Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
By Nicholas McKay

teaching in china

Yes, you read the title right. Using video games as texts is the topic of this article.

I realize video games are often heralded as a distraction. The trouble is, teachers spend so much time yelling at students for playing games, they never realize these could be used for ‘good’, not just ‘evil’.

The media, alongside various psychological and religious groups, often point to games as the source of violent, anti-social behavior. This in turn influences the negativity often associated with gaming by parents, teachers, and many others within the community.

I would like to address the arguments against using video games in the classroom, by rebutting these with the benefits, while also discussing how games can be used to increase a learner’s target language proficiency.

Argument 1 debunked: Unavailability of titles in China

True, China has very strong laws against violent media, so a lot of games we take for granted in the West never make it to Chinese shores (not including illegal downloads).

However, a game doesn’t need to be violent for it to be entertaining.

Argument 2 debunked: Video games will only detract from the learning process

I understand the concern of games acquiring students’ attention on prurient interest alone is strong.

Alternatively, students who use video games as a form of escapism from school may experience an opposite reaction. They might stop enjoying video games altogether and completely lose interest in the subject matter.

At the same time however, I’m not advocating for students to play video games in class.

Although some of the game could be played on a projector screen to familiarize students with content, trailers, in-game cinematics, and wikis, amongst other resources, can be used to detail the game’s main events, characters and plot.

Students will be required to read, watch and listen. Students will be required to take notes, and learn how to repeat, reword, structure and summarize information.

This being said, video games are a dominant form of entertainment. They are being played in homes all across the world, and have become a pop culture phenomenon.

According to a recent survey, a student who progresses from primary, to secondary, and then to tertiary education, will have spent 10,000 hours playing video games by the time they finish university.

This is because students today do not know a life without digital media and technology. As an example: do you know a student who can go an hour without looking at their phone? I know I don’t.

Argument 3 debunked: Video games encourage bullying

Cyber bullying, harassment and stalking are just some of the consequences of interacting online (the medium allows total anonymity).

Many schools today promote connectivity with a global community, which inevitably invites the possibility of risk. There are, however, ways of limiting this.

First, make sure your school has internet security (I was shocked to find not all schools do!), including policies for using the internet.

Secondly, before introducing video games into the classroom, rules regarding appropriate behavior when interacting with others in the virtual world need to be provided.

Third, monitor student work. By using any number of educative software tools, blogs or wikis, the teacher, as the administrator, can view all the content students post, and delete anything inappropriate.

Argument 4 debunked: Video games are only for boys

All-female professional gaming groups, like the PMS Clan, would surely disagree with this statement.

Statistically, girls outperform boys in the classroom. Boys however, do enjoy discussing their gaming experiences, and video games are potentially a great way to improve their literacy.

However, the opposite may happen to female students, so, with this in mind, not everyone should be forced to participate.

With issues like Gamergate still occurring in the news, I understand that gaming can seem like a boys club.

When teaching a media class, I advocated for games to be discussed, so issues like sexism in the media, which many students were eager to investigate, could be analyzed for academic purposes.

On top of this, cryptic gaming references, and a lacking knowledge of the controls, can sometimes be the reason girls have difficulty being immersed into the gaming world.

Moreover, a lot of girls enjoy watching games as spectators. Using games with strong female leads, including Dream Fall, Tomb Raider and Mass Effect, will certainly gain female interest, as will incorporating roleplaying games, like Morrowind.

Argument 5 debunked: Video games consist only of shooting things

I agree, a lot of shooting does take place in games. However, it’s not exclusive.

Video games have vastly matured since the early 90s, when they were just brainless shooters. Today, games are story-driven, with fleshed-out characters, emotional depth, and detailed plots.

The storylines of video games are reminiscent of those found in books, with one exception. The immersive qualities of a game gauge learners with a deeper awareness.

As the player takes control of an ‘avatar’ during the game, they become a part of the story, their actions leading to significant consequences. When studying a book or a film, the student is on the outside, looking in, and is thus consistently distanced from the experience.

Due to this, players may experience feelings of regret or remorse if they do something wrong, and happiness and completion if they are successful.

This can be referred to as virtual roleplay, during which, players may become attached to other characters within the game world. This is similar to embodied pedagogy, a teaching strategy discussed previously, but without the threat of embarrassment from using dramatic techniques.

Argument 6 debunked: Video games are not educational

On the contrary, video games can teach students how to manage time, solve problems, and juggle multiple goals at once, and how to prioritize these based on importance.

Students can also learn academic content from games not designed for educational purposes. As an example, Microsoft’s Age of Empires, and Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Civilization, contain relevant historical accuracy.

Furthermore, video games are multimodal texts, combining watching, writing, reading, listening and representing, together in one platform.

Student’s can moreover be engaged in reading the strategy guide, watching walk-through videos, or consulting wikis. Many games today, including Mass Effect, Halo and Mirror’s Edge, come with an accompanying novel, elaborating on character back stories.

Alternatively, students can develop their own wikis, regarding characters, races and settings.

Learners can even develop walk-throughs, detailing their in-game choices, and exploring how to overcome difficult moments in the game. These pedagogical strategies increase student’s abilities to read and write.

Students’ writing can also be improved through the development of fan fiction.

Older students, furthermore, can research the historic setting of the game, in conjunction with its year of development. In so doing, they can analyze what, if any, contemporary issues were happening that may have influenced the game.


Sometimes when I have discussed using video games as educational texts with other teachers, they’ve acted as though I had committed an offence.

It shouldn’t be surprising that stereotypes surrounding games are not going to change overnight.

So often, we teachers need to remind students to put their phone away. Wouldn’t it be good if we can embrace what distracts our classes as a learning device, to indefinitely capture their attention?

Have you ever used video games educationally while teaching in China? Please comment below.

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