to improve! 😉


  3. Sweet! “Someone I know” is also running that kind of character. By spending a lot of time enchanting , you can change armor to get even higher armor class. (Just like in the real world, work and practice add to your skills – although, unlike the real world, there are programming options, too, for those more inclined to not suspend disbelief)


    Best –


  4. Hi Bror! I generally try not to do this kind of calling card comment, but you really might want to look at what The Pericles Group is up to at, based on what my research group is doing at University of Connecticut. We think we’ve got a solution that not only avoids the expense of commercial game-development, but also has much greater affordances for the higher orders of learning that involve meta-cognition.


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