What can you learn from playing a game?

Games have a long history of pairing fun, learning

| Author: Eric Baerren | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

Games aren’t just for fun. They are also powerful learning tools that can help connect people to difficult concepts. It might seem like their evolution to educational tools is recent, but that’s not the case.

Jonathan Truitt is a member of Central Michigan University’s history faculty. He shared his expertise on the role games have historically played in education and was featured on a recent episode of CMU’s podcast The Search Bar.

Q. When were the first games used for learning, and what is their time relationship with recreational games?

Games have been used for learning as far back as 403 BCE when the Philosopher Plato recommended their use for teaching children. As to their relationship to recreational games, you can't really separate them that easily. All games ultimately teach players something. Sometimes the lessons are as easy as turn-taking, sportsmanship, color, or number identification. We don't tend to associate learning with fun, but generally speaking, if you enjoy what you are doing you are more likely to remember it and more likely to repeat doing it, thereby reinforcing what you learn from it. So fun educational games can also be fun recreational games.

Q. Are games developed centuries ago for learning still played today?

Yes, however, they have also undergone centuries of change. Chess was developed as a strategy wargame that took an entire day to play. It sped up quite a bit in the late fifteenth century when the queen received her modern set of moves. The game is still used to teach strategy and critical thinking and can be used for a number of different educational problems.

Q. Which civilization/culture has used games most significantly as learning tools?

This is hard to answer as there is a bias in record keeping for alphabetic script. The one civilization that I can track back the furthest is Ancient Greece, but that is far from authoritative. China's history is deep and rich and could very well have started using formal games for education prior to Europeans, I just don't know it. Similarly, I know that in Mesoamerica they used games for moral and philosophical lessons during the 14th century. It is probable that they used them prior to that as well but we just don't have the record for them.

Q. How have learning games evolved?

Educational games have shifted to meet the specific learning objectives of our current time period. They are becoming more inclusive of different groups of people and gender and their mechanics are more refined. There is also the advent of video games in the 70s and 80s and app-based learning games today. Games are influenced by our own culture and often mirror what we are doing in a specific moment.

Q. Can games be used to teach difficult subjects?

Games can absolutely be used to teach difficult subjects. Games aren't always fun, but they should be compelling. I think the best-known "difficult" games (that can be purchased) are likely This War of Mine and That Dragon, Cancer.

This War of Mine was created by two game designers who were in the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. Anything that can happen while in a city under siege can happen in that game. The aim was to help people understand what that situation was like in the hopes that awareness might help prevent future Sarajevo-like situations. The second, That Dragon, Cancer was designed by a couple whose child was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They created the game to help them process their grief while also celebrating their child. The game received strong support from people in the community who also needed to process what they were going through with a child with a terminal illness. 

About Jon Truitt

Jonathan Truitt is a professor of Latin American and world history in CMU’s Department of History, World Languages and Cultures. He received his doctorate from Tulane University, his master’s degree from Minnesota State University and his bachelor’s degree from Gustavus Adolphus College.

His research interests include the cultural intersections of cultural development around board games during the colonial period, and relations between Indigenous and European people in colonial Mexico.

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