Gaming as a Teaching Tool

Caitlin Feeley speakingEducational technology has turned a corner. Software developers have developed video games that can be used for teaching as a way to engage learners from all backgrounds. Roughly 50% of adults play video games. This is true across demographics including race, gender, and income. As a result, gaming is an extremely effective tool for connecting with students in a variety of contexts, from elementary school to adult education settings.

MIT’s Caitlin Feeley is a video game designer and project manager for educational video games. She has worked on educational games like “Farm Blitz,” “Vanished,” “Con ‘Em If You Can,” and “Bite Club.” On March 24 she came to BU to speak about her experiences and beliefs surrounding educational gaming.

When do educational games work?

Educational gaming is particularly effective when players engage in fun, low-stakes experiments. Feeley strongly cautions against the “chocolate-covered broccoli” model of game design, in which the educator attempts to trick students into performing tedious tasks by formatting them as a game. This method may trick some students once or twice, but will not make leave them with any new, lasting skills or make them desire to practice the content in the future. Games should be fun, and they will be less effective teaching tools if they are require. 

“I think whenever you play a game you learn something,” says Feeley. Games are intended to build mental models, and make tough topics approachable. Four “freedoms” have been identified, which students need in order to practice knowledge: freedom to fail, freedom to try on identities, freedom to experiment, and freedom of effort. If a game can provide these freedoms for learners, they are more likely to continue practicing and experimenting with the game.
Farm Blitz score screenCaitlin cited the game “Farm Blitz” as a successful instance of providing players with the four freedoms. The game takes place in a FarmVille-like universe, in which players must grow plants in order to earn money, but will lose money when the farm’s rabbits multiply too much. The rabbits represent high interest, high risk debt. Growing trees is equivalent to long-term investments, because the trees withstand the storms that periodically sweep through the game. This game teaches financial literacy to adults in an approachable, low-stakes manner, with abstract versions of loans, investments, and financial disasters. Players are free to fail and free to experiment because the consequences are virtual. They can “try on identities” by playing characters with different financial situations, and expending effort is fun and educational. In the study conducted to analyze the game’s effectiveness, people who played the game (rather than listening to a financial lecture) asked better questions, retained more information, and were more engaged during their learning.

Types of games

Feeley described a number of different game genres which can be used to teach in different contexts. She was involved in the development of a “casual game,” which a player can probably play on the go, and generally requires them to complete one task that gets increasingly difficulty over time. The game Feeley was involved in, “Con ‘Em If You Can,” was designed to teach adults to identify financial fraud schemes, and the players themselves took on the role of con artists. Feeley also advocates the use of board games, which require no technological prowess but can still be powerful teaching tools.  There are also game-like experiences, which behave somewhat like life-size interactive puzzles. For instance, a production of Macbeth in New York acts out all of the imaginable scenarios occurring within the play’s universe, even
though Shakespeare did not put those actions onBite Club game screen the stage. The audience can follow characters “offstage” and see what they do. Feeley mentioned the “Mysterious Package Company,” which sends its participants packages containing items that tell a story, which they eventually solve. Feeley also cited her work with the Smithsonian’s scientific thinking game, “Vanished.”

A recently popularized type of game is the “Escape Room.” Many cities (including Boston) now have escape rooms, wherein participants are locked in a room with a series of clues and have one hour to use their wits to escape that room. Feeley also mentions role-playing games and alternate reality games.


  • Design quality: the most recent “Assassins Creed” game cost approximately $100 million to make. Not all game production teams have such a generous budget, meaning that a game’s design cannot be as infinitely complex as some game universes.
  • Games sometimes are backed by an evaluator or funder, who may carry their own expectations for the game.

How to create an educational video game

Feeley’s advice to anyone aspiring to teach through games is to consider: “What is fun about the topic I want to teach?” For instance, “Farm Blitz” teaches economics well because it displaces financial consequences onto a fantasy world, but players can also feel the satisfaction of managing money wisely in the game. Furthermore, Feeley advises game designers to make the player the game’s most compelling protagonist. Players are encouraged when they feel revered as the heroes in their game universe. There are a number of platforms available for individuals to create their own games. People of all backgrounds play video games, and the population is becoming increasingly digitally literate. Gaming may become an increasingly common supplement to learning, as game design becomes an increasingly universal skill.

Contact EdTech

If you’re interested in exploring gaming as a teaching tool, and/or participating in a discussion group on this topic, contact EdTech by emailing