Bring Games and Sports to Classrooms Already

It’s time schools acknowledge that games offer more practical and tangible value than most other subjects taught

Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

In schools across America, games are treated as secondary to learning, even counterproductive. Unless a game has some utilitarian purpose — a math puzzle, for example — it’s given little value. We do not study games in school, nor do we practice or perfect them in class. We treat games the way we treat a pencil or paper, as a tool. But once the game itself becomes the focal point of an exercise, it’s then considered a violation, a pleasurable indulgence standing in the way of actual academic learning.

As a teacher, I spend a significant amount of time kicking kids off their video games, especially while they’re “working” on computers during class. It’s impossible to overstate just how much games have become a pervasive classroom distraction since the advent of smartphones. The most significant complaint we hear and make about kids is: “All they want to do is play games!” And it’s true. People want to play games all the time, we just don’t let them.

Games actually have more tangible, measurable, practical, and value-creating worth than most other subjects in school.

For all of our history, games have drawn our attention, effort, and our deepest passions. Consider: The Olympics. Baseball. Soccer. And games aren’t limited to physical sport or video. A crossword puzzle is a game, as is sudoku, solitaire, or poker. Half the shows we watch on television are games in nature, either mental like Jeopardy, social like The Bachelor, or physical like Dancing With The Stars. There are culinary games, home improvement games, fishing games, hunting games, automotive games. Even the Lotto is a game.

Games are a profoundly human activity, and to some degree serve no tangible purpose other than human invention, culture, competition, and pleasure. Yet, despite this overwhelming influence, this powerful role in defining who we are and what we care about, games are given almost no serious academic attention in school. Games are viewed as merely an extracurricular, even though they are fundamental, even essential, to learning itself. Schools should recognize and even embrace this reality.

Games actually have more tangible, measurable, practical, and value-creating worth than most other subjects we teach and test. Moreover, skill in games is as applicable across a variety of areas as English or math.

Consider the various ways games and education overlap and complement each other:

  • Games are an experience, not consumption. They also ensure a clear measurement of skill — because you win them.
  • Games are also ultimately the best possible human response to the chaotic and hostile or indifferent natural environment we live in.
  • Unlike an exam or other academic measurement, games actually depend upon intrinsic motivation. People want to win the games they play.
  • In a game, there is no shame in competing at a lower level among others of the same skill. One can enjoy playing a game as an amateur with the same pleasure and investment as a professional. In fact, games naturally, and without rancor, separate players according to their level of expertise.
  • Games create community, inspire passion, and foster competition in ways every other school subject cannot.

My best students tend to treat school itself as a game or puzzle. Many view tests as competition. They trade scores and bargain GPAs toward increasingly advanced matchups, the final championships being measured by competitive colleges. Others treat exams as puzzles to be solved, whether it’s a complex math problem, a historical mystery to be unearthed, or a literary connection hidden among a sea of narrative clues. Our best students game their education, which is why they succeed.

Perhaps no other psychologist or contemporary writer has done more to advance the value of games and play toward learning than Boston College professor Peter Gray. His regular column in Psychology Today, called “Freedom to Learn,” provides compelling research that reinforces our understanding of how children draw meaning and joy out of playing games. Games are an expression of joy. Games are fun. Even the tedious practice that might go into becoming an expert player of a game is an act of engagement and interest, which is what we want from our students. Simply put: Games matter.

Given the way we care about games, the way they dominate our waking lives, the manner in which they permeate every human experience, contemplating them as a school “subject” raises some interesting questions about the actual subjects we do teach in schools, and how we have traditionally framed that entire experience.

If we started to think of games as a subject it might finally broaden our understanding of what constitutes a sport. At the moment, we simultaneously revel in our sports and games and yet treat them as ultimately mere entertainment, especially in school. If games were instead considered a subject in school, we might finally stop treating play as an indulgence or a frivolous waste of time. We might start to accept all those creative and pleasurable things we do as the ultimate in human meaning. We play games and they matter.

This proposal to formally introduce games into school curriculums leads down a necessary rabbit hole question: Namely, how do you “teach” games?

The short answer is: You can’t. Games aren’t considered a “subject” the way English and math are. They don’t break down into similar teachable parts, and they are too varied to turn into a standalone class.

But more fundamentally, on every level, our schools are not structured to treat games as a primary subject or goal. Scheduling leaves little time for the depth and variety of games we play, while the physical environment — desks and blackboards and such — leaves little room as well. Our age-based class grouping prevents a level playing field for any game, and our system of measurement deliberately avoids every game aspect it can.

Why, it’s almost as if school is deliberately designed to eliminate games and play.

But why shouldn’t we treat games with the same degree of attention and respect that we do the traditional subjects of math, English, history, or science?

If we actually treated games as a true subject in school, we might just start the process of changing a number of the intractable features of our education system that demand change. It might help us leave behind our age-based classroom grouping. It might help us redesign our classroom environments away from hard chairs and desks facing forward. Actually making school a game might generate the social community that is fundamental to our nation.

Life is a game, and play is essential to living a life of joy and meaning. There’s no reason at all that school should deny this fundamental truth.

just another frustrated teacher

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