Using video games as tools for learning and education

Ask someone which educational resources could make a sociological impact, and video games likely aren’t the first tools that come to mind.

But Marcus T. Wright, undergraduate program and communications manager for the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences, hopes to change that perspective with his new book, “Paradox of the Learning Game: The Promise and Plight of Video Games and Learning.”

“Video games bring about so much imagination, creativity, and problem-solving,” says Wright, who will enroll in the Graduate School of Education’s Higher Education Ed.D. program in the Fall. “They can facilitate all kinds of learning. They’re one of the most important learning technologies we have.”

Wright’s passion for video games started when he was young, but a class during his master’s coursework at Penn revealed how much value they offer beyond pure entertainment. He doesn’t mean games like “Super Mario Brothers,” though.  

Rather, his book analyzes games like one called “Spent,” a free, online game that puts the player in the shoes of someone living in poverty, and “Fair Play,” a free, downloadable game in which the player navigates a college campus as an African-American graduate student.

“I’m looking at advanced learning games, where the designers have a learning goal for players to achieve and want them to be able to take into the real world,” he says.

In the case of “Spent,” that means making financial decisions within the confines of having little money; for “Fair Play,” it’s about understanding other people’s biases and when and where they crop up. 

Wright’s book also discusses what he calls “chocolate-covered broccoli.” The food analogy is apropos: Trick kids into eating their vegetables by coating them in sugar, or, in the case of video games, trick students into studying by asking them to answer math problems on a computer. Unlike advanced learning games, this option doesn’t present a complete, immersive gaming experience coupled with a true life lesson.

However, advanced learning games don’t necessarily need high-level graphics or epic quests to succeed, he says. Instead, “advanced learning just means the creators take significant advantage of the video game medium, and the relationship between game and player, in addition to integrating the learning.”

One challenge here is a dearth of research about how well people actually transfer knowledge from a video game to life beyond the screen. Studies have connected such play to psychological benefits like a boost to perception and attention, but little research to date has focused on the sociology side.

“We need more conversations about the sociological impact,” Wright says. “We have to make sure the games meet the players where they are, can be integrated into social spaces, and are compelling.”

The time is right for those conversations, he says, before society moves away from video games to simulations like virtual and augmented reality—a shift already beginning.

“I hope we don’t forget about video games,” Wright says. “There is something really special with these games that we can do.”

Marcus T. Wright