Want to create gritty, impassioned, self-reliant learners? Get behind learning games.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” -- Samuel Beckett

A few years ago, Kurt Squire recalled sitting in his high school history class as a young student, listening as a teacher quizzed the class on Spanish colonialization. In a Ferris Bueller moment, the teacher asked if someone -- anyone! -- knew what kinds of ships each European nation had.

Squire raised his hand, and as if channeling the textbook, said the Spanish had galleons to carry gold. "The French mostly had barques. The Dutch, fluyts. The English, merchantmen. If you saw a pinnace, that was French, Dutch, maybe even a pirate." Squire explained that the Dutch "were mostly traders. They didn’t have much territory, although Curacao was a great trading base."

His classmates were stunned -- Squire’s on-the-spot dissertation delayed an inevitable test -- and they wondered where he had consumed all this material. "It was, in fact, the result of my spending way too much time playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! on my Commodore 64," he wrote.

Without knowing it in most cases, kids playing games operate with a "growth mindset."

Decades later, Squire, an instructor at the University of Wisconsin School of Education, is at the heart a new field of educational research that is beginning to find its way into the classroom. Squire and others have found that when people play digital games, they approach the work at hand from a wholly different perspective than they do in school most days. Without knowing it in most cases, kids playing games operate with a "growth mindset."

Don’t believe it? Consider that virtually every video game player starts each game with zero points and builds from there. If your favorite video game were school, all of the players would arrive the first day in class with an F. Together they’d begin the slow, arduous climb to an A -- not the other way around.

And the game really doesn’t care who this new player is, what he has done elsewhere, whether the adults in his life consider him smart or gifted and talented -– or if, for that matter, he has a learning disabity. All that matters is the effort that the player puts forth.


Still don't believe it? Visit your local video game store and ask for the ADHD version of Titanfall, Mass Effect, or Minecraft. You won't find it because it doesn't exist. Yet millions of kids with ADHD diagnoses play these games each day and succeed in them. For these kids, video games provide the challenging yet rewarding meritocracy they crave.

Most teachers work very hard, of course, and all of them want kids to succeed. But when kids don't learn what's been laid out for them, schools typically look for answers in the things that are going wrong in children's lives: poverty, trauma, bad parenting, poor nutrition, disability, sleep deprivation, lousy study skills. All of these are real problems that can have a tangible effect on kids' ability to learn, research shows. But if players fail at commercial video games, designers can't blame bad parenting, poor nutrition, or sleep deprivation -- actually, these attributes are virtually guaranteed in many gamers. They must create experiences that anyone, even the sleep-deprived, can master and enjoy.

Give your users a way to try and fail and try again, and they will follow you to the end of the Earth.

What game designers have hit upon isn't magic. It's a way to make people work hard and enjoy it. There's a game-design term for this: hard fun. They've figured out that well-designed problem-solving, the kind that's difficult but fair, that gives players a second chance and a way to share their successes -- is almost irresistibly attractive. Give your users a way to try and fail and try again, and they will follow you to the end of the Earth.

Visiting the Edmonton studios of BioWare, the creator of the Mass Effect series, among others, video game critic Tom Bissell marveled at a wall displaying 19 handmade plaques. They'd been created by a fan to show his appreciation for years of gaming pleasure. "I tried to imagine someone, anyone, doing such a thing for Paramount or Random House," he wrote. "This was quite impossible."

The video game industry is, for all purposes, only about 40 years old. Yet in that time, game designers have discovered the principles of deep and pleasurable learning that it has taken educators more than a century to figure out. More than a decade ago, games-and-learning theorist James Paul Gee realized that the designers were, without realizing it, modeling the "scaffolded" learning that cognitive scientists said worked best.

What game designers had accomplished, most of all, was a way to lower the cost of failure so that players quite naturally wanted to try again.

Game theorists talk about "the magic circle," a concept first introduced in the late 1930s in Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s treatise on play, Homo Ludens (the title means "Man the Player," a riff on the term Homo sapiens -- Huizinga considered it just as significant for us to play as to be wise). The magic circle, he said, is a kind of temporary sacred space that games share with religious rituals, plays, festivals, and even legal proceedings. The Olympic arena, the living room card table, the movie screen, and the courtroom all are "forbidden spots," he wrote, where special rules apply. Failure is not only tolerated but expected. In a delicious sort of way, it’s even the preferable outcome.

"I dislike failing in games," wrote theorist Jesper Juul, "but I dislike not failing even more." For a game to be a good game -- and a game at all -- he wrote, "we expect resistance and the possibility of failure."

More than 40 years after they first appeared, video games stand apart from nearly every endeavor in our lives in this way: We’re disappointed if mastering one is too easy. Imagine being disappointed to find that operating a snowmobile, filing your taxes, or mastering calculus was easier than you’d thought. Now imagine a game in which you couldn’t fail. Juul has suggested a single button reading "Press Button to Complete Game."

Now think of your child’s attitude about school. Is she disappointed if it's too easy? Would she press that big red button?

Forty years ago, the progressive educator and theorist Herbert R. Kohl wrote that most failing students "know all kinds of things that are never considered important in school or used as the foundation upon which to learn new things."

Kohl wanted schools to get to know students as they are in the real world. He suggested spending time in the community and learning what parents teach their children, what games kids and parents play, both "verbal games" and jump rope. "In other words," he said, "to know the culture not as an anthropologist from an outside community but as a participant and celebrant."

If teachers looked around, he said, they'd find games everywhere. "By beginning the learning process in school with the games of the community, a teacher permits the students to remain in contact with a familiar world while they reach out to more abstract issues," he said. "The teacher is not a judge of his or her students but rather a worker whose role is to serve their needs and broaden their options. The community and the classroom must help each other."

"Minecraft After School" and "Group 2, Week 3" by Kevin Jarrett. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Greg T.

Greg Toppo is USA Today’s national K-12 education reporter. A graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, he taught in both public and private schools for eight years before moving into journalism. His first job was with the Santa Fe New Mexican, a 50,000-circulation daily. He worked for four years as a wire service reporter with the Associated Press, first in Baltimore and then in Washington, D.C., where he became the AP’s national K-12 education writer. He came to USA Today in 2002. Greg lives west of Baltimore with his wife, Julie, and their two daughters. Greg Toppo is author of the book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.
Twitter: @gamebelieves and @gtoppo