Video Games as Effective Educational Tools: A Teacher’s Story

Video Games as Teaching Tools

Should you happen to cross paths with o DARKBLADE o while traversing the vast world of Xbox Live, you would more than likely find him waging war against the Covenant with a group of teenagers nearly half his age. Ask him why and he’d tell you he’s schooling them, although it wouldn’t be in the way you think.

Christian high school teacher by day and hardcore gamer by night, 37-year-old Martin VanWoudenberg has found a way to successfully integrate a childhood hobby into his grown up responsibilities. He currently teaches English, History, and Law, and has found a number of video games that serve as excellent educational aids to his lessons.


Sometimes the video game influence in his classroom is simple, such as when he uses slides of relevant game characters that fit the current theme. He finds himself calling upon Castle Crashers frequently during the medieval unit and scenes from the Total War series when they’re studying Napoleon.

Current titles are not the only games being utilized in his classroom though. In History for World War I for instance, Mr. V, as he’s known amongst his students, was once able to dig up an old machine and a compatible copy of Red Baron, an immensely successful flying simulation set on the Western Front of the same time period. There was one student in particular who had a knack for it so he was made the Baron. The other students then had to “go to war.” It made for lively, in-depth discussion afterwards, serving as a catalyst for conversation about the Red Baron, his life, and a plethora of topics relevant to that specific military conflict.

The subsequent World War II unit also provided a prime video game opportunity, this time for Call of Duty, a historic first-person shooter.

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I assigned students to a nationality of German or Allied… since we don’t pick where we’re born. They did research on their side’s motivations, did propaganda posters, and found horror stories about what the other side did during the war. Then, with very basic training, they were dropped into a COD 2 match against each other, rotating out when killed and a new student took their place. Some were very good at this. Many were terrible, but that’s like real war. Depending on how often they “died”, and how the match went, students were assigned an outcome (dead, wounded, captured, etc). From here, they wrote war journals on their experience, both on before the action, and afterwards. How did they feel? How “fair” was it? There were high emotions in the room, including real shock, surprise, anger, etc. By the end, many really wanted to kill the enemy, despite being very upset at being assigned the Nazi side for example. It was an interesting study in how quickly we identify with comrades in arms and demonize the enemy.

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Students are typically not surprised when a video game gets introduced in one of Mr. V’s lessons. After all, Halo and BioShock 2 posters adorn the walls while Hitman, Army of Two, and Gears of War action figures keep each other company on the shelves. There’s even a pair of Modern Warfare 2 night vision goggles in the classroom. The gaming atmosphere fosters the video game discussion during the downtimes, which is evident by the regular meet-ups that occur during lunch hour.

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I choose to not spend lunch times in the staff room most of the time, and my classroom is a regular meeting place for students that want to talk and debate gaming. There are students that are sometimes harder to connect with, or that might struggle in class at times. But, when we have a common love and common language, it makes everything else a lot easier too. Rapport has certainly been increased significantly, no question. And, it’s great talking with past students that I no longer teach. They still have a reason to pop in or chat with me in the halls about what I think about a certain game, or how far I got in another one. Having a way to keep those relationships is very important to me.

I taught in an inner-city school for a while, with kids in some tough situations. I had this one kid that just never talked to anyone, and who was really hard to reach. I noticed one day that he had a Mario sketch on one of his books, so I broached a conversation about Mario Galaxy vs the classic Mario. Then we debated Xbox vs Wii for the next few weeks. He left me a note one day with a Mario drawing and the words, “Viva la Revolution” (a nod to the Wii’s early name). Every time after that, when we passed in the hall or he came past the classroom, he’d pop in with a little fist pump and cry for the revolution. I’d come up with a retort, and off he’d go with a smile. It was a little thing, but he opened up with others as well, and I saw him become a far less withdrawn kid. It was evidence of the great power and common bond that you can have as gamers, no matter what the age.

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While the male students respond quite well to the video game references, Martin has noticed an absence of the same reaction from his female students. The girls occasionally know who Mario and Princess Peach are, but none of them, to his knowledge, fill their evenings and weekends with any of the more hardcore shooters.

Parent reactions to the unconventional teaching techniques employed in his classroom often borderline on indifferent. Some students have said their parents roll their eyes when they tell them Mr. V plays video games, but most of the time they simply don’t seem to get it. There’s a general lack of interest in the subject and a lack of interest in learning about it. He continues to tread carefully and recognizes no real strong positive or negative parent reactions is a mixed blessing. Along with no issues comes no triumphs either.

