How gaming enables learning: things you know because of games

Einstein_gaming_enables_learningRoberta’s blog post on Gamification got me thinking… Games and Learning, what gives?

I used to think that games were something that people grow out of… but then I grew up and the same people that I played games with years ago were the same people who were employed by reputable firms, and still played games in their spare time. They played games all the way through University, and sometimes played games even as married family men.

It’s a universal truth, games are for everyone. Arguing if you need to “get over those childish habits” is nothing I am interested in; mainly because I don’t believe in that nor do I think we need to merit that with any arguments.

Throughout my school years, as a kid and later a high school and university student, I have always been an avid gamer. I remember that after playing on my Sega Mega Drive for the first time, I was addicted… my father had a Computer shop and between selling software solutions to clients, he made sure I got a good healthy dose of gaming in my everyday life. Don’t get me wrong, I had the full package childhood experience of Batman cartoons early in the weekend morning and school was about learning; my early exposure to games though allowed me to see the world with a completely different eye.

I remember I would maneuver my body in ways I had seen in video games to get away when we played chasing games in school, and large part of how I came up with solutions to problems derived from previous practice in game riddles and puzzles. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that gaming solely created a smarted man out of me, but all other things equal, it gave me an edge to developing my problem solving more quickly, come up with alternatives for potential roadblocks, and learning new skills.

Learning new skills, that’s a claim! Some time ago I read an article about a 10 year old child that saved his family’s life when he took over the wheel, because his grandmother had passed out behind the wheel. He attributed his rational reaction to driving the car out of harm’s way to a surface that would decelerate it naturally and save the lives of the passengers to playing Mario Kart.

And this eases me into the part where I talk about what I learned from games…

Super Mario Bros. (1989, Game Boy) taught me all about not giving up, I used to play that game at a very young age, and having no manual or someone to show me the hows and whats meant that I had to learn on-the-fly and be responsive to whatever tried to kill poor Mario… it was a blast!

Microsoft Flight Simulator (1982-2006): I can still remember the feeling when I would go full throttle on the runway in my Cessna small aircraft. Of course it wasn’t as grand as the Boeing 747, but it was something that I felt was more attainable even in real life, and if I could manage it on the simulator, I could probably try it live one day. I haven’t done that yet, but I had a friend who ended up becoming a Pilot, and had all the certifications from Microsoft’s Flight Simulator; it was a big deal, especially because it complemented his real-life practice and allowed him to make mistakes which would be unacceptable under any other circumstance. If we are to look at the bigger picture, pilots, drivers, and even surgeons train using simulators nowadays and that’s just one sign that the times are moving, and computer games are not just child’s play. I remember around the times I used to play Flight Sim. I was flying to the US for holidays, and I asked the pilots if they used Flight Simulators to train… the pilot jokingly replied “if that were possible I would have one at home!” – surprisingly enough the time came not long after that we realized companies had the technology and did indeed use it to test flights, train pilots, and try new techniques.

Gran Turismo (Polyphony Digital, 1997-2013) was my first ever contact with realistic driving; before that there were games like Need for Speed (1996-1997 was the first release) and that was somewhat realistic too, in terms of physics and the such, but Gran Turismo was unlike anything there ever was… the response of the car was as realistic as it got, damage to the car was a feature we had never seen before and mistakes were not taken lightly… you couldn’t turn by smashing on the wall and hope that you would re-enter the straight, no! I guess a lot of how I drive today, how I turn, and the reason I know it’s best to break before the turn was taught to me many years ago, playing this game.

Counter-Strike (2003, Valve) heightened and sharpened my reflexes, response time, and it also greatly developed strategic decision making in me. It’s a game in which you play as a team, you have to split responsibilities and cover a large map between the team, cover each-other, communicate effectively and take down the opponent. It’s not an easy task.

World of Warcraft (2005, Blizzard); now I have to pause. The amount of things myself and friends I’ve witnessed learn is large!
Firstly, I know an astounding number of people who couldn’t speak english before picking up the game, and that’s not a joke. I have reports of friends who passed their English Proficiency tests solely by playing MMORPG games that forced them to learn how to communicate properly. You would be amazed what being in a large team (Clan or Guild) can do to you when it is comprised of people from all over the world; you get exposed to different dialects of a language, different accents and of course, different levels of proficiency which in turn forces you to step up your game and communicate. How do you think people learned before schools were around? exposure, practice, practice, practice!

Secondly, World of Warcraft is an MMORPG which is the abbreviation for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. The game classification in itself implies the exposure to a massive amount of different personas; WoW peaked around 14 million users at some point, most of which are part of what we call Guilds (a team which has a goal of taking down Bosses within the game and achieving goals that are unattainable without the help of the team). Those Guilds are lead by a Guild Master and his officers; I think you know where I’m going with this.

