Gaming to Learn

Quijano (second from left) working with students

Colleagues often ask me how I started using games and game-based learning in my courses.  To answer requires a retrospective look into my childhood and how I discovered gaming at an early age. Although I had been playing video games in the Atari 2600 since 1982, I truly fell in love with the medium when my mother bought a Nintendo Entertainment System for my 8th birthday. I was amazed by the then-impressive visuals, colors, and sound quality that the console could output. The concept of a Red Man jumping on tiny turtle monsters and becoming larger when he ate mushrooms in a quest to rescue a princess who is eternally in another castle caught my imagination. When I learned that other kids in school also played Nintendo games, I found my community.

In school, my friends and I bonded over stories and rumors about the latest games. “Did you know that you can jump over the flag at the end of stages in Super Mario Bros?” one kid would say, trying to one-up his friend who claimed he could beat Mike Tyson in Punch Out. “Oh yeah?!” I would reply trying to show my gamer cred, “well I beat the SECOND world in Legend of Zelda!” On the road, I would devour the latest Game Pro and Game Players magazines, and at home, I would play MegaMan 2, Castlevania, and Contra. As I grew older I expanded my gaming catalogue. Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter II became quick favorites.

The first time I thought of games having educational potential – although I didn’t phrase it in such terms – was in 1992 when I played Shining Force. The game told the story of how the evil Kingdom of Runefaust sought world domination, and it was up to the righteous armies of Guardiana, led by Max (the player) to stop them. I followed Max’ exploits as he traveled from nation to nation helping citizens and royals, studying the mythology of the world, and fighting off the Runefaust generals. Heroes had complex histories, enemies had compelling motivations, and the overall plot of the story kept the game moving along at an engaging pace. By the time I finished the game – almost 30 hours after I began – I thought that it would be far more interesting to do a “book report” on the game’s story and characters than Louise Erdrich’s The Red Convertible, which we were discussing that week. I pleaded with my English teacher, and ultimately she let me do a report on Shining Force, though I still had to participate in class discussions about Erdrich’s work. My love for games and my interest in talking about them in the English class only grew from there, and that is what ultimately led me to work on games and education.

When I went to college I began studying computer sciences. My goal at the time was to make a fully three-dimensional game where the character could run, jump, punch, kick, and fight enemies while exploring immersive worlds. During my first year of study, a friend showed me Super Mario 64, which looked and played almost like the game I dreamed of making, so I lost a lot of my motivation to continue the program. As technology advanced, more games that approached my “unique” vision were released. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy IX, and Panzer Dragoon all had elements of what I thought would be the “ultimate game.” I didn’t want to make derivative games, and I didn’t care much about making other types of games. By the time I reached my senior year in college I had given up on game development and began exploring other careers.

With others having completed what I felt was “my” game, I decided to turn my attention elsewhere. I had been working in the university’s Writing Center since my sophomore year and I loved tutoring other students. I had also grown to love speaking in front of my classmates. With this in mind, and with my ideas about games and education in tow, I decided to try my hand at teaching.

It took another three years for me to finish my education degree in language acquisition and begin teaching as an adjunct professor in a local community college. I wanted a more permanent position, so I began working on a master’s degree. During my first year of study in grad school I saw a call for papers for a journal titled Pedagogía. It asked for articles on technology and education. I thought this would be a great vehicle for me to share my ideas regarding games and education, so I wrote a 12-page essay discussing how games could be used in both language acquisition and language arts classrooms.

Interestingly, I didn’t know at the time that Pedagogía was, and still is, one of the most prestigious academic journals of education in the Spanish-speaking world. This led to researchers from top universities contacting me to ask about my ideas. I continued expanding on the research during my graduate studies, and ultimately wrote a thesis based on a hybrid experimental design with a survey component. Eventually, I re-discovered my love for game creation. I found game engines that focused more on the writerly component of game design and began implementing lessons on games & writing and games as argument into my classes. This allows students to practice writing skills and develop their rhetorical knowledge while engaging in play. I have been asked to speak to teachers in other disciplines about how games can help them capture the imagination of their students. Some of my most successful talks have been with history, STEM, and nursing instructors.

In the end, there are many opportunities for instructors to implement game-based learning and video games-as-text in their classrooms. Whether they want to learn more about the theories behind the practice or just go straight into using video games in the classroom, it only takes a bit of effort to implement these strategies, and the payoff in student engagement makes the effort more than worth it.

(Instructors who want to brainstorm strategies or need recommendations to use games in their classroom are welcome to contact Dr. Johansen Quijano at