Learning is a Lifelong Game Where the Score Doesn't Matter

Voices from the Field | Insights   29 October 2019
By Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning and the Met Center


A part of me saw games as a complete waste of time. And, I was mostly right but mainly for all the wrong reasons.

Elliot Washor
Co-Founder and Co-Director

Mae West was one of many famous dropouts—or as I like to call, “early school leaver”—who went to my high school, Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn. One of her most famous sayings was: “The score never interested me, only the game.” Schools should pay attention to this double entendre because we have a system that mostly pays attention to the score and not the game. Could it be that Mae West was onto something? Could it be that a key to engaging students in learning is to pay attention to the game—which is never ending—and not so much the score?

In the early 1980’s, I watched my oldest son, for hours on end, engage in both video and board games, like Super Mario Brothers and Dungeons and Dragons. At that time, they were new to the world, and I, like many parents, was very curious about what was so enticing about these games. A part of me saw them as a complete waste of time. And, I was mostly right but mainly for all the wrong reasons. 

Wasting time is precisely the point of play and gaming. I remember growing up in Brooklyn and feeling the same way as my son. All I really wanted to do was play games outside with friends, fix things like radios and cameras, and read comics. Of course, all of these activities were deemed a complete waste of time by school—a mindset I carried with me into my own parenting practice.

But, as I learned over the years, wasting time doesn’t mean deep learning isn’t occurring or that schools should ignore the value games bring to the table. As I started looking at the research, I found the French intellectual Roger Caillois calling play, “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.” But, he goes on to say, “Therein lies its utility, as a simulation that exists outside regular life.”


While schools struggle mightily to engage students, gamers and players are engaged by the intentional pull of the game. While we want everything to have meaning, gamers and players expect little meaning, and yet, there is a great deal.

Elliot Washor
Co-Founder and Co-Director

When I was playing games as a child, I never thought about  why these activities were grabbing my attention. They were just fun, and the only consequences they had—I was told—was that I wouldn’t amount to much if I continued prioritizing them over my schoolwork. Years later, as I watched my son engage in “time wasting,” I was able to see play through a brand new lens.I saw incredible and multifaceted learning happening.

In case you have an oversimplified notion of the hand skills people use in gaming (as I once had), it is not merely simple hand-eye coordination—pushing a button to destroy an alien or asteroid. In addition to knowing and manipulating ergonomically and anthropometrically designed game controls with a multiplicity of functions, gamers normally have to create and operate a character, manage and address a series of interconnected short and long-term objectives, and engage in text or verbal chats, while simultaneously playing and responding to emerging situations.

Some might see this as an overanalysis of what’s happening when children play video games. But, the easiest way to prove my case, outside of more sophisticated research, is to have you simply go challenge any young person to a video game of their choice. Let me know how inadequate you feel afterwards—I know the feeling.

Learning Without Consequence

Play is voluntary, not part of ordinary life; unserious, unproductive, and uncertain. Bernie DeKoven in The Well-Played Game states: “Play is the enactment of anything that is not for real. Play is intended to be without consequence. Play is for fun.”

If play contains so much utility, why does conventional academics violate all rules of play? Precisely because school bills itself as serious and certain—it becomes the foil of gaming. In the hearts, hands, and minds of so many students, it is often school and academics that become a pure waste of time and energy. Conventional schooling lacks what video and board gamers refer to as “the pull of the game” and its environment where players share an emotional connection that allows the participants to go deeper and practice longer. What is “the pull” of conventional schooling?

This emotional connection is what Shigeru Miyamoto, the game designer and inventor of Super Mario Brothers, calls Kyokan. The Japanese translation is Kyo (to share) and Kan (a feeling or emotion). People who play games share an emotional connection. It is the “pull of the game.” If you ever played Super Mario Brothers and got a sensation like you were descending further and further down, it is because as a child growing up in Okinawa, Miyamoto explored the caves near his village. His sentient experiences in the caves influenced this deep draw into his games.

Gaming Redefines Deeper Learning

The deep construct and learning that ensue in games are things to admire and learn from, not dismiss and condemn out of hand. As I gained more appreciation for the unexpected magic gaming holds, the big question for me became: How can we extract the organic learning that occurs through gaming and apply it more widely to other learning experiences, like school? Also, why do the principles of what we call “deeper learning” ignore the principles of play and gaming altogether? 

Here are the six components normally associated with Deeper Learning:

  • Mastering Core Academic Content – (specified outcome) 
  • Thinking Critically and Solving Complex Problems – (assessed primarily by prescribed examples and hypothetical situations) 
  • Working Collaboratively – (usually one grade given to a group for producing a result) 
  • Communicating Effectively – (only through text and verbal) 
  • Learning How to Learn – (based on prescribed tasks) 
  • Developing Academic Mindsets – (specified outcome) 

These components not only violate all of the principles of play and gaming, but in many cases, they also violate the principles of learner-centered education. First, there are predetermined outcomes that are decided by the school, not the students. These are Mastering Core Academic Content, Thinking Critically and Solving Complex Problems, and Developing Academic Mindsets.

