Bill Gates: Why ‘game-based learning’ is the future of education

From wire service reports
July 17th, 2012

The Gates Foundation is working with the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington on a free, online game called Refraction.

In Bill Gates’ vision of the classrooms of the future, students are grouped according to skill set. One cluster huddles around a computer terminal, playing an educational game or working on a simulator. Another works with a human teacher getting direct instruction, while another gets a digital lesson delivered from their teacher’s avatar.

This kind of “game-based” learning is one of the priorities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the Microsoft creator.

Last year, the foundation announced it would invest $20 million in a variety of teacher tools, including this and other technologies geared toward changing the way teachers teach and kids learn.

Gates sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week while he was in Atlanta speaking at the Education Commission of the States’ national forum.

The billionaire philanthropist said there are lessons to be learned from the enthusiasm kids have when playing video games, including that winning can be a motivator and that students should be able to move to the next level when ready.

“We’re not saying the whole curriculum turns into this big game. We’re saying it’s an adjunct to a serious curriculum,” he said.

The introduction of the new Common Core standards initiative, a set of consistent standards that have been adopted by Georgia and 44 other states, provides an opportunity to spur the creation of these games. Enter the Gates Foundation.

Two years ago, the nonprofit brought together 20 of the country’s best assessment designers with 20 of the world’s best game designers to discuss creating games that engage kids more deeply, said Vicki Phillips, director of the college ready strategy for the Gates Foundation.

Now, the foundation is working with the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington on a free, online game called Refraction. The goal of the game is to rescue animals whose ships are stuck in outer space. The ships require different amounts of fuel, powered by lasers. So the players have to manipulate fractions to split the lasers into the right amount of fuel.

“Imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught them math concepts while they barely noticed, because it was so enjoyable,” Gates said during his speech at the ECS national forum.

As students play, their progress is visible to the teacher on his or her computer, allowing the educator to see instantly what concepts students understand.

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21 Responses to “Bill Gates: Why ‘game-based learning’ is the future of education”

July 18, 2012

This is an awesome development by Mr. Gates.
I have been saying for years that we need something like this for students to be engaged in.
I am a high biology teacher and would love to have tools like this to help kids understand major concepts like: biochemistry, cell structure, genetics, DNA, respiration, photosynthesis,
evolutionary concepts, and ecology.
Cudos to Mr. Gates for putting his money into education. What is also really needed is training for teachers. My biggest pet peeve is not enough ongoing staff development especially in science curriculum and new innovative activities like the Gate’s.
    August 2, 2012

    We are using games on an iPAD app to teach functional daily living skills to preschool children with autism. The games are truly a learning tool that fascinate the children!

Dah … Let’s see: much of venture philanthropist Bill Gate’s interest lies in computer games. So why wouldn’t he argue computer games are the future of education????

The greatest contribution Bill and Melinda Gates can make in coming to the aid of education, is to make available to every school a computerized system of electronic communication to connect the parent. “Game-based” learning can certainly have a niche in education, but it is a far cry from what is needed. Education has at least three distinct problems: (1. student motivation (discipline),
(2. bullying) and (3, lack of funds.) In order to have a chance at correcting these problems, the parent must be empowered to become a better resource. To do that will require the exchange of not only academic information, but social as well. For pennies a day per student the parent can be brought on board to serve as the most important ally a teacher or administrator would want. The profile of education must become a concentrated 24 hour effort. The tools exist to do just that.

David Dickerson

    July 25, 2012

    Your first point is exactly what Gates argues. He wants to increase motivation by use of gaming. Lack of funds is also somewhat of a myth. There are many technology/education grants out there to support this kind of effort. Teachers and admins have to take the iniative to create these opportunities for the school. I agree that bullying is a problem in many schools along with inconsistent discipline.

    Russell Dubberly

    State Director of Education of Juvenile Justice Prevention Programs in Florida

    July 27, 2012

    I applaud the Gates effort, BUT, entertain the notion for a moment that this is but yet another attempt to “trick” students into learning. Granted learning may occur. Why should we resort to this style? Students should be held accountable for their own achievement. Teachers and admin are held accountable. Why not students? Then, by whatever method available students would have to achieve in order to advance. It is such a simple concept! Student accountability would begin to solve so many problems in today’s schools.

July 19, 2012

Another challenge educators face is the sideline visionary who knows everything but does nothing in the classroom.

When Bill and Melinda Gates become certified teachers in any state at all and then get down to the work of teaching kids from every walk of life and who may or may not be blessed with a few social graces and then try to meet all the ridiculous other demands that come with being a public servant, I will entertain the Gates’s big ideas. Until then, all I can say is being a success in the computer industry doesn’t make you an expert on education any more than my being a success at education makes me an expert on the computer industry. Respect my expertise, and I’ll respect yours.

July 19, 2012

Is it too old fashioned to try to instill intrinsic motivation? While ‘learning by video games’ would probably work for it’s intended purposes, does it also teach the student to be apathetic towards anything that doesn’t flash, zip, and bang? If students learned how to motivate themselves (to do anything!) this could generalize to other situations where learning is required. Isn’t video game addiction already an issue?

