Toys as Tools: Using E-Games for Learning

Jeffery MacCormack

My daughters were supposed to be doing their homework, but I heard too much giggling not to be suspicious. Homework is not supposed to be giggly. Then, from down the hallway, I heard snippets of the following conversation: “I used fences for teeth. Come see how it looks” … “Hold on a second. I’m in the long intestine. I’ll be right there”

I was completely baffled. “Are you two playing video games or are you doing your homework?” I asked through the bedroom door. There was a long pause, and then they replied in sing-song voices, “Yyeesss!”

My daughters were playing the popular video game Minecraft. Or perhaps I should say they were working Minecraft. Actually, it’s hard to know what to say because we don’t have a word that describes working-by-playing. In any event, they were using Minecraft to learn. Using video games to learn – does that surprise you? You may think that video games and education are natural enemies, but video games have been used as educational tools for many decades.

Launched in 1967, Logo programming was one of the first education-purposed programs. Less of a “game” and more of a programming language, students used commands to draw with a turtle icon. (True nerd fact: I participated in a Logo competition in 1988. My partner and I placed second with a drawing of sailboat.) Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego (1985) broke all expectations with its interactive geography-based scavenger hunt. It taught us that any topic could be formatted into a level-based, interactive game play and be engaging. One of the most successful literacy programs, Reader Rabbit, started creating programming in 1986 and is now teaching a second generation of children literacy skills!

Like these early games, most education software is designed for a specific purpose. The player follows the story of the game, achieves objectives, and moves toward a conclusion. The player is a passive participant who may have options as to how the game is played, but the purpose of the play, the nature of the game, and the specific objectives are left in the hands of the programmer.

Alternatively, active-play games pass the power to produce levels, games, and entire worlds into the happy hands of the player. The player gets to decide what, if any, objectives to achieve and how to achieve them.

The grandfather of active-play games is  SimCity (1989). That game taught a generation of children how to allocate resources, manage cities, and deal with revolting pixelated citizens. It also taught game programmers that games don’t have to be winnable, and for some games the formula of open-concept, “sandbox” would work just as well as the typical “You Win!” format.

Minecraft is a wildly popular


young boy with computer headset smiling looking at camera

In the summer of 2006 Nathan Toft downloaded Apple’siTunes software, curious about the 99-cent songs hehad heard about. This move introduced him to the exciting world of podcasting. He quickly got Janehooked and the two teachers, who are both joggers,loaded up their iPods with a variety of shows theydownloaded from the Internet. This was the start oftheir pod-casting adventure.

Parents with child looking at the child's work

Joyce Public School is located in northwest Toronto, in an unprepossessing one-storey brick building.