Three ways to think about games and learning

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source:  Spencer Greenhalgh

On October 23rd, I contributed to a professional development day at Ruth Fox Elementary School with my colleagues Doug Hartman, Cui Cheng, Rohit Mehta, and Shannon Prince. You can see us in the picture below along with Amber White, who invited us to come to Ruth Fox.


Rohit, Shannon, Cui, and I all had a chance to talk about some of the educational technology that we’re most excited about, so it’s unsurprising that I took some time to discuss learning and games. The more time I spend studying games and learning, the more I realize just how broad of a field it is and just how particular my opinions and perspective are; as a result, I felt that it was important to give a brief overview of some of the main views of games and education before zeroing in on the one that I find most compelling. I thought I’d share these thoughts here, too, using the same example as I did at Ruth Fox: the wonderful Kerbal Space Program.

I’ve discussed Kerbal Space Program before, but here’s a refresher:


The adorable little aliens above (all of these pictures are courtesy of are Kerbals, so it probably comes as no surprise to you that the goal of this game is to help them build their own space program. Now, this involves designing planes and rockets, flying planes and rockets, and—if you’re very lucky—avoiding fiery explosions involving planes and rockets.

So, there are a few ways that we can think about Kerbal Space Program:

Games are fun!


First, Kerbal Space Program is a fun way to learn. I can tell you from personal experience that flying planes and launching rockets is a lot of fun. Competing with other players to see who could get to “the Mun” first would probably be even more fun. If I were given a choice between playing Kerbal Space Program and reading about space travel in a textbook, I would hands-down choose Kerbal Space Program. Actually, I might choose both, but that’s because I’m a massive nerd.

In my view, though, there’s at least one problem with this way of thinking: If I had the choice between reading about space travel in a textbook and watching the new Star Wars movie, I would hands-down choose the new Star Wars movie (again, massive nerd). So, just because something is fun doesn’t mean you’re going to learn something from it.

Games invite you to think and solve problems!


Second, Kerbal Space Program gets you involved in thinking and problem-solving. Here’s a view of what it looks like to build a rocket in the game, and that takes a lot of decisions about how much fuel you need, how much everything costs, what order you should put things in, and what’s the best tool for the job. That takes a lot of thinking and a lot of experimenting, and I have no doubt that a student who spends time playing Kerbal Space Program is going to come away with some more advanced problem-solving skills.

However, I think there’s still an issue with this view. I have no doubt that a student who spends time playing Super Mario Brothers is going to come away with some more advanced problem-solving skills. It’s just that the problems in Super Mario Brothers aren’t necessarily the ones we care about in our classes. Call me a pessimist, but I just don’t know where they’re going to apply the kind of thinking that tells them exactly when they should jump on a Goomba’s head. So, just because you’re learning thinking and problem-solving skills doesn’t mean that you’re learning the right ones.

Games situate real situations!


So, for me, the best way to think about Kerbal Space Program is that it simulates real space travel. Not perfectly, mind you, but here we see an image of a player trying to figure out the exact right trajectory and velocity that she needs to escape the orbit of Kerbin, loop around the Mun, and come flying back in the direction they want to go. When Kerbal Space Program lets a student do that, it does two things:

First, it lets her play a role—an authentic role—that she doesn’t usually get to play. When we’re teaching things in the classroom, it can be hard to get across the idea that the information and the skills we’re sharing are of actual importance to real people somewhere. Games can help us do that.

Second, it shows her how the world works in terms of space travel. There are rules you have to follow and information that you have to apply if you want to get the results you have in mind.

There are probably issues with this approach to games and learning that someone smarter than me would bring up, but I think that it’s the best way to think about games and learning. Besides, when we use games to simulate real situations, I’m willing to bet that a lot of problem-solving and a lot of fun are going to happen, too!

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.