Playful Minds

Dave SikkemaThe CACE Roundtable

Games can recover play in learning, but we still have to know what it means to “learn.”

My fourth grade students certainly wouldn’t need convincing that schools could use more video games. But parents and teachers trying to limit a child’s “screen time” might think otherwise. From their perspective, “digital play” is the last thing our kids need. These games, so the argument goes, disrupt, distract, and—worst of all—undermine the authority of the teacher and parent in order to placate the desires of the child. And if one of our primary jobs as parents and educators is to curb such desires, holding the line on what our kids need (which is rarely what they want), then what’s needed most in education is boundaries that cultivate restraint.

Of course, these fears aren’t invalid, but what if they’re misplaced? In The Game Believes in You, Greg Toppo makes the provocative case that they are. And he does so by showing that video games, rather than undermining a teacher’s authority, can actually buttress it, so long as we are willing to concede that all education is technological. That is, all education requires technologies—not just “digital” technologies—to mediate the teacher-student relationship with different and varying horizons of possibility.

“What is a chalkboard,” Toppo asks, “but a bit of paint on a wall that invites students to step forward, draw letters, lines, and numbers, and take control of their learning?” It is clear that the chalkboard is a technology— as is a book or a video game—that alters the educational ecosystem. Channelling Andy Crouch’s Culture Making, we could say these are tools that reveal our assumptions about the way learning occurs and about the way learning ought to occur. These tools make particular forms of education possible, while making others more difficult, perhaps impossible. A book assumes that learning involves lengthy periods of focus and sustained attention, while a video game assumes learning should be interactive and fun. Both technologies reduce the importance of memorization that marked the oral tradition of education, because information is stored on pages or in hard drives.

All this to say, the question we should be asking when we educate is how we might best pick and choose from the various technologies at our disposal in the twenty-first century. Given that all education is technological, Toppo’s case for video games should be given a fair hearing.

The strength of Toppo’s argument lies in his ability to expose the structural deficiencies of twenty-first-century schools. Schools, he says, have become institutions that prize “efficiency” and reduce education to “testtaking,” producing a body of students that are awash in boredom and hungering for play. This indictment of modern education should not be ignored by anyone interested in reforming education.


Toppo’s biggest problem with modern education is that it is boring. Sixty-five percent of students claim to be bored in school every day; 16 percent are bored in every class. Additionally, only one-third of students who dropped out of school in 2006 did so because of failing grades; close to half of all dropouts stated that they were “not inspired to work hard” and desired more opportunities for “real-world learning.”

The state of educational ennui, Toppo argues, is structural. North American schools remain institutions that mirror the nineteenth-century factories they were modelled after, a trend only exacerbated by attempts to make schools function like mini-corporations that create “standardized products as quickly and cheaply as possible.” In this system, Toppo argues, the function of educators is reduced to “moving large amounts of material into students’ minds.” As standardized test scores and school rankings take on more and more weight, creativity, imagination, and play are being eliminated.

This nineteenth-century experience of education, which may have made more sense in an age of information scarcity, is largely disconnected from students’ twenty-first-century learning experiences, in which information is abundant and easy to access. Revolutions in digital technologies now allow all of us to scan, download, and share information instantaneously; and the low cost, small size, and sheer portability of most digital technologies means that information is, quite literally, in the hands of almost anyone, anywhere, anytime. These new tools also mean that students’ attention is constantly diverted among “books, music, movies, television, fashion, dance, science, history, economics, politics, photography . . . and each other,” and schools are “struggling to keep up.” Although Toppo evades the fact that student boredom in school predates the digital revolution, it is worth engaging his argument that schools in general (and teachers in particular) are ill-equipped to respond to students who are immersed in a world of digital media. If our students are habituated to video games and to devices where they “can get much of their information elsewhere,” perhaps he is correct that it is time for us to reimagine the tools we are using in education. And perhaps we also need to reconsider play so that our students do not view the rigid, top-down structure of school with little more than “rage spread thin.”


