It’s Time To Move Our Schools into the 21st Century – Games in Education

Collaboration. Creativity. Critical Thinking. Problem-solving.

Those four things are what we call the “21st Century Skills.” There are more than that, depending on who you ask, but pretty much everyone agrees on those four, so that’s what we’re going to look at.


(You can find an overview of what the 21st Century Skills are here)

The 21st Century Skills are some of the most important skills that we can teach students, but it’s so often that we see young people fresh out of high school or college with a diploma or degree as proof of their education, and yet so many of them struggle to succeed in the workplace or even struggle to find employment at all. Those students aren’t stupid, they’ve had plenty of education, but they just seem to be lacking something that’s difficult to describe. They’re lacking 21st Century Skills. They struggle to work well in a team, or to handle problems on their own, or to manage tasks without supervision or clear instructions.


Schools seem to be so focused, at least in the United States, on rote memorization, trivia quizzes, like a big game of Jeopardy. Sorry, but life isn’t jeopardy, and that kind of education just isn’t going to cut it. We’ve been phoning it in for too long, and it’s time for an upgrade


I’ve got some ideas on how we could handle that upgrade. Specifically, how video games can be used as a tool for teaching 21st Century Skills, the kinds of skills that students will actually need in the real world. Let’s talk about it.


Don’t get me wrong, school is great. I’m a total advocate for education. Learning is a vital part of our personal lives and is necessary for our development as a species. School, as it is today, does actually manage to teach students a lot of things. Science, history, math, concrete facts and figures. School is great at handling these subjects. You can measure them. You can test them. It’s easy. It’s standardized.


The problem is, the 21st Century Skills I mentioned above are what we would refer to as “soft skills,” skills that can’t be easily measured with the tests and homework assignments that are the norm in today’s education system, at least in the United States.


As a result, these important soft skills often fall by the wayside in typical schooling curriculums in favor of more testable, but less universally valuable skills, like diagramming the grammatical structure of a sentence or complex algebra. To be fair, diagramming a sentence and complex algebra are both useful skills…if you’re going to be a linguist, or an academic writer, or a mathematician, or a computer programmer, but for the majority of average people, those skills aren’t so useful.


In contrast, skills like collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving are skills that absolutely anyone in the modern workplace can use. Very few jobs require no collaboration, employers tend to appreciate critical thinking if the work being done has any possibility of error, and in an imperfect world, most people spend a lot of time at work solving problems.


I believe that these 21st Century Skills should be explicitly taught to students. Now, to be clear, I’m sure there are ways to teach these skills in a more traditional classroom setting, but I’m not writing this article to talk to you about traditional teaching methods. I’m writing this article because I think video games have a unique and efficient ability to train students in collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving, while at the same time being engaging to the students. It’s been proven time and time again that without engagement–active interest in the topic being taught–teaching that topic and ensuring that the student has learned it is a lot more difficult. Why should we make the job harder than it needs to be?


Here are a few examples, off the top of my head, of how games can teach 21st Century Skills in an engaging way, almost without the students realizing they’re learning something. I’ve got examples of specific games, as well as examples of entire genres that could make good tools for teaching a certain skill.



  • Portal 2’s multiplayer mode is fantastic for teaching collaboration. Two players are forced to work together using their portal guns in order to solve puzzles that cannot be completed by a single player. They win together or not at all.
  • MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) like League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Smite require collaboration amongst a group of teammates with different strengths and weaknesses in order to win a match. You’re not going to win against a team of good players if your team doesn’t know how to work together.
  • MMOs(Massively Multiplayer Online games)like World of Warcraft feature raids (collaborative sequences of combat encounters) also require collaboration to win. The players each control a character that fills a specific role in the team, and the players have to play to their strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses in order to win.
  • This one is a bit of a stretch, but competitive multiplayer games like Civilization could be used, with a little tinkering, to create collaborative challenges, like teaming up to defeat the all the NPCs(Non-Player Character).

Critical thinking:

  • Adventure games like those made by Tell Tale Games require the player to explore his or her surroundings and figure out what actions to take in order to progress through the narrative. Tell Tale’s games are particularly good for this because the stories are often affected by how the player interacts with the game and its characters, and the player must determine which course of action they feel will produce the best outcome.

Problem Solving:

  • Adventure games also fall into this category, because each level is a kind of puzzle that needs solving, and you’re given certain “pieces” to combine and interact with your environment in some way in order to move on to the next level.
  • Puzzle games like Portal 2, mentioned above, are great for this, but games, in general, tend to serve this purpose. The goal is always to beat the game, which in itself is a form of problem that needs solving, and players can create self-imposed missions for themselves, such as completing an entire game without dying or taking damage, which is also a form of problem solving, because in order to have the best chance of success, the player needs to plot out his or her course of action in advance and adhere to specific steps, making use of whatever resources the game provides him or her and adapting on the fly to accomplish the goal.


It’s true that the 21st-century skills can’t be tested in a standardized format, but it’s my opinion that standardization loses its usefulness when applied to anything not coming off an assembly line. Greater care than that should be taken to ensure our children are learning critical life skills. Our kids aren’t refrigerators, they’re not all the same.


The method of testing I have in mind is simple. The teacher can ask him/herself these questions when observing the students:



  • is it clear that they are communicating and working together toward a goal?
  • Can they adequately communicate their ideas to each other in regards to the current project?


  • Are they clearly putting thought into the problems and challenges presented to them?
  • Are they coming up with solutions that are different from the so-called “correct” solution? (Whether their new solution worked or not is irrelevant, but you might like to award bonus points if it does work)

Critical Thinking

  • Do they seem to understand how to determine who is best-suited for a given role in a team?
  • Can they give an analysis of the problem or challenge they’re working on, and maybe describe the steps they think they should take to solve it, before they’ve even started physically working on the problem?

Problem Solving

  • Have they gotten faster at completing challenges than when they first started?
  • Can they complete challenges now that were too hard for them when they first started?


If the answer to these questions is yes, then they’ve learned the skills effectively. The only other step I think would be useful would be to explain the concept of these skills to the students so that they consciously realize what they’re doing, which would help cement the principles in their minds. Maybe some exercises could even be moved into the real world with some kind of collaborative challenge game to engage the students even further.


The only problem with these methods is that it would require more time and effort from teachers, which means that smaller class sizes and more teachers would likely be the easiest solutions, but in the long term these methods, if used effectively, would be so worth it for the sake of our children.

Imagine working on a team in which everyone collaborated smoothly, everyone wanted to solve the problems arising in the project, everyone had critical insights to share, and everyone contributed with their own creative ideas and solutions. These are skills that can be taught, and taught well with the use of video games, and I say it’s time we put more focus on teaching them.

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