Playing Games Can Build 21st-Century Skills. Research Explains How.
There’s something special about games. Sure they’re fun, but they can also be absorbing, frustrating, challenging and complex.
Research has shown our brains are “wired for pleasure,” and that games are an effective way to learn because they simulate adventure and keep our brains engaged and happy. But what exactly do we learn from them? In an era consumed with teaching 21st-century soft skills, are games any good at building critical thinking or collaboration skills? The answer is likely yes, but, much like games themselves, it’s complicated.
“What you'll find from the research is that it's very much dependent on, ‘under certain types of conditions, certain types of skills seem to be developed,’” explains game designer and theorist Katie Salen, a former executive director at the nonprofit Institute of Play. “I never want to make claims that games writ-large for any kid—under any circumstances—teach these sort of skills.”
On a Quest
A decade ago, Salen helped design and open a Manhattan middle school with a unique proposition. Instead of learning from a combination of books, lectures and software, as students do at most schools, the primary mode of instruction for kids attending Quest to Learn is games.
Digital games were included from the start, of course, but the school also decided to include elements of game design in nearly everything kids did during the day. Thus, learning objectives were reframed as quests—a staple of many role playing games—challenging kids to design a safe transport into the earth’s crust during science class or simulate court cases during civics. Socratic Seminars, a group discussion technique popular in English classes, were turned into Socratic Smackdowns, where students earned points based on how well they structured arguments.
A project of the Institute of Play, Quest, as the school is known, is an Innovation Zone (or iZone) school, itself a project of the city’s public school system. It eventually expanded into high school, scaling up its challenges like levels in a video game and borrowing elements from game design—such as its approach to final exams, which are interactive and structured like “final boss” levels.
Yet even though the school is zoned for a wealthy area of Manhattan, where achievement is highly prized, standardized test scores were nothing special. As part of a long-term study on the school, a team of researchers at NYU, led by Richard Arum, decided to look at other metrics, including a performance-based test called the College and Work Readiness Assessment, which is designed to measure various problem solving and reasoning skills.
The NYU team found that in just one year, the average Quest student in grades eight to ten showed as much growth on the exam as college students did on a similar performance-based test across four years. The takeaway? Quest students learned skills like problem solving at a much faster rate than students in college.
Additionally, Arum has said that the school is adept at building soft skills, such as design thinking, along with collaboration and critical thinking. Part of that success may be attributable to the way games are designed—e.g., minimizing failure and providing immediate feedback for students. Though it might also have to do with the conditions for learning espoused by Salen (who has since stepped away from Quest, but still sits on the Institute’s board).
If it does have to do with conditions, then how games are used for learning—and the context teachers place them in—might be just as important as the games themselves. But make no mistake: game design is very important for learning.
The Balanced Game
Research hasn’t shown much evidence that games—in general—lead to increased learning outcomes. Even getting good at a game is no guarantee those skills will transfer to other tasks in our lives. Instead, learning through play appears to be context specific.
A highly-competitive game, for example, can build persistence and even collaboration as anxious players work through solutions in order to win. Likewise, a multiplayer role-playing game poses challenges that require players to work together, setting the stage for collaborative problem solving. And kids who, say, design their own cities using simulation games may show stronger problem-solving abilities than peers learning about cities in more traditional ways.
When games succeed at teaching broader skills that go beyond content-level knowledge, they often do so because they marry the best parts of entertainment gameplay—or the feedback loops and successive challenges that keep us glued to Candy Crush—with established learning theories, such as constructivism (learning by doing and reflection) or flow (learning by being perfectly immersed and focused on an activity).
In fact, all games use learning theory to some extent. Think about it: You don’t turn on Tetris or Tomb Raider for the first time knowing how to play. You have to learn while the game teaches you—and it all has to be engaging and immersive enough for you to want to keep playing.
There’s another reason why games can be so good at teaching certain soft skills, such as resilience, problem solving and collaboration: They put us in a state of play. That, in turn, makes taking risks and failing—acts we typically try to avoid—part of the process, and even the excitement.
“We expect games to be spaces where we fail,” Salen says. “It's actually fun to get better at something in a game when it's structured in the right way.”
Essentially, Salen contends that games are just systems that put a stack of difficult problems in front of players, and then challenge them to figure out how to solve them. In really good games, the challenges are hard, but there are enough opportunities sprinkled in—such as collecting resources or trading with others—that let you progressively develop these skills and succeed.