Play is how we first learn to learn. Our brains thirst for the pleasure of new patterns and hunger to make creative connections. Digital play promises to satiate this appetite. Contrary to what this word might suggest, “play” sets appropriate boundaries for thought; as Toppo shows, it allows for “free movement within a rigid structure.” Think of the last time you played basketball, either on an Xbox or on your neighborhood court. The game is governed by rules so that not everything is possible. You cannot run with the ball, you must dribble it. You cannot return over half-court once you’ve crossed over. These rules create a structure in which you are free to make decisions and use your imagination. You are pushed to use teamwork and develop solutions for beating your opponent. Before you dismiss a comparison between real and virtual basketball, consider the findings that our brains undergo physiological changes not only by engaging with physical reality but also by engaging with the illusions— Latin for “in play”—of reality that games provide.

For Toppo, the sooner schools realize this the sooner they will begin incorporating games, both digital and physical, into the curriculum. A number of schools are already doing this. There is the “gaming” school in New York City called Quest, which opened up in 2009 and was cofounded by Katie Salen. Wrongfully labelled the “video game school,” Quest is eager to incorporate physical games like sports and cards into their curriculum, because they teach students to discover the “systems” underlying the structure of all games. Salen adds, “Games drop players into inquiry-based, complex problem spaces that are scaffolded . . . to use data to help players understand how they are doing, what they need to work on, and where to go next.”

There is the popularity of Jean-Baptiste Huynh’s algebra game Dragonbox, which provides an ideal learning environment where kids benefit from healthy competition yet feel safe to fail over and over again. Dragonbox positions challenging math concepts within a “game layer” and provides students with a competitive platform to fail at math behind a screen rather than in front of their peers. Similarly, Tim Kelley’s software Interstellar makes intercollegiate math competitions possible. In 2013, 468 schools and over 10,000 kids were connected to the platform, and within one year these numbers increased to over 600 schools and 15,000 students.

There is the Canadian physics teacher Shawn Young, who dreamed up Classcraft, an adaptation of World of Warcraft, where students were placed into guilds and given tasks to level up throughout the school week. He found that they began to focus more on the process of teamwork and less on grades. While most of Toppo’s examples are drawn from science and math, he even makes a small case made for the humanities, citing the interactive virtual-reality experience of Walden, A Game. Created by Tracy Fullerton, the game is meant to immerse students in a digital representation of Thoreau’s world in order to “invite” a close reading of Walden, and “breath new life into the classics.”

Examples like these abound throughout the book, detailing what Toppo considers to be the “successful” incorporation of games in school. When pressed to define what it is about these educational tools that makes them successful, it is worth reading Toppo’s answer in full.

“Video games focus, inspire, and reassure young people in ways that school often can’t. Then as now, they believed, if you are a young person, games give you a chance to learn at your own pace, take risks, and cultivate deeper understanding. While teachers, parents, and friends may encourage and support you, these natural resources are limited. Computers work on a completely different scale and timetable. . . . Your teacher may be overwhelmed, your friends wish you’d finish your homework, and your mom just wants to go to bed. But . . . a well-designed game sits and waits . . . and waits. It does not care if that wearisome math problem takes you fifteen seconds or four hours. Do it again. Take all day. The game believes in you.”

Really, these educational video games “believe in you” because they are able to provide what parents and teachers do not: undivided attention. The hope Toppo places in these technologies echoes the transhumanist hope that digital technology will usher in a radically different form of humankind, one wherein all the limits of creaturehood are “hacked” and transcended. Of course, some would say these limits are “transgressed.” That video games will always be there for our students might read as a consolation in Toppo’s rendering; if it is true, however, the other side of this equation is that it represents a rather harsh indictment against teachers and parents.

That is, Toppo takes as normative the idea that teachers are largely incapable of offering the attention necessary for the cultivation of their students. But it is this attention that matters more than anything else. The first of Alan Jacobs’s “79 Theses on Technology” states that “everything begins with attention.” Attention, he argues, “is an economic exercise [involving] an exchange with uncertain returns.” While attention is not “infinitely renewable,” it can be renewed if “wellinvested and properly cared for.”

Rather than taking the easy route of outsourcing this human faculty to video-game technology, perhaps we need to step back and reconsider education and educators.


Reading The Game Believes in You alongside an older educational treatise, David V. Hicks’s Norms and Nobility (written by a headmaster of a classical school in the 1980s), helps to clarify the problems with Toppo’s view of education. Hicks admits that most of us are quick to lament “the nation’s plummeting academic standards, Johnny’s inability to read and write, the weakness of science and math programs in comparison to other nations, the extinction of foreign languages and fine arts, and the scandal of declining test scores.” In despair of this reality, we are quick to turn to “experts” (like Greg Toppo) who promote “some new-fangled psychological or technological trend.”

