Games for Good: Video Games, Education, and International Development

By | October 05, 2015

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People designing video games in a classroom
Video games in the classroom | Photo source:

We all remember sitting in the classroom, teacher in the front and class clowns in the back. Traditional education and training have followed the same format for centuries, but now technology is changing the game.

Technology has been creeping into the classroom for decades. Forty years ago, slideshow and overhead projectors were the slickest items on the market, quickly followed by the introduction of film and video projectors. My generation (the millennials) saw the mass adoption of SMART boards and computers and digital learning spaces like the Moodle software is coming out all the time, expanding access to educational information.

Video games can be easily developed by small firms as well as large, which allows for interested teachers to shop around and find the most effective tool within their limited budgets. The cost savings helps schools avoid financial struggles while meeting their learning objectives. Additionally, educational video games can easily be shared over the internet, so shipping costs are negligible and internationalizing would allow children all over the globe to learn from the software. As more teachers turn to video games for developing curricula and enhancing learning, the game development industry would face new incentives and more and more firms will start investing in creating educational games.

Research around the value of educational games is growing. A study jointly executed by NYU and CUNY has found that using video games as an educational means boosted their performance and interest in math, a subject many find unappealing. Findings like this aren’t a panacea, but open the door for more research on design and content in educational video games. British research backs up these findings and expands the benefits to include advanced motor skills and self-esteem. Not only can they help students, but video games can support educational research at higher scale for a fraction of the traditional cost, according to a Washington State professor’s research.

While software and games are gaining ground in the educational sphere, they’re also finding traction in the arena of international development. Games can break down complex concepts in understandable and relatable parcels, increasing access to the principles and mission of international development. This means games can deliver social impact and entertain while they’re at it, easing the process of absorbing content that’s often difficult to digest and making a space for more innovation and creativity. To see this in action, look at This War of Mine, which explores the rarely explored side of war, the unseen casualties and suffering. It attaches perspective and interactivity to a complicated subject and teaches gamers lessons of conscience and morality, a difficult task in a traditional training setting.

Tomorrow, Amazon Web Services is hosting a hackathon and NDI is sponsoring a challenge to develop a framework for conveying lessons through a choose-your-own-adventure format. As a longtime gamer, I can speak to the benefits of video games being conducive to personal growth and learning, whether they were inherently educational in nature or not. Pouring hours into Sid Meier’s Civilization and Crusader Kings II taught me much of history, politics, and decision-making, while games like The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim imbued nuggets of wisdom for my personal senses of morality and ethics and for my skills as a writer and storyteller. Inversely, I’ve employed lessons from the classroom to engage with video games in several ways, too, from calculating odds in chance situations to using history to inform my understanding of a game’s context.

The movement to grow the idea of games for good and their value for international development has had some very good news. The Library of Congress announced last month three awards totalling nearly $1 million to develop civics-based applications for use in the classroom. Gaming Revolution for International Development (GRID) is doing exactly what its name suggests and is getting amazing traction, earning significant recognition from the UN and Clinton Global Initiative. Check out this list to find more games built for understanding international development. Also, be sure to follow our live-tweeting of the hackathon tomorrow @NDItech.

Video games have been in the mainstream since the 1970s. Many remember Pong, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man, but the medium has grown and evolved titanically since. Educators and students alike stand to gain much from the proper application of video games and greater investment in them can yield incredible advances in learning and reinforcing democratic principles.