Overall, Martin finds his use of video games as effective educational tools to be beneficial on numerous fronts.

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There’s an experiential component that you can’t get with other medium. I’ve had students watch war movies and documentaries and be moved by them, but they never experienced the fear and panic of war until they faced far better opponents and heard the shouts of fellow students behind them, telling them to try harder. You need to debrief that sort of thing, but it’s very powerful. It puts them in the experience, and they invest in it a lot more than they might otherwise.

And, as a very simple and practical point, if students are watching the screen for game references and characters, they are likely paying attention to what I’m saying as well. I find classroom management issues are vastly reduced and attention far better.

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He plays against his students on Live every once in a while, usually on Gears of War or Halo, but they have to earn that right. When they do, he reports that he typically performs decently, not devastating them but certainly holding his own. If they had to grade his performance after the fact, I’m guessing they would say he passed. And that goes for his unorthodox method of teaching too.

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*While you can’t say for certain if you’d ace his class, you can certainly attempt to pass his recently created Hardcore Gamer’s IQ Test. Give it a whirl, if you dare!

53 Responses to Video Games as Effective Educational Tools: A Teacher’s Story

  1. Too long to read now, will read in the morning.

    • It is NOT that long Crazed…geez!

      • pwkwsfi says:

        twss

        • Nice.

      • At 3 am, it is.

        • bs angel says:

          :looks at your previous time stamp, which I know is in your time zone:

          Busted!

        • iPurism says:

          You have been pwned.
          Good day, sir.

    • DeepCee says:

      Bad Crazed !

  2. Skitzo Sven says:

    So much to read but worth it.
    Wish I had a teacher like this.

    • Glassesguy says:

      I did.His name was Mr.Carkin. He didn’t have video games, but he had a tank full of Cockaroches, turtle, and a huge rock collection. 2 of which, were radioactive. To bad he’s retiring. This guy better stay in the system, the worlds running out of awesome teachers.

      • DuracellDurrell says:

        i had a teacher in high school that taught millitary history and used COD 2 as a teaching tool. Great Teacher, he also really encouraged teaching through discussion rather than lecture. it resulted in some unproductive classes but in the long run i learned way more in his class than i otherwise would have.

        as for radio active rocks… not to bad. take a look at your smoke detector in any room. open it up and you will find a little package (usually blue) that contains a silver foil… that foil is either Americium 241 or Radium 226, it ionizes the air so a small electric current passes to a ‘detector’, as the smoke can’t ionize like air it will block this current and set off the alarm. So in reality, radioactive materials are every where, a couple of rocks are of no concern

  3. DeepCee says:

    Good to see teachers try different approaches to make the more mundane subjects more interesting :)

  4. Crazy A 64 says:

    This is the kind of stuff which we don’t hear about often enough outside of the world of gaming. Why is this story not all over the press’ like the countless “Guy shoots brother in face after Halo” news articles we see month in month out?! Bravo to you o DARKBLADE o, Bravo!

    • suicidalkanoka says:

      lol, you don’t know him, but automatically refer to him by his full gt.

      I agree though, the media finds these stories less interesting. :(

  5. liphttam1 says:

    I did a facebook search. He’s not there! My dreams of finding were he lives and moving there are ruined!

    • Hyokin says:

      Stalker… lol

      • Killah786 says:

        hey… i would want a teacher like that too… one where you always play games in his class…

  6. Wow that was an amazing article
    Any chances of more stories like this?

    • bs angel says:

      If I happen upon any, absolutely. The second I got a whiff of this gentleman’s background, I immediately wanted to know more. I thought it was a fascinating subject and an interesting reflection on how relevant video games are today.

  7. Crazy A 64 says:

    Reminds me of a couple of weeks back when I was doing some work on the Javelin. I said to my boss “You know I took down a helo with one of these last night… on CoD!” he didn’t seem too impressed O_o

    • liphttam1 says:

      What do you do for a living exactly?

      • Crazy A 64 says:

        If I told you then I’d have to… err… well sit here and bore you with an explaination for hours on end by which time you still wouldn’t fully understand!

        • DT62 says:

          He works for Lockheed Martin by the looks of it. Most likely works at assembling it as the Javelin was built, tested, and finalized at least a decade ago. I too know someone who worked on it, or rather was a part of the team who designed the guidance package for it in the 90’s.

  8. BSG Daffy says:

    Fantastic article, Angel. I’d like to see more like this in the future. :)

  9. TheChrisD says:

    If only some of my college lecturers could be like that…

  10. Overdoziz says:

    Is he Dutch?

