Video Games and Incidental Learning

Article, Michael Schwartz No Comments

Michael Schwartz | October 19, 2012

I was shocked to hear a friend speaking Latin yesterday. He’d never expressed an interest in Latin before. Maybe he’s possessed. Before I summoned a young priest and an old priest, I asked if he was taking a class or had recently purchased a Rosetta Stone course. He said, “No, playing Assassin’s Creed.”

This story is just anecdotal evidence, but the result validates what we at the RETRO lab are researching: serious (and not so serious) games can be tools for learning. What’s remarkable about the scenario mentioned above is that an individual didn’t set out to learn Latin, but through the engagement and immersion provided by the gameplay he was able to inadvertently learn a few phrases. This is a phenomenon known as incidental learning: unintentional, unplanned learning which results from other activities. It can occur through repetition, observation, social interaction, and problem solving [1]. All of these characteristics are to be found in such games as World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) [2]

Can we build upon this? Videogame consoles are becoming more and more elaborate; many include motion-sensing cameras, depth sensors, image recognition, voice recognition, multi-array microphones, and 3D motion capture abilities. Players are able to issue voice commands in order to open doors, examine objects, and switch weapons in games (e.g., Mass Effect 3 from Bioware and EA). EA Sports’ FIFA 13 uses the Xbox 360’s Kinect microphones to know if a gamer is cursing at the referee [3]. Utilizing gameplay like this could teach good sportsmanship and social awareness, among other skills.

Sony’s next Playstation console will use gaze tracking, gestures, voice commands, and brainwaves to control gameplay [4]. The possibilities for using these tools for educational purposes expand as consoles become more elaborate and specialized. Imagine using videogames to teach genetics [5], finances [6], or language skills. The Kinect Microphone could be used to determine if gamers are pronouncing words in a foreign tongue correctly or Sony’s (tentatively) upcoming brainwave interface could monitor user vigilance and tailor the gameplay/lesson to the person’s shifting attention.

The concept of learning via engaging in recreational activities is nothing new. Just ask anyone who can recall the past twenty years’ worth of baseball statistics for their favorite team or someone who learned Elvish from reading Tolkien. The opportunities provided by videogames, however, are more diverse and can be personalized to the user. Additionally, videogames can provide motivation for users to learn and problem solve. The educational possibilities in videogames can be fully realized if researchers, game developers, teachers, and gamers continue utilizing this medium to transfer knowledge and skills.


1. Martin, C., & Steinkuehler, C. (2010, October). Calling on Your Peers: Collective Information Literacy in World of Warcraft. Proceedings from Meaningful Play 2010. Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.
2. Nardi, B.A., Ly, S., & Harris, J. (2007). Learning Conversations in World of Warcraft. Proceedings from Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.
3. Good, O. (2012, June). FIFA 13 Will Know if You’re Cursing the Ref, Thanks to Kinect. Kotaku.
4. Purcher, J. (2012, October). Future Sony Gaming May use Gaze, Gesture & Brainwave Controls. Patently Apple.
5. Ice, R. (2011, November). Gaming in School: Digital Dragons Teach Students Genetics. LiveScience.
6. Rosenthal, B. M. (2011, November). Video game teaches finances through football. The Seattle Times.

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