Why Educators Must Make Peace with Gaming

EDTECH CHALLENGE | by Jesse M. Langley

Gamers have spent over 5.93 million years in Azeroth, the fictional land of World of Warcraft. This is one of the most significant statistics facing education today. One of the most significant problems facing education is that boys aren’t engaged in learning. The fact that games like World of Warcraft are engaging both boys and girls is hugely significant for how the education model must adapt if it doesn’t want to leave generations of boys behind.

A number of factors contribute to this lag, including a lack of male role models praised for sheer intelligence, but one of the major problems is the structure of education itself. In her TED talk, Ali Carr-Chellman (click below) discusses how teachers are being pushed to churn pupils out in large numbers, despite where they may be at developmentally. Those who fall behind even slightly end up being pegged as having a learning disability, ADHD or even just as needing after school tutoring.

As the more active children (many of whom are boys) fall behind, they seek a world they can be a hero in. For many, this leads to gaming. Gaming is the essence of escapism. Unlike a movie, games are a hot media that engages the mind (and parts of the body) fully. Unlike a book, games reward their players more tangibly than a better vocabulary. “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments,” economist Edward Castronova wrote.

Jane McGonigal delivered a TED talk where she discussed games’ influences in our lives and how games and gamers can save the world. Like Carr-Chellman, she believes that games can have a positive influence in student’s lives. McGonigal claims that gaming makes people more optimistic and likely to seek immediate solutions, more likely to bond with others in seeking those solutions, happier about being productive, and more attached to work that has meaning attached to it.

So what does that mean for a generation of student who is likely to skip class when expansions come out? Part of it means that we can see an avenue of engaging boys and girls alike that works. We can take what children get out of games (a sense of purpose and immediate rewards, for example), and apply it to the classroom structure. Maybe a chart can be set up where students can see their progress visually. Have ‘levels’ set up that all students can achieve, whether it’s for completing homework or helping others. Just be sure that it’s not centered on grades only, as that’s both a violation of their privacy and a good way to make students feel worse about themselves.

Games let you try again when you fail, which gives gamers the feeling of optimism McGonigal described. Instead of a one-time test that either passes or fails students, try to think of ways to let students re-take exams they didn’t ace the first time. This will allow them more control over their own studies if they’re a slower learner and keep them feeling like they’re empowered to do their best.

Though much of Carr-Chellman’s talk dealt with boys, the fact is that games are becoming universally played by either gender. Man alone did not put 5.93 million years into World of Warcraft. These same methods of reaching out to boys through lessons learned in gaming will apply directly to many girls.

With the continued move towards a marriage of technology and education seen in the use of iPads in the classroom, the online university and long distance learning, it’s almost a surprise that more educational games haven’t been introduced into daily classroom routines. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spearheaded iCivics, a collection of games designed to educate children about the government, in 2009. The games are now widely used in classrooms everywhere. Though they wouldn’t have the force of a Supreme Court Justice behind them, creating a collection of math, reading and science games could be used to engage children in subjects they usually wouldn’t be attracted to.

Another way to think about gaming in the classroom is to think of how intensely focused games can make children. A child who won’t sit still for a solid five minutes in class can spend hours barely moving as they play their favorite games. Though it may seem a mystery to the teacher who keeps encouraging them to stop moving, the principle is simple: games engage children, while traditional learning sometimes doesn’t. It’s not the teacher’s fault, since they’re working in the same system that has been handed down since the Industrial Revolution.

However, it is possible for teachers to change it. They have the tools at hand to make learning more universal and accessible for boys and girls. The classroom isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as every educator could tell you. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be concessions made in the process that will allow for every student to do their best.


Jesse M. Langley is a contributor for EdTech Digest covering challenges educators face integrating technology into education and solutions that make sense. Write to: jessemlangley@gmail.com 

  • Lucas Gillispie



    As an educator and an avid WoW player, I came to many similar conclusions as you. My solution? Why not leverage the WoW environment in the classroom and target these at-risk boys in the process? I’m happy to say we’re in our third year of implementation of WoWinSchool and have witnessed incredible things. We began as an after-school program and are now in our second year as a language arts enrichment course for 8th graders during the regular school day. The program is now being used in a handful of schools from ours at Cape Fear Middle in North Carolina to Suffern Middle in New York and schools in Seminole County, Florida. Earlier this year, we released our full, standards-aligned curriculum for free download on our project wiki (http://wowinschool.pbworks.com). Aside from the rich literary and writing experiences, our focus is to help students connect that “heroism” to their real-world lives.


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