Digital Media Academy

Why video games are so compelling to students and where traditional education falls short?

Chris Bennett – Affiliate at Stanford Graduate School of Education – leads a free Public Speaker Series focused on the challenges facing K12 school leaders in preparing young learners for the fields of tomorrow.



Below is an extract from our conversation on Oct 20th, 2022, you can find the full conversation on the Digital Media Academy YouTube Channel

Why are video games so compelling to students and maybe where do you see the traditional education system falling short?


Chris: Okay, so now we’re going to get into the firehose of information here and remember that this is recorded. So feel free to take notes. But you can also go back and look at it later and look into more detail.


Kind of six main things that I want to talk about, about why video games are so compelling to students:


  1. One is that games give us a series of achievable goals and they also give us the tools to accomplish them.
  2. Two is that games give us immediate feedback. When we do something in a game, oftentimes within seconds. We know whether there is a right or wrong answer and the game gives us feedback on that.
  3. Games let us explore our world. They don’t just give us kind of a critical path that takes us through the game experience. Oftentimes we get to explore a whole kind of created world around it, and interact with other players, whether they’re real people or what’s called a kind of non-player character. 
  4. Games allow us to practice inhabiting avatars, so we get to put ourselves forward as something that looks different than we actually are. Sometimes it’s different than we are. For adults, we can sometimes look at this as being a little bit frivolous. But for someone who is growing up, like I have a daughter who is in middle school right now and kind of checking out different avatars and exploring her different possibilities or key aspect of what’s making her grow into a young woman right now. 
  5. Fifth games allow us to work with others towards common goals. Again, when we look at a game, this may seem frivolous to an adult who’s looking at it from the outside, but from the inside, kids really want to work with others and they really want to see something that they’re working on together. The sense of collaboration games aren’t just about competition. There’s a lot in games that are about collaborating with others. 
  6. And this kind of takes us to the sixth one, which I think is one of the most important ones, which is: games let us achieve things greater than ourselves, kind of in the same way that you can watch a well-scripted TV show or go to a movie theater and watch something and seeking of these world-changing events. Games allow us to experience those things. But the big difference is that it adds in something called Agency. When we’re sitting in a movie theater watching this thing happening. The only thing that we can affect is whether to sit in the chair or whether to walk out and get some popcorn. We can’t have any effect on what goes on on the screen. But when we’re playing a video game, every time we’re making adjustments in what we do and we’re making choices that affect what happens in our game experience.

Thanks, Chris. That’s really interesting. So maybe now turning to the classroom: When you look at the current model of learning in classrooms around the world, where do you see this falling short on many of those six items that you’ve listed?


Chris: So it’s always challenging to make generalizations about classrooms because they are so different. But over the past five or ten years, I have got a chance to sit in on a lot of classroom rooms, not just as a teacher, but as an observer, and some places some amazing prep schools in the Bay Area that are getting students ready for Harvard and for Stanford and other world-class universities but also some classrooms that are less fortunate that don’t have all these kind of shiny things that the nicer schools have. But I have found some interesting things that are similar in the classroom. We often give students tasks and tools but the students often fail to see the overall goals of what they’re doing and how these will be accomplished. And I think it feels to many students like they’re kind of pushed through the curriculum and that there is a teacher on the other end that’s kind of pulling them through to get this done. But they don’t have a big sense of why they’re doing this or kind of where it’s going.

