As the founder of a video game development program, one of the most difficult parts of my job is convincing adults that this interactive medium is a valuable and impactful way to teach tech to low income youth and youth of color. When adults hear “video games,” they may think of their childhood spent in arcades, games they played as kids like Duck Hunt or Tetris, violent games like Grand Theft Auto, or those addictive mobile games people play on trains on the way to work. But limiting the potential of gaming as a powerful teaching tools based on these experiences is a big mistake.

The truth is, based on best practices in education of low income youth and youth of color, there are many undeniable reasons why this ever-evolving medium is ideally suited as both a teaching tool and a platform to teach technology. Here are 11 reasons.


1) Video Game Design Embraces Experiential Learning

Creating a video game can be like experiential learning on steroids. At Gameheads, for example, our students not only have to learn how to be developers by building their games, each student also has to learn a specialized role—such as Programmer and Art Designer — and how that role and other roles are essential to creating a final project. Video game development is the tech equivalent of putting together a band: learn your instrument and learn how to perform with others.


2) Video Game Design Embraces Social Justice Educational Principles (John Paul Gee)

Video games are learning systems. They are designed to teach users how to play, provide them with mental challenges so they keep playing, provide feedback systems to encourage them to try again and rewards when they’ve done something right.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is what the best teachers do well.

These are but a few things that video games have in common with social justice educational principles:

  • Video games are interactive.
  • Video games encourage users to take safe risks.
  • Video games give players a sense of agency and control.  
  • Video games talk back. When you do something through play or development, something will react to the student/user.
  • Video games embrace storytelling and action.
  • Video games allow the user to world build and play with identity.


3) Video Games Are Used to Regulate Emotions

Regulating emotion is amongst the top 10 reasons why youth play video games, according to the research of Cheryl K. Olson (Review of General Psychology 2010, Vol. 14, No. 2, 180-187). For our target demographic, video games are even more important to their mental health. Low-income youth tend to live in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, crime and violence and elevated rates of substance abuse. These neighborhoods are often described as “high-stressor” areas. Educators can not only use video games as teaching tools, but they can also use them as ways to alleviate stress.


4) Video Game Design is the Best Representation of S.T.E.A.M.

Video game design and development immerse students in: art, programming, 3D modeling, animation, storytelling, project management, design, idea creation and even behavioral psychology. In addition, they learn the pros and cons of distribution platforms, the ability to use various computer applications such as Balsamiq or ZBrush and several other areas that fall under science, technology, engineering, art and math. The possibilities of what an educator can teach through video games are endless. The best part is that once a new device comes out, like motion sensors or VR, you can easily transition into it. Your students will love you for it.


5) Video Game Design Embraces 21st Century Learning

Collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking, commonly knows as The Four Cs, are the basis for 21st century learning.   Most games are made with a team. Therefore, teaching students video game design will require that they learn how to collaborate and communicate within a group. Also, creating an interactive experience is a challenging process, one that requires creativity and critical thinking to solve complex problems.


6) Video Game Design Allows for True Strength Based Learning

There was a time in my career when I taught using a one size fits all curriculum, and it broke my heart to see students fail even though they were clearly talented in other areas. For students of color who are considering tech as a future career, this pedagogical approach can be dangerous. Students need positive learning experiences that allow them to feel like they are good at something that can lead to a career in tech. John Paul Gee refers to this as “Customization” and “Performance Before Competence” (Good Video Games and Good Learning, 2007) Ironically, this is exactly how video games work and why they are so appealing. The user is allowed to customize the levels of difficulty and demonstrate performance of skills before they’ve mastered them.

Once I started teaching video game design, my students could excel within a team based on their strengths. So, a beat maker could create songs and sound effects. The students who gravitated toward coding could program the game. A student with great attention to detail could be a project manager. The poet could write the script for the video game and share design duties with the artist. Even the student who plays the most video games can shine. On a team, those hours spent playing games can be used to come up with new game ideas. They also make great play testers and the perfect person to offer feedback to the designers.


7) Video Games Make it Easier to Teach System Design

Do you want to teach your students how to understand our voting system, the prison system or the public education system? Good luck explaining that in a classroom setting. The dominant thinking is that these systems are too complex for students to grasp. But, I bet they can explain how to build a defense strategy against an invading extraterrestrial enemy in X-Com after a few weeks. Educators who understand games can easily use these commonly designed systems of play to explain social and political systems. I once used a video game based on The Walking Dead to explain the importance of sound decision making for a group of young Black men. They were terribly disappointed when I stopped.


8) Video Game-like Learning is Culturally Relevant Learning

When a person plays a video game, he or she has to use almost all senses. This is also what Marshall McLuhan refers to as “tribal literacy,” the dominant mode of learning before the spread of Western Literacy. The point is, we learn by doing and doing requires us to use all five of our senses.

So, we know that video games are learning systems. We know that video games require that you know how to use all of your senses to interact with them. And, we know that youth of color learn — in their respective families and communities — using all of their senses. In my experience as an educator, using video games to teach tech gives my students a level of comfort and accessibility to learning that I’ve never seen before.


9) Video Game Design Builds Off of the Most Influential Creative Movements

The last time the Black and Latino communities used cheap hardware and software to express themselves during an extreme social and political climate they created Hip Hop. The time before that, they created Jazz, Blues, and Rock n Roll. Computers are far more accessible today than they were in 2000, and nearly all industry standard software is cheap or incredibly affordable. It is time for us to create a new creative medium. Still not convinced? In an article in Okay Player, author Nelson George, had this to say about video games: “it seems to me that that’s where the next level of storytelling is, because now video games embrace music [and] they embrace action.”


10) Video Games Design Leverages the Creative Talent of Youth of Color

Video games are congruent with the most common creative talents of young urban youth. Tell me, how many youth do you know who are beat makers, rappers, performers, poets, dancers, graffiti artists, gamers, classroom know-it-alls and the kid who everyone goes to when their computer gets hacked? Several, I bet.

In the video game industry, each of these skill sets can translate into jobs. Beat makers are sound engineers and music composers. A young rapper or performer might find a career as a voice actor or Motion Capture Actor. A tagger or graffiti artist could find a career designing characters, levels or heads up displays (HUDs) as an art designer or animator. Tech savvy youth can be programmers on the game or the one who builds the tools for the rest of the team.  Even the gamer can get a job as a Quality Assurance Tester and eventually graduate to a Game Designer position. Poets in the urban community are our world builders, and that is exactly what a Story Designer or Game Director does; she or he quite literally builds a world for the user to play in.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see our young artists take those wonderful realities they’ve created in their spiral notebooks and turn them into an interactive world for everyone to see?


11) Your Students Are Already There… Waiting for You.

According to The Kaiser Family Foundation, African American youth between the ages of 8 and 18 play games at least 30 minutes more per day than white youth, while Hispanics play an average of 10 minutes more.

Nielsen studied the same cultural groups, with ages ranging from 18 to 49, and also found that African Americans consistently spent more time playing video games than whites. Another report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that, even in the area of portable gaming (which, given the ubiquity of smart phones and tablets has become the most lucrative arm of the industry), African Americans and Hispanics still outranked white youth. Further, video game are second only to music as the thing our students interact with when using tech devices.

On the flip side, African Americans (3%), Latinos (7.3%) and East Asians (9%) collectively make up less than 20% of the people employed in the video game industry.


It’s time to change these numbers.