To give you some perspective, a single “Raid” (gathering of a team to collectively slay a boss or achieve a goal) used to require 40 people to coordinate at once. I vividly remember the preparation stage before a Raid, and I can only imagine the agony of coordinating such a large group of people, to sit through easy and hard parts of a game, even when they seemingly had little to gain (either because the boss dropped nothing they wanted, or because it was part of a progression stage which meant they would simply die a lot before achieving a kill), it seemed as if people united and determined for the kill became a fist of might that against all odds stayed together and fought through the tough time.

It is therefore fair to conclude that World of Warcraft not only taught us how to be leaders, but also taught us what it takes to be part of a team, and how sacrificing your comfort for the team can in turn be beneficial for you too, in the long run.

While doing research to write about this topic, I made sure to ask my friends how they felt learning had been facilitated through gaming; some of the responses are quoted below:

I always hated and avoided doing math and algorithms, until I played Kerbal Space Program.The reason I got interested in the english language was the need to understand RPG game dialogues, back then when I was in 2nd grade – elementary school playing final fantasy and zelda on my SNES and playstation 1. My eye-hands coordination, peripheral vision and reflexes would never be as sharp if I wasn’t that much into fps games (cod, bf). At first I believed it was such a waste of time playing so many games, now I know this is not the case.

I used to play an RPG called “Arcanum: of steamworks and magic obscura” in grade 9. We did an English Olympiad that year and I knew all these obscure words that I had learnt from the game.

The “Resident Evil” series helped a lot with my English, due to the documents you had to read in the game, so you could solve puzzles, find secret items etc…

I pretty much learnt most of history in school from games: age of empires taught me the feudal system, Vietcong taught me about the Vietnam war, pretty much any other American developed game gives you the American perspective on the cold war & world war 2…


By no means is anyone trying to insinuate that gaming should or could replace learning in school all together, but we have pretty strong evidence from our everyday lives that it complements learning and in some cases it gets people interested in subjects they probably would never be interested in otherwise. I have found myself going back to things I had already learnt in school, just because a game’s history or objective made me interested in learning more.

Think of the following: The movie 300 was in part an inaccurate depiction of events; as a movie, it wasn’t meant to educate, far from it. With the big picture being how a small army of Spartans beat the large army of Persians in the passage of Thermopylae, the background story was derived from comic books and everyone who had a little more knowledge on the subject knew that it was a movie and that alone was reason enough to exaggerate things and make it flashy! Ok, we get that! Think of something else; how many know who Leonidas is because of that movie? How many people got actually interested in reading about the events in the passage of Thermopylae because of that movie, and how many people got interested in the “Spartan” way of upbringing and training? You now have spartan workouts popping all over the internet with a large emphasis on how the spartans used to train to sculpt the Greek God’s body, and although you may think this is all coincidental, it’s because of a movie that millions of people got interested in learning; did this facilitate learning? Yes it did!

This is a clear example of what is called “Tangential Learning“; I was watching videos on learning through games when I stumbled upon the “Extra Credits” special on “Tangential Learning”.

Feeling ready to back up some claims with scientific evidence…

scientific study from Queen Mary University of London and University College London found out that:

Previous research has demonstrated that action video games, such as Halo, can speed up decision making but the current work finds that real-time strategy games can promote our ability to think on the fly and learn from past mistakes, said researcher Dr. Brian Glass from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

Our paper shows that cognitive flexibility, a cornerstone of human intelligence, is not a static trait but can be trained and improved using fun learning tools like gaming.

Another study looks at the benefits of games, with Grand Theft Auto in specific, and how that can improve decision-making skills; the study also goes on to compare gamers versus non-gamers to enhance that point, showing findings proving that gamers were better prepared to present answers to problems without sacrificing accuracy. Also, gamers:

excelled in an auditory decision-making test in which volunteers were presented with noises through headphones and asked to figure out whether the sound was heard in their right or their left ear, and another group who played games for 50 hours over a period of time presented improvements in their decision making skills.


I think the essence of this article boils down to one thing: the previous generation still passionately fights a child’s desire to play games (we don’t condone “burning out” but shutting gaming completely out of a child’s life is just as unproductive as playing the whole day), and in many cases we see the blame for crimes and bad behaviors going to games.  It’s probably about time we see the good side of things, and an opportunity to think about whether we have anything to gain from including games in the educational process. At the end of the day, whether you play PacMan to pass the time, or Battlefield 3 to relieve stress you subconsciously enhance several traits in the process, whether that is quick thinking or alternative strategies to reaching a particular goal.

Do you play games? Which game helped you develop a skill you use in your everyday life? Is there some trait in your character that you attribute to gaming?
Do you think gaming enables learning, and what games could those be?
Send us your feedback by writing a comment below, as we explore the role of playing games and learning new things next!

Save time, frustration and money with TalentLMS, the most-affordable and user-friendly learning management system on the market. Try it for free for as long as you want and discover why our customers consistently give us 4.5 stars (out of 5!)

Try for free!

Start your eLearning portal in 30 seconds!

Get started it's free!

TalentLMS is free to use for as long as you want! You can always upgrade to a paid plan to get much more!