The Mario Method
Form a question, create a hypothesis, predict the outcome, test your theory. Sound familiar? You probably recognize these steps as the foundational structure of the scientific method. Human beings have used this simple yet profound process to structure scientific inquiry for hundreds of years, and based on the fact that I’m typing this article on an electrified box made of processed sand and precious metals, I’d say it’s worked pretty well.
But that’s not the only application! There’s another realm where this process happens organically, constantly, and sometimes even unintentionally - video games. Indeed, the inherently experimental nature of video game play makes game-based learning an ideal medium for science education.
Let’s take for example the original Super Mario Brothers for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This is a game without a tutorial - you are simply instructed to press start, and you find yourself in control of Mario, a diminutive plumber wandering ever rightward in a colorful kingdom filled with malevolent Goombas and Koopas. Given the total lack of context or scaffolding, the player must experiment with their environment and their agency in that environment as allowed by the 4-button controller in their hands. They might find that running into a Koopa results in a death for Mario. They might also find that pressing the A button makes Mario jump.
From these two observations, the player can pose a hypothesis: perhaps jumping on the Koopa will destroy it. This hypothesis can be tested and proven immediately, the Koopa is destroyed, and the player advances in the level. In real-time, this process takes all of 5 seconds, but make no mistake - the steps of the scientific method are all there, cycling rapidly as the player gains sophistication about the game.
Games as Science Education Tools
This is true because at their core, games are systems, and much of the scientific endeavor is aimed at organizing natural phenomena into predictable and repeatable systems. But the reverse is also true - once phenomena are conclusively organized and grouped, the scientific endeavor becomes the task of unpacking and explaining each constituent phenomenon, as well as the way these phenomena are interconnected.
Games are especially well-suited for the latter application for some specific reasons:
1. Games create autonomy.
An individual player in a game space is in complete control. This control affords them the ability to make whatever observations they need in whatever order they require, which is critical to experimentation and accommodates individual learning styles. This is the reason that sandbox-style games like Minecraft EDU are so popular both in classrooms and at home - a flexible, multiple-solution problem space in a game allows each player to find their own way to comprehension.
For example, in Cosmic Pet Pods, a game component of the upcoming Inspire Science digital curriculum from McGraw Hill, players learn about the ways that animal traits are adapted to their environments by running an intergalactic animal hotel. Players are given agency over both animal placement and the environments chosen for those animals, allowing them to observe the relationships and interactions between traits and environment from multiple perspectives, finding their own individual path to understanding.
2. Games provide consequence-free failure.
Failure is often treated like a dirty word in the context of education, which is something of a modern tragedy. Most successful people (and moreover most successful companies) have walked a long path filled with failure, doubt, and false starts before they reach their definition of success. To prepare students for this non-negotiable aspect of nearly any life experience, failure has to be embraced as an inevitable and deeply constructive part of the learning process.
Games have a key advantage here in that a failed level can simply be restarted. A failed puzzle can simply be reset. Drawing on my earlier example, there is no fixed limit to how many times Mario can die outside of that player’s individual appetite for more play. If a student is intimidated by the prospect of failing in an experiment or in the comprehension of a scientific concept, a video game environment provides an experience that is paced to their needs, free of hard costs, and if desired, private.
3. Games provide access.
Science is a broad field, covering everything from cellular structures to animal behavior. Games can provide educators a leg up on covering that breadth by providing abstractions of otherwise inaccessible systems. These are systems like nuclear reactors, the solar system, or the digestive system. For very different reasons, each of these systems is inaccessible for first-hand interaction at the classroom level. Games provide compelling simulations of these real-life systems, allowing players to manipulate these systems and observe the outcomes of that manipulation, which is crucial for students to experience hands-on learning, even in a metaphorical sense.
The Proof is in the Proof
All of this sounds great conceptually, but how do we know that games actually work as teaching tools? Fortunately, there’s a ton of well-researched evidence that game-based learning is effective. In the spirit of scientific inquiry, let’s consider the empirical information:
Across 57 studies that compared teaching with a game to using other instructional tools, incorporating a game was found to be more effective (SD .33). Using a game improved cognitive learning outcomes along with intrapersonal and interpersonal outcomes.  Researchers looking at other collections of studies have found that games help students retain what they’ve learned. 
Across 20 studies in the 2014 meta-analysis by Clark et al., students playing games with design additions informed by learning theory outperformed students playing standard versions of the same games (SD .37).  In studies that allowed students to play a game more than once, learning outcomes were significantly higher when students played multiple times, even though many games allow students to practice a skill several times during a single play session. [1,2] This suggests that it is important to choose games that have been designed for learning, and to incorporate them into lessons in a way that gives students the opportunity to reflect and incorporate what they’re learning between gameplay sessions.
This is just a slice of the available research on game-based learning. If you’re curious about game-based learning and you’d like to learn more, check out our compilation of game-based learning research, packed with peer-reviewed insights into the efficacy and applications of games as teaching tools. Educators who are ready to get going with game-based learning but aren’t sure where to start should check out the Game-based Learning Starter Kit over at McGraw-Hill’s Medium blog. Or maybe just dust off that trusty Nintendo Entertainment System and jump on a few Koopas. No matter what you choose, you’ll be underway on your own journey towards understanding the secret science of game-based learning.
Clark, D., Tanner-Smith, E., Killingsworth, S . (2014). Digital Games, Design and Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (Executive Summary). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. Accessed September 10, 2014. http://www.sri.com/work/publications/digital-games-design-and-learning-systematic-review-and-meta-analysis-executive-su
Wouters, P., van Nimwegen, C., van Oostendorp, H., & van der Spek, E. D. (2013, February 4). A Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive and Motivational Effects of Serious Games. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 249-265.Z.