    Great story by the way, wish my teachers did this. ;)

  11. ARGH why can’t all teachers be like that? I would have been all over that class.

  12. Panncakez says:

    I seriously wish that all of my teachers were like that. Though, nobody plays Halo at my school anymore, they all think that Modern Warefare 2 is “the shiz.”

    • Hyokin says:

      Don’t get me started on that one…

      Damn MW2….

  13. Hyokin says:

    Why don’t girls get as into video games as guys do?
    Is it a hormonal thing or what?

    Either way, good read and I found it very interesting. :)

    • I get into video games more than my guy friends do sometimes… >.>

      I guess some girls are just different than other girls. Some girls are raised watching their moms cook and go shopping, some are raised drooling in front of the computer screen while their father plays StarCraft.

      • Query says:

        My ex-girlfriend loves games, especially those from the nintendo universe, and currently WoW.. But her sister doesn’t. Her sister made the attempt to get into WoW but as far as I’ve seen she doesn’t bother anymore. BUT- Their parents love gaming. My ex’s mom is constantly trying out different MMORPGs, and her dad [ as far as I've heard lately ] enjoys his legend of zelda games still. Then you go to another friend who acts a little like my ex.. But she hates video games. Her parents, of course, also hate them.

        So it’s all just a matter of how you’re raised, eh? :D

        • Well it definitely changes from person to person, but being around games at young ages does seem to help. But then you get into a whole Nature Vs. Nurture thing and I really don’t wanna go into that. :P

    • bs angel says:

      I was interested in that tidbit too. If I had to make a guess, I would think perhaps it’s the age. While I grew up with gaming, I definitely stepped away from it for my high school years and came back as an adult. Then again, it’s much more commonplace these days so who knows really?

      • iPurism says:

        It could also be the bad name people that don’t like gaming give gamers at those periods.
        All that name-calling gets to them and they “pretend” to do sports to seek social acceptance.
        I know, I’m deep :3

    • DT62 says:

      Well just throwing out ideas, but there is still a stigma against video games by some girls as being nerdy and such, so (at least in my limited experience) they are unwilling to even give them a try.

      • iPurism says:

        Exactly. all the people that just don’t feel like playing video games call others “nerds” and shiz. Although, some of the annoying douchey fat kids mess it up.

  14. Mr V. says:

    Thanks for the article Hawty.

    To answer a few questions here:

    – Yes, I’m Dutch… though born in Canada.
    – I live in Langley BC, Canada.

    Thanks for the positive comments.

    • iPurism says:

      You, sir, are WINrar.

    • Awesome Opossum says:

      I just have to say that I’m really impressed. I wish that we saw more stories like this in the media, both to inspire teachers to think of alternate learning methods, and make Fox News stop publishing stories about how bad a game is for you, using an educated person who has not played the game first hand as leverage.

      • Don’t you mean FAUX news?

        Eh? EH?

        I know, I’m awful.

    • Voicedwalnut says:

      I have to say Mr V. you sir are the most epic teacher I have ever heard of

  15. Mizzy says:

    Seriously, this guy needs to win an award from the gaming community for such dedication!

  16. VoltRabbit says:

    Excellent post, very important topic to have on the surface of every ones’ minds these days.

  17. That Geek says:

    I want to go to school just to have this teacher!

  18. Voicedwalnut says:

    I so want him as a teacher

  19. Personsen says:

    LOL! This is amazing! Why can’t one of my teachers be like this?! :D

  20. xLAS3RP01NT3Rx says:

    Wow that’s pretty awesome.

    @Personsen, I know right?
    This would be the best teacher ever.
    And I didn’t know it was legal for them to actually be able to play over Xbox Live. Like the friends list thing and stuff. Oh well.

    • iPurism says:

      Too much Twitter, eh?

      • xLAS3RP01NT3Rx says:

        #Idon’tknowwhatyouretalkingabout

        • iPurism says:

          WIN Comeback xD

  21. Tyler says:

    I’m a refferee at the HS here in San Diego and the varsity soccer coach/hist prof along with the English prof both play on live. They play with current students and alumni. (lets me check up on how my little brothers are doing in class LOL)

  22. Sean says:

    Great article! I’m impressed that your able to use “Shooter” games as educational tools, I was actually very surprised that the school allows you to do that. Maybe you could also use some strategy games like the “allied” or “panzer” general series to show the effort it takes to plan for battle and keep the troops supplied. As I’m sure you know there is also a ton of educational games for the Wii and DS that test everything from brain power to increasing reading, writing, mathematics, and artistic skills…Keep on using games in your teaching!

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