How games are designed can also play a big role in whether we learn, or even keep playing. Well-designed games feature certain design elements that motivate us to either try harder or try a different approach. These games are adaptive—that is, they get harder as we progress—and they engage our curiosity. They make us want to discover new things, they provide immediate feedback and they spell out goals in a clear way. Often, they feed on our competitive side and when we do well, they provide some sort of reward—even if it’s just a smiley face at the end of a level.
On the flip side, “a poorly designed game is one that we would say is maybe not balanced correctly,” Salen says. It may be too hard at some times, too easy at others. It doesn’t differentiate based on our skill level and, as a result, can feel too frustrating or repetitive.
“Games have to be designed in a way so they have what we call a level playing field,” Salen explains. “At all moments, all players need to feel like they have a chance to win. When we talk about skill development, it takes time. If you want to keep your players in your game so that they can develop skills, you have to continually engage them.”
Play, Explore, Study, Build
In 2016, two researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina set out to see what the existing research really had to say about gaming’s impact on 21st-century skills. In their published meta-analysis, they found a “dearth of high-quality” research on the subject, indicating the field is either unpopular with researchers or tough to measure. In the end, they managed to identify 29 separate studies—which mostly looked at problem solving and critical thinking skills—and examined their outcomes.
Many of the studies that showed the most significant results focused specifically on critical thinking skills. According to the Clemson analysis, these studies “rarely targeted other 21st-century skills such as creativity and collaboration as learning outcomes.”
But the crux of their findings goes back to those game design elements so crucial to a game’s success—and our enjoyment of it. Interestingly, the researchers found that not all design elements are created equal when it comes to imparting soft skills. The studies that showed the most success (i.e., larger effect sizes) incorporated specific game design elements, including collaboration, competition, role playing, and exploration and discovery.
Yet elements such as clear goals, the use of strategy and even low-stakes failure were less frequently associated with successful outcomes. Those things are undoubtedly nice to have—but design elements that correlate directly to specific skills appear to be more useful for students. Naturally, the authors concluded that educators looking to boost 21st-century skills should select games that emphasize those elements that made the most impact.
Perhaps the most successful games in the analysis were ones where students had to actually create something themselves. The researchers called them design-based games, and noted they could take a number of forms. Some asked students to create their own games using block-based coding tools, while others asked them to produce an interactive story about their learning by the end of the lesson.
After analyzing a variety of studies that looked at different game genres, including educational and entertainment games, the researchers concluded that design-based games performed the best. In other words, students either learned more or showed better improvement in skills like critical thinking when they created something during or after gameplay.
When the journalist Greg Toppo visited Quest to Learn for his book, “The Game Believes in You,” he found a similar phenomena happening there. Kids weren’t spending all day glued to screens as they tried to level up in content-specific games. Instead, he observed, they spent much more time engaged in making or doing things, such as designing clothes for a future game, writing reflections, arguing over rules or creating their own games. And the students using digital devices were typically playing open sandbox games, which encourage creation and exploration and can be adapted for a variety of subjects and tasks.
The Quest approach maps to other research and best practices, which hold that a sizable amount of learning comes from the collaboration and creativity that takes place around gameplay. For example, pairing kids up to play a game can get them working and solving problems together, but it also forces them to explain the subject at hand.
“In the moment they're talking about it, you get a lot of learning for free because they might have to think about technical terminology,” says Kurt Squire, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied how games impact learning. “That's a general finding in research in other fields, but it works in kind of a cool way in games.”
Squire is a champion of a game-based learning model he calls “Play, Explore, Study, Build,” which leans heavily on learning theories like constructivism. In this model, students only play games for around 10 percent of the time, typically in the beginning. The rest of the time they’re doing related activities that don’t involve gaming at all. Thus, a fifth-grader might start out by playing a life science game to draw him into the topic, but then spend the rest of the unit exploring and researching the topic, getting out into nature and finally building something tangible, such as a model ecosystem, either physically or digitally.
In short, games can kickstart learning, but students need to learn how to apply those skills to the analog world as well. Strategies like these may hold the key to building more resilient and adaptive players, both in class and in life.
“The goal is to think about games in the context of a broader pedagogical model,” Squire says. “It’s never games or traditional activity—it's always about the interplay between them.”