Digital Learning via Puzzles, Games, and Simulations

I recently wrote an article for Education Next, “Learning in the Digital Age,” giving parents advice about the best educational apps for their kids. As I noted in the article, there are thousands of apps that can help kids do basic things like memorize multiplication tables or learn vocabulary words and the differences between these apps are not very significant, so parents really don’t need to stress much about finding the right app.

However, most of these apps are just “chocolate-covered broccoli,” which take a worksheet-like learning activity and then spread a thin layer of gaming on top of it.

In my article, I expressed some frustration with this situation.

In a better world, I would be able to choose any academic content, download it to my kids’ iPads and have them obsess over it until they are experts – almost like beaming the knowledge directly into their brains.  In reality, most educational games only “work” because the alternative is worksheets, and that’s a fairly low bar for competing for kids’ attention. These apps don’t feel like games, they have no worthy “point,” and in my household, for one, I am just as quickly reduced to bribery in getting my kids to learn their times tables using these apps as with flash cards.

But as parents we want educational apps to feel like games.  We want our kids to want to play them for their own sake.  And we want the educational goals, such a deep understanding of fractions, to be the painless result.  Not effortless, necessarily, but painless in the sense of the hard fun associated with overcoming a Sudoku challenge or winning a bridge tournament or grinding for months to get the gear to beat the boss for the very first time.

Today there is not much magic of this sort out there to find, but there are a handful of apps that I identify in my article that do make learning intrinsically rewarding, and there are signs that better learning apps could be on their way.

I didn’t have room in my article to say much about apps and websites that offer a less structured way of learning, so I thought I’d expand a bit upon those here.

Basic Apps for Just-In-Time Learning

First the basics: reference apps that are immediately useful to kids.  These apps let students to find out “how to” do something just when they need or want to and include everything from Instructables to Khan Academy to to the upcoming MentorMob.  These sites and apps collect simple, clear descriptions of how to do just about anything.  Do you want to learn how to surf?  How to solve a quadratic equation? How to make chain mail?  How to sew a soft circuit?  Whether studying for a test or trying to build something in real life, students can find text and video with step-by-step instructions for accomplishing something they are motivated to do right now, whether the motivation comes from passing tomorrow’s exam or indulging their curiosity.

A place for puzzles and casual games

In addition to apps that provide information and knowledge, there is a long-standing tradition of building skills through games.  From playing chess to gain problem-solving and strategic skills to playground games that provide the foundation for grown-up social interaction to word puzzles that increase vocabulary and spelling skills in addition to acting as challenging puzzles, these games now exist in digital form as well.

Although digital versions of these games may not include the same kind of physical manipulation of pieces or physical movement through space that are intrinsic to the old-school versions, they still call on skills of problem solving, vocabulary, patience, perseverance, and memory which means that we parents can offer them to our kids without much guilt or angst. What makes them engaging is that these little apps are played for fun, and the skill-building is a side effect of playing – not an onerous end goal in itself.

Perhaps more interestingly, digital devices make new and truly different kinds of puzzles possible, such as the incredibly beautiful and popular app, The Room and its sequel, The Room Two. With over 1.4 million copies sold (and another 2.5 million free lite versions downloaded), people of all ages spend hours upon hours solving its puzzles within puzzles.  The Room leads players through digital versions of mechanical puzzles for breaking into a mystifying 3-D safe, and its allure comes as much from the mood-setting graphics and music as from the cleverness of the challenges.  The game is one of the first to be developed from the ground up specifically for the affordances of the iPad rather than as a digital version of physical games, or a scaled-down version of console games, making it uniquely compelling.  If there are better, smarter, new learning games in our future, they may well take a page from the intricate crafting of intriguing challenges within a powerful environment, as exemplified by this new kind of puzzle.

Serious Games

Possibly some of the most intriguing potential for digital learning comes from the serious skill-building that results from meaningful simulations.  The Department of Defense has been using simulations to create disproportionate results in training both soldiers and technologists as well as exploring the challenge of game-based learning itself.

Unlike the DoD simulations, and despite it’s name, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, World of Warcraft, has nothing to do with war but similarly exemplifies the potential and reality of skill-building through virtual environments in several dimensions.  The most obvious are those described by John Seely Brown in his book, A New Culture of Learning, where he outlines how the WoW meta-game (the on-line communities that have sprung up around this game played by millions) causes players to participate in ways that make them supremely skilled at modern Internet information skills: finding, qualifying and synthesizing information; contributing in participative communities; researching specific topics; and participating in geographically dispersed communities of practice. These skills, when applied to other fields, are critical to developing reputation-based networks and working with distributed teams – all part of what work looks like for most people in the Internet age.

John Seely Brown stops short of suggesting that the gaming itself, outside the meta-game, has value in the outside world – after all, how many Orcs does one need to slay in a typical 9-to-5 job?  However, there is more to this story.  Just as the physical playground prepares kids for the social interactions that come later in life, the virtual playground prepares kids for the professional interactions in their future – it feels as serious and real and important as a real workplace.  In fact, on-line multiplayer games can serve as a sort of workplace simulator for kids and adults alike – the experiences are that similar between the two.

How can that be? Think of the skills used as an individual in the game (knowing when to click and how to use your character’s abilities) as analogous to job skills – you have to have them in order to play (and, true, these don’t transfer outside their particular context.) These basic skills are the kinds of things that anyone can gain through training. The more difficult success factors in just about any field come from more human skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, all of which are developed as a side effect of gameplay in MMORPG’s such as World of Warcraft.  Just ask a group of educators who formed their own World of Warcraft guild, Inevitable Betrayal, where they actively learn about learning as they collectively master the challenges in game.

Not that plopping students into Azeroth on their own will automatically graduate the future leaders and 21st century collaborators we need, but with guidance from parents, friends, or parentally approved guilds, the leadership skills that develop are real and transferable.  Then also, there is another piece of the puzzle here that illuminates the imminent potential of digital learning – how serious gameplay with peers of all skill levels, where age and background are literally invisible, hidden behind avatars, can create environments with the sophistication and complexity of the real world while retaining the low stakes of a game.


There is one additional area of technological development that has tremendous potential for games and apps that not only help kids learn content, not only help them develop skills as a side effect of hard fun, but that actually help them change their brains and their dispositions to improve their capacity for learning: biofeedback.

Over the past decade, the benefits of meditation have been documented and include things like better focus, more creativity, less anxiety and other benefits that make us all, among other things, better learners.  Now the app generation is using biofeedback to gain similar results. Heartmath apps provide instant second-to-second feedback using heart rate variability as a measurement – as the user is able to enter a mental state of calm and clarity, associated increases in heart rate variability are reported through a soothing tone or a visual display.  Although this is still a fairly expensive proposition, those who have access use it to improve their overall ability to learn, to play, and to reduce stress and increase their overall quality of life.

Coming soon to a screen near you…

Countless flash-card-like drill-and-kill apps roam the app stores and have their place.  Reference apps sit on the Internet and adults and kids alike have come to rely on them for just-in-time learning.  Casual and serious games and simulations develop skills as a side effect of game play.  A small handful of hard-to-find apps demonstrate that, indeed, serious learning can be a side effect of intrinsically motivated gaming.  And biofeedback has the potential