After 12 or 16 years of learning x video games, we’ll then unleash these students into a world of work w/o such learning platforms. (“What? OTJ without bangs and whistles? This sucks and is soooooo boring. I’ll try working for another company.”)

July 19, 2012

I encourage you to check out a Kickstarter campaign for a physics video game called Martha Madison’s Marvelous Machines, intended for middle school students. (The video is a must. Hilarious.)

Kids love games, and research shows what an incredible impact they have on learning!

I’m sure many of you have seen this recent WSJ article as well(When Gaming is Good For You) but if not, here you go:

As educators, we should welcome free, high quality educational tools available to all. I applaud Bill and Melinda Gates for supporting education. Mr. Gates’ expertise is computer-related, but he is working with the University of Washington (educators) and tying in with the Common Core curriculum so his program will be useful to the most U.S. students. People who want to support education do not need teacher certification, and I think we would be fools to require that. Also, this tool would be available to ALL teachers, not just the rich or poor schools who have/receive funds to pay for it. Finally, human motivation is extremely important and if this motivates students to learn they will try harder. I hope this program begins a country-wide trend!

    Susan, I agree with you (sort of). We should “welcome free, **high quality** educational tools **available** to all.” My problem is when the teachers no longer have a choice about which “educational tools” to use in their classrooms, when those choices (often for materials that are far from “high quality” are forced down their throats by directives from administrators and mandates from state education departments who are being heavily influenced people big money from (non-educator) billionaires like Gates–people who have more and more say about all aspects of education.

…and apparently another million or so to pay bloggers to post comments like the ones above to create the impression that most parents support such nonsense. I’ll tell you what, I’ll send my kids to a school like this after it’s been test driven by Bill and Melida’s children. Let them subject their own children to the crowded classrooms and test driven curriculums they are imposing on the rest of America. Ah but no, Bill and Melinda only think *other* people’s children would benefit from such an environment. Their children go to a private school with 16 children per class. And interestingly, 2/3 of Silicon Valley sends its children to the Waldorf School, where the philosophy prohibits the use of computers or technology in education at all! America will never recover from the wrecking ball being wielded at public education by these people. We must, MUST fight this.

July 20, 2012

Bill Gates’ vision of the ‘classroom of the future’ is a fantastic idea. I believe the ‘gamification’ of learning will be looked back in the years to come as a revolutionary innovation. As an educator and inventor, I have spent the majority of my career working on game-based learning (you can check out my math and memory game system Brainetics here: I believe it is important to appeal to student engagement as well as the well-being of the student by using game-like formats and making learning fun. Overall, I think game-based learning is extremely versatile and can be used in multiple subjects and disciplines.

Great article,

Mike Byster
Inventor of Brainetics, Author of Genius, Mathematician, Educational Speaker

Quote from Gates: “Fragmented standards that differ from state to state and district to district have made it hard for innovators to design tools to reach a wide market. The Common Core will help change that.”

Right–the Common Core that Gates paid David Coleman and Company at Achieve to write for the country so we could establish those national markets. This is all about money. Give those kids some videogames (candy), and they’ll all get addicted and keep wanting more. The teachers will like it, too, because it’s easy–just plop kids down in front of computers, and the software will do the rest for you.

jcbjr hit the nail on the head.

July 23, 2012

Gates already flamed out with the smaller school initiative. With so much money to spend, he’s at it again. You can always find academics ready to try anything they can get a juicy grant for. There will be some teachers, students, and parents ready to bite. I have to give Gates credit for not giving up, but this is the wrong place to go for many subjects.

Games might work for basic economic savvy, for learning a foreign language, and for basic arithmetic concepts. They won’t do for more advanced thinking because the ROI is very poor. Students playing games will spend too much time “gaming” and not enough learning.

There are only so many hours in student’s day. The issue here is making learning more effective (better learning results), more efficient (taking less time to learn the same stuff), and less expensive — all at the same time. And, it has to be scalable.

I can show you one example that does all of these, but it’s a rather narrow case of online hands-on science labs. There’s no gaming involved. Outside of elementary school, I know of no game that succeeds in the simple list above.

Many of the benefits being touted for games exist for other online activities. Why go for games? Because kids like to play games online. Games have been around for centuries and have persisted. These games are relaxing, social activities. Will learning games be those?

I wish Gates would stop jumping into these grandiose ideas and start investing where he can make a real difference. Have him call me. Just search for “online science labs” and you find me.