The second piece is that students get feedback on tests, quizzes, and homework but sometimes they get this days later and we look at how the grading system goes grades can take weeks or even months to make their way through the system. And what we find this that the connection between the grades the student gets and the pedagogy and the experience can easily be forgotten. We want students to be able to make the connection between things they did good and things they could do better and and what the learning is. At the same time, we also find that classwork is often focused on a specific path and doesn’t allow students to explore the wider world around the subject matter. A fourth one is that I especially see this in some of the top-tier schools around the country and around the world. They’re going to be an immense pressure around learning and how it’ll affect the student’s life, especially in the upper grades and especially in one of the better schools in the world. But this is happening the same time that young people are exploring the concept of avatars and what it would be like to be another type of person. And some of this is fantasy based, but much of it has a practical application, I think. How do you know who you will become if you aren’t able to try on different experiences on for size and a fifth one is my observation is that school can sometimes feel like a game of “multi-player solitaire” , and by that I mean that students are working in a classroom together, but they’re focused on their own work and their own experience. And not only is collaboration often not discouraged, a lot of times it’s forbidden during class. And students don’t get a chance to collaborate on these things together to really buttress the learning that they’re having. And finally, classroom experiences can often provide learning that happens in a vacuum, doesn’t have a wider sense of the world around it, and how students are going to be affected in US. Students are learning something but they don’t have an opportunity to and they don’t have the incentive to apply it to the world around them. And again, we’re not just trying to get students through the curriculum and through the schools. We all want to create students that are going to become adults and become young leaders and people who can make a positive effect on the world around them.


Jamie: That’s that’s really fascinating, Chris. I love that “multi-player solid solitaire” idea. It’s very true. You know, also, I feel like I have been at times one of those educators pulling or pushing students through our across the finish line. And, you know, often it’s the students that race ahead that we don’t have to worry about as much because they’re independent and they’re sort of self-motivated. And maybe there’s a group of students that we’re really feeling like we have to pull through. They get the majority of our attention. And so, yeah, these are real challenges facing the current traditional education model.


Chris, maybe a second follow-up question. Can you speak a little bit about how games and motivation for students cross over


Chris: Sure. We’ll talk about this a little bit later. When we talk about game design thinking, we’ll talk about extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation but when we look at really what motivates students, we look at what’s called intrinsic motivation. This is the motivation that’s internal to the student and to what they’re doing as opposed to extrinsic motivation. Which is something that’s external and we’ll talk about that later with kind of giving badges and points inside of classes. There are four main types of intrinsic motivation.

And again, this isn’t just for students in a classroom. This works everywhere and for everyone. This works for you at your workplace. This works for you in your personal relationships.


  1. One is mindfulness – Students need to feel that what they’re doing is important and feel like they’re contributing to something that has real value, not just real value in the classroom but real value among the student population, real value in their neighbourhood and their city and in the world.
  2. The second thing is choice – a student’s sense of possibility to influence their work.This connects to a feeling of ownership and responsibility for their own work. Remember, I talked about that a few minutes ago with the difference between going into a movie and play in a video game isn’t a video game. You have real choice. You can really affect what happens on the screen and in a well-rounded classroom. There’s real choice of student scan have an effect on their learning and kind of how it affects the world.
  3. The third one is competence and this is a tough one for a lot of students. And again, as a parent of a middle schooler, I’m feeling this right now is students feel like they’re performing, they’re learning tasks well, they’re competent they feel proud of their classroom accomplishments.
  4. And the fourth one is that students have confidence in their future and they feel that they’re doing the right things and that they always can see a light at the end of the tunnel. And as educators, that can be a really challenging one for us.


Jamie: Thanks, Chris. So let’s get a little bit more practical. What do you feel this would look like in a classroom?


Chris: I think that it’s kind of watching a lot of videos and listening to podcasts about this. I hear a lot that we need to completely redesign schools and we need to completely redesign the educational experience to make change. And in a perfect world that would be great. I work with people who are creating who are completely redesigning schools because they want to test these things out. But from a practical matter, if you’re running a school, you can’t just close it down and completely redesign it. But what often happens is this leads to doing little or nothing because the perceived costs are so high. But what we can do is follow a different road of taking the current experience that we’re providing for students, knowing that there’s a huge amount of value in that, but that there are some points of weakness in there. How do we identify those points of weakness and how do we design for those? I mean, let’s remember that much of what we’re doing for students is really good and really helpful. It’s just that there are some things tha are slow in engagement motivation down. And this what happens is decreases the overall learning experience


Jamie: Thank you. That’s really helpful. I think many of our viewers today are leaders of schools and traditional schools may be trying to be on the forefront of some of this change. That’s really helpful to contextualize.



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