But, says Hicks, such individuals do not ask “what it is we are teaching and what we are teaching for,” so that in the end we are left propping up nothing more than “what the kids need to know so that they can get jobs.” School that looks like a business, for business.

At the outset of his book, Toppo lauds games for “forcing us to reconsider our assumptions about how students learn” and for allowing us room to step back and ask, “What is school for and what should students do there?” While he makes a strong case for reconsidering our assumptions about the value of play, he does not seem capable of escaping the nineteenth-century vision of education that he despises. The school-as-corporation and student-as-product analogues remain intact throughout the book. The only difference between the twenty-first-century corporation Toppo champions and its nineteenth-century counterpart he despises is that the students have more fun. Strip away the game layers and what you are left with is the same utilitarian view of learning.

If this utilitarian approach to learning, which reduces education to the “assimilation of facts and the retention of information,” is really the primary cause of student disengagement from school, then not only will “foreign languages and fine arts” seem useless over time, but so too will video games. And if this view of education is predicated on an incorrect assumption about what it means to be human, then perhaps a better starting point for Toppo would be to expand his definition of humans as more than repositories for information.

Hicks reminds us that our humanity is in fact the end, not the means, of education. The school is not meant to be a utilitarian institution, but rather, it is

“a normative institution . . . governed by the wise . . . cultivating the human spirit by presenting a complete vision of man as he lives and as he ought to live in all his domains—the individual, the social, and the religious. It teaches the student how to fulfill his obligations to himself, to his fellow man, and to God and His creation. Its understanding of man, therefore, is prescriptive—and its curriculum and organization allegorize the scope, the sequence, and the vision of all that men must recognize and accept as fundamental if they hope to grow to their full human stature.”

When we are caught up focusing on the technical means of education, Hicks continues, we threaten to subvert its supreme task “to teach the young to know what is good, to serve it above self, to reproduce it, and to recognize that in knowledge lies this responsibility.”

This definition of education assumes that the moral dimension of “knowing, serving, and reproducing the good” is not a natural inclination of humanity. Therefore, it requires educators who are cultivators, capable of investing their time, energy, and attention into the development of their students’ moral habits. Just as parents training their toddlers to eat dinner are constantly aware of the toddlers’ desire for ice cream, so too teachers are involved in a ritual of repetition to habituate the students’ hearts toward what they ought to desire.


In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton reminds us that we “have sinned and grown old,” and we fail to exult in the monotony of life’s rhythms and routines.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are free in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”

Perhaps another reason students are so bored in school is that teachers are deficient in the resources of attention and imagination necessary to fulfill our task as cultivators. Toppo does not address this possibility, but treats our lack of attention as normative. If a video game promises to “know you and your abilities better than anyone,” as Toppo claims it does, then it will certainly unburden us from the demands of attention.

But to be a teacher is to be attentive. It is to be one who can condescend, not in the patronizing sense, but in the actual sense of “descending with” students to their level. That is, educators must bring themselves down into the monotonous rhythms and routines of students’ daily lives, leaning over their shoulders as they struggle to read a sentence, holding their hands as they learn the motor skills involved in holding a pencil, and yes, even downloading Minecraft and playing a few levels with them. As Hicks summarizes, the teacher is a “practitioner in the art of learning.”

Similarly, if our inability to give children the attention their formation requires is the real reason digital play is so attractive, we cannot expect video games to help us overcome the boredom Toppo sees destroying our institutions of education. Rather, video games may become just the means for escape—much like that dreaded “worksheet” on a Monday morning when the teacher is not prepared for her lesson, or the “silent reading” on a Friday afternoon when the teacher is not interested in engaging his students anymore.

We in the twenty-first century are immersed in digital technologies. While it’s easy to dismiss video-game advocates like Toppo out of hand, we ignore their well-placed critiques of modern education to our own peril. We also fail to acknowledge that the new learning habits of the digital age are here, and provide enormous potential for anyone who has a vision of education’s purpose but remains stymied by how to achieve it today.

“Playful Minds” first appeared in Comment magazine, a publication of Cardus. It is reprinted here with full permission.


  • Dave Sikkema

    Dave Sikkema is the Head of School at Austin Classical School. He earned degrees in History from Queens University, Baylor University, and University of Western Ontario. Dave frequently writes about the cultural impact of digital technology on his blog and for other publications.