July 25, 2012

Mention Bill Gates and it is “big news” – be it people supporting his efforts or trying to trash his ideas. At the core of Game-Based Learning though there are Maths Teachers and visionaries who believe whole heartedly in the tangible role that games can ´play´ in our children´s education. One of the pioneers of this is a maths teacher in Norway called Jean-Baptiste Huyhn whose company, We Want To Know in Oslo, has just signed a partnership with the Center for Game Sciences to test maths games across schools all over the USA. We Want To Know´s first game, DragonBox, and a game that teaches kids algebra while they are having fun, immediately went to the top of the paid for apps chart at the Apple App Store knocking Angry Birds off their perch! To me that is astonishing news and something all Educationalists and Parents should take note of…
make your own mind up by going to

July 25, 2012

I agree that it perhaps enough damage has already been done by this BLIND-LEADING-THE-BLIND game regarding “games in education”. Instead of constant misfiring, frustration, and wasted time and emotion, why we don’t invest our resources on seriously discovering the REAL source of the needs and problems in quantitative elementary and secondary education? Of course it is not an easy problem, and more interdisciplinary discovery and development, as well as organizational cooperation and respect would be more productive, I think…

July 27, 2012

I have been in favor of using games as educational tools since the 80’s, before games went digital. In fact, I developed teacher work shops based on this premise. I have also incorporated several school-wide game days in our school and the students love it. They are actively engaged the entire time and are developing valuable cognitive and social skills. If designed correctly, games develop a host of higher order thinking skills and encourage students to think ahead and plan strategies. There is no need to rely solely on electronic games, good board games are also valuable learning tools.

July 28, 2012

I am given to thinking we have jumped aboard this particular ship too eagerly. Not that there is anything wrong with game based learning it is just that we appear to have glimpsed something that engages learners and have grabbed it with both hands because it appears to offer the solution we need in educating the next generation.

One of my concerns is that life is not a game and I have the worry that we are creating a situation where learners may only engage in learning if life imitates a game. Fuelling space shapes, visiting planets and trading are all challenges and the virtual game world exciting and engaging but will it translate to life based applications. Not all learners engage or enjoy game based activities, we keep getting told they do but my experience is some don’t. Some have their learning needs met in other ways and do not get involved in game based anything and that is the issue.

I think we should be asking the question how do we create an education system that meets the learners needs. The evidence may be that when needs are being met then we have engaged learners. What we are doing I think is seeing learners engaged in something and then wanting to jump on the back of that to deliver learning. I have no doubt that we learn through need and that creating that need is one way of stimulating learning. I have no doubt either that their will be a thousand cases of where a parent will say ” my child learnt to read so they could play their computer game”, but how far did this drive to learn to read take them, did they then explore the classic texts, did they write poetry, did they begin to explore and contrast views and opinions which were written down or did they stop when they had learnt enough to play the game? This is the big question, will learning through game play lead students to explore the world around them with the tools they have developed?

One definition of intelligence I recall is the ability to engage with and make sense of our environment in order to meet our needs. Our environment being everything we come into contact with or comes into contact with us, people and relationships included. Will the abstract, virtual game based environment allow us to develop our intelligence or just learn – enough to play the game?

The digital age has promised much and we have achieved much but how much of it continues, how much have real lives improved? When did we last visit the moon, has the billions spent on computers in schools made that much difference, is there such a thing as a paperless office, do we communicate better with each other or just more often, is there a balance between work and life?

I am not anti game based learning, I am just cautious about its claims and legacy.

Kevin Hewitson

July 30, 2012

To my mind the comment about money driving decisions is the most pertinent comment above. Bill Gates is trying to apply the business model to education. The bottom line in business is how much you can do with as little cost as possible to create profit. So he says we should use learning games because they motivate all kids and more learning will occur measured by standardized tests. The profit here would be the amount learned. He’s promoting mass educational plans with everyone learning the same way and the same stuff(supposedly)which will produce the same outcome. The goal of this is to compete with our neighbors around the world.
The problem, of course, is education is about children, and they don’t come in one-size-fits-all packages. The business model ignores the human component.
Humans are complex beings; schools are complex organizations. Let’s add another glitch; our culture doesn’t value education. Perhaps we should change the culture.
What do businessmen do when their materials are defective(meaning don’t fit the mold)?
I agree that people making decisions about education should have spent some consideralbe time in clasrooms. These classrooms need to be in the most crowded, ill-equipped, diverse, and poor schools.
There is so much more to say about this, but time is short.

August 2, 2012

As a teacher and an avid gamer, I agree that games can be motivating and compelling — but the bigger question is: do they prepare our students for the real world beyond school? After all, that is our goal as educators. It is not merely to impart discrete pieces of knowledge (prepositions, multiplication, etc.), but for students to actually understand how, when, and why to use and apply that knowledge. If we can’t get them to that point of problem-solving, then acquiring the knowledge is an exercise in futility.

To that extent, I strongly believe in project-based learning. Yes, I use technology to do so, and I see great benefit to games but only insofar as they are “real-world relevant”; a game that simulates the type of real-world application of knowledge and problem solving students will come across in a variety of careers would be both engaging and beneficial. A game that is merely a game and involves the same old mental math or rote recall of trivial knowledge is no better than what we currently have.

I think “simulation-based learning” may be a much more apropos term than “game based learning” for what we should actually be doing with our students if we want them to continue to thrive once they are no longer in our classrooms.