Next, it appears deeper learning is only about working collaboratively and not working alone. Gamers do both. There is a time to play alone and a time to be in a network that is chosen by the player.

Then, there is an assumption about communication, where the outcomes measured by school are judged by a written test or a verbal performance. Games are much more visual, tactile, and tacit. The inclusion of these senses opens up access to young people who use these skills to learn.

Furthermore, there is an assumption by schools that children can’t figure out how to learn and have to be instructed in learning how to learn. The opposite is observable almost immediately when children are gaming—or learning naturally in any way for that matter.

While schools struggle mightily to engage students, gamers and players are engaged by the intentional pull of the game. While we want everything to have meaning, gamers and players expect little meaning, and yet, there is a great deal. While schools deal with set outcomes and narratives with foregone conclusions, play and games are frequently improvised and open-ended, and often controlled by the gamers. 

Schools are in-charge of competencies and outcomes; gamers and players are in charge of making their own decisions in an in-the-moment environment—that’s agency. Schools are certain; games are uncertain, filled with surprise and mystery. Games engage a person deeply when they have just the right amount of challenge and repetition. So much of school has either too much repetition without challenge or too much challenge without repetition. The result is boredom or low self-esteem for many students.

Gaming in the “Real World”

Done right, the inclusion of games can not only generate a high level of student engagement but also lead to increased self-esteem. Take the board game, NBA Math Hoops for example. First created in 1997 by lifelong educator, Tim Scheidt, and further developed by Scheidt and Jim Fina with dedicated support from Big Picture Learning (2006-12), NBA Math Hoops draws students in with just the right combination of repetition and challenge. Add in the purposeful inclusion of a well-integrated social aspect with plenty of real-time decision making and the game rises to a whole new level. 

Since 2013, NBA Math Hoops has been the driving force behind the non-profit, Learn Fresh Education Company, reaching over 150,000 students by way of creative educational outreach initiatives supported by NBA teams. Learn Fresh has collected countless testimonials citing the impact this board game has had on increasing both student achievement and self-esteem. And, when students build off this meaningful experience, the sky’s the limit.


When players play the game, they are in-charge of making decisions and dealing with the consequences in an in-the-moment environment.

Elliot Washor
Co-Founder and Co-Director

In his book Wired for War, P W Singer, former defense adviser to the Obama presidential campaign, explains how the Army (unlike school) took advantage of all the research that went into creating the X-Box and Playstation by fashioning their military joystick consoles after them.

An example that Singer features is about a high school “early school leaver” who joined the Army to be a helicopter mechanic but failed the English exam, so the Army gave him an option of becoming a drone pilot. Because this soldier was so good at flying drones with a joystick, he became an instructor at the drone training academy.

It is fascinating how the Army found value in this soldier and schools only showed him his weaknesses. Schools would even consider most of what he was doing as a waste of time but the Army doesn’t feel that way. This recognition of skills and intelligence is by no means limited to the military. The abilities displayed by this soldier are often referred to as “fluid intelligence”—the ability or capacity to see patterns and relationships in new situations, independent of pre-existing knowledge, in order to solve problems. Such intelligence is not well-cultivated in schools but is associated with games and play.

Andrea Kuszewski, amongst other researchers, points out that there are five ways to increase fluid intelligence—discovering new things, thinking creatively, challenging yourself, doing things the hard way, and networking/socializing. All five of these ways describe the typical experience of a gamer. 

A relatively new board game exhibiting these fluid intelligences is Wingspan. Elizabeth Hargrave, the games’ inventor, had a passion for birds. Her game involves using and learning math, biology, and history. In developing the game, she also focused on ludology and narratology, the study of games and of player story-lines and experiences. 

Hargraves used ideas from Marc LeBlanc’s work, Eight Kinds of Fun, where he sets out his theory on game design and provides a taxonomy. Some of the elements outlined by LeBlanc are sensation, challenge, fellowship, narrative, fantasy, expression, and discovery. These correspond very closely to Kuszewski’s ways to increase fluid intelligence. There’s really a great deal here for us to start thinking about in terms of understanding student engagement and learning, and there are real implications for issues of equity and “leveling the playing field” using a broader spectrum of multiple measures. 

In its present form, most online learning mimics school and not the deeper underpinnings of gaming. Worse yet, some educators think the trick is gamification; this misses the point. What online learning is hoping to accomplish is what some video and board games have done. Through play, gamers have figured out the right combinations of challenge and repetition; sharing and feeling; narrative and improvisation; mystery and surprise; motivation and ownership. Significantly, all games involve interaction—with things, with people, or both. Chris Crawford in The Art of Game Design makes it clear that the crucial element to any game is interaction.

It is clear our conventional education system has consistently failed to find a balance within all the combinations listed above. But, the most potent fact is that this imbalance leads to inequity—for young people, their families, and our collective future. What can we learn from gaming and play to engage students? Can online learning develop the platforms that would get students to learn things they may not normally learn in school and practice academic skills through the tenets of gaming? When players play the game, they are in-charge of making decisions and dealing with the consequences in an in-the-moment environment. Are schools ready for the game, or are they only interested in the score? 

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