I have endured, as a parent, a relentless PR campaign on the part of my son’s best friend for the better part of a year. The purpose? To persuade me to allow my son to play Minecraft. He even wrote me a well-composed argument, with linked sources (he’s 11), on the ways in which Minecraft can prove an educational experience for kids.
There’s a lot to say on the subject of how – and how much – kids learn from video games. The energy and effort both kids put into convincing me speaks to just how immersive and emotionally engaging they can be.
And video games CAN teach skills – anyone who’s seen their kids master Minecraft can tell you that. The intrinsic motivation is intense, which means once they’re hooked, kids will be using every trick they have to get online, get in the game, and keep practicing every skill the game has been designed to make rewarding. Video games are particularly seductive because they make success easy and incremental - break blocks to get resources - and rewards clear and immediate - use resources to build stuff. And kids' brains - finely tuned and specialized to learn - crave the dopamine rush that reward gives, helping them endure the kind of repetitive practice that leads to mastery.
In Minecraft, that can include some very useful stuff – design elements, some creative problem solving, even some reading and research skills as kids pursue YouTube videos and blogs to craft ever more complicated construction projects.
But what they can’t teach, and what people intrinsically feel in their bones that their kids have been lacking this long, crazy year, is what people in education call socio-emotional skills: practice navigating disagreements, managing difficult emotions, and learning the tricky business of working in teams with people you sometimes won’t get along with.
Video games almost never allow the kind of adult-moderated emotional exchanges that happen in the classroom, because most formats for interaction don’t create the opportunity. In Minecraft, you can create and be recognized, but there’s little format – or safety! – for or in meeting new people. You might disagree with someone, but there’s little incentive to work it out; it’s easier to just ignore that player, or only play with people you already know.
They do create a wonderful "play space," however. which is what makes them so much more compelling to kids than most online learning experiences. In Minecraft, they're free to explore, do what they like, and interact - to have agency to shape how and what they learn without restrictions.
ONLINE COURSE CRASH
And that exposes one of the reasons so much online learning has failed.
Most interactions are primarily with the teacher, with some peer interaction, but very little conflict resolution. After all, the sorts of issues that might arise online are limited, and the ability to step away, turn off the screen, or disengage makes it very easy to avoid conflict instead of struggling through it. Sadly, legal requirements make many of the moves that could make online class effective - smaller classes, shorter periods - impossible.
Online school also fails to provide rewarding peer interactions; a kid might like it when their parent tells them “good job,” but even one direct compliment from a peer on a drawing, a story, a joke? That’s enough to inspire intense dedication to mastering the connected skill, and - perhaps more importantly - a shift in identity: “I’m an artist,” “I tell great stories,” “I’m funny.” That’s the crucial intrinsic motivation that turns something from a tedious task imposed upon a kid (“Ugh, fine, I’ll practice my music”) to a passion (“I just wrote a new song – listen!”).
WHY RPGS ARE DIFFERENT
In a role-playing game, kids have the same sort of experience they do when immersed in a good book – they become invested, emotionally, in the character they’ve created, wanting them to succeed. The events in the story – some that they’ve designed; others which I, as story-teller, create to surprise them – create very real, very dramatic challenges. The chance of failure is there, and the emotions that get wrapped up in a single roll often have kids shrieking “NO!” or cheering wildly. Sure, they could opt out – but because of the connection to a fictional reality in which they are their characters, they don’t want to.
This level of engagement creates a unique opportunity for learning conflict resolution, anger management, negotiation, and creative problem-solving in an online context. As a storyteller, I help create those emotional moments, and then, just like in a physical classroom, guide kids through resolving them by working together – and with tools other than violence.
Often, when the tension in the story escalates, kids will become both excited and frustrated. “Hey, help me out – I need someone to figure out what these things eat before they eat me!” “What are you doing, we need to focus, stop playing around!” These moments create an incredible opportunity – with the right handling, the kid who has been distracted or silly gets a chance to step up and be cheered when they save the day, and the frustration others feel turns into celebration that reinforces positive engagement without any judgement or negative feedback.
MAKING ACADEMIC PRACTICE REWARDING
In my games, there's also explicit reward systems for academic investment. We begin by reading everyone's stories aloud (often in an accent - favorites seem to be British, Scottish, and occasionally Russian). When kids laugh and cheer for each other's work, the desire to write more, be expressive, and think up new ideas for next class is intense. A second reward is built into the mechanics: their work earns "Story Points," a currency they can exchange for new abilities that will help their characters overcome adversity and gain new powers and abilities.
The final reward might be the best, though: as I always tell them, whatever they write, I have to bring to life in the game. When a character from someone's backstory shows up, or the party travels to the world they imagined, all their peers are immersed in their creation, legitimized and amplified by my narration. The delight and pride kids feel is deeply moving.
That’s a kind of creativity that a game like Minecraft can’t foster. Yes, kids can build all sorts of immense and immersive worlds in the space there, but they won’t develop language skills. They aren’t writing, reading, acting out dialogue, and imagining other people in a variety of situations. They aren’t flexing empathy, and they aren’t practicing the art of using words to imagine other people’s realities – of thinking of how to describe how someone walks, talks, or looks.
Those skills are core, to me, to what classrooms do well. So while I respect educational video games and the learning they can encourage, I respectfully counter that tabletop RPGs – and the digital versions of them – offer deeper opportunities and incentives to learn a complex set of skills: language, empathy, emotional resilience, conflict resolution, and creativity.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Want to sign a student up? Check for open classes, or reach out to find your own time!
If you'd like to check out some of the tools I use with students, take a look at my games.
If you'd like to hear a bit more about my approach, here's a video where I explain a bit more!