It seems that no modern education discussion can avoid the topic of whether educational games should be used as a teaching tool. Where you come down on the argument depends on what you see as the benefits and how those compare to the costs.

What are the benefits of educational games?

Well, advocates tout games as the only way to engage today’s distracted students in otherwise boring curriculum material. They can increase the time that students spend on learning activities, and they may communicate educational information in ways that are better absorbed by students. Asking students to explain the rules to games can also be a great way to improve executive function.

On the other hand, opponents worry that games may trivialize education, waste valuable class time, and further deplete students’ attention spans for “real-world” situations that are not necessarily as fun.

Evaluating the benefits of educational games

I think that the real answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Being an economist by background, I have attempted to condense the process of educational game evaluation into a simple conceptual equation:

tT * pP = Learning

  • T = Time spent learning
  • t = The increase in time spent learning, as a result of higher engagement brought about by using the game. (With no game, t = 1. A game that doubles time spent learning would have t=2.  Etc.)
  • P = Productivity of learning (Learning / Time)
  • p = The decrease in productivity of learning per unit of time, as a result of the extraneous game mechanics that are added to a game, such as storytelling, character development, score reporting, smack talking, etc. (With no game, p = 1. A game that is purely “fun” and completely eliminates all learning benefits would have p=0.)

The goal of educational games, of course, is to ensure that the implementation of the game increases learning by enticing the student to spend more time on the activity, without losing so much time in productivity. In equation terms, we can say:

t * p = Δ Learning,


If (t * p) > 1 ,The game is worthwhile

Although it is obviously very difficult to measure exactly what t and p actually equal, the important point is to keep these concepts in mind when evaluating games.

For example, the classic game Math Blaster was very good at increasing students’ motivation to spend more time drilling their core arithmetic skills (i.e. it has a high t), while almost constantly keeping the student engaged in math problems (i.e. it has a p barely less than 1). Perhaps 95% of all seconds spent playing Math Blaster are spent calculating a figure in one’s head and then inputting the answer. The calculation is a no-brainer; Math Blaster is a great tool for early math education.

In contrast, the classic game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? is a much tougher game to evaluate. Sure, a student is likely to spend a much larger amount of time playing the game than she would have otherwise spent studying Geography (i.e. the game has a very high t). But what percentage of the time spent playing Carmen Sandiego is spent actually learning? Most of the game is really devoted toward the storyline, character development, and mystery, with Geography learning coming only tangentially (and often without enough essential repetition) for a concept to truly stick). Carmen Sandiego has a very low p. It is less obvious that class time or homework should be devoted toward playing the game (although it could still be a very productive recreational activity if the student likes it).

The best types of educational games

The MOST efficient learning/study tools are ideally a complement to a student's interest in learning rather than a substitution. When a student is ALREADY motivated, so their T is high even without the game, a teacher can focus on the effectiveness rather than fun of a study method. For example, they might use spaced repetition flashcards for learning—these are amazingly effective even if not designed to be as "engaging" as learning games.

Of course, every class is different, and every student has different needs for being motivated. (Some “problem students” might never study unless it is a game, meaning the game has a much higher t factor for them than for other students.) But teachers should be careful to weigh “fun” against productivity when choosing whether to use a game in their classroom.

Want to learn more about helping students study better? Check out our guide to improving students' knowledge retention. And be sure to check out Brainscape's adaptive flashcards platform for a great study tool for your students who are already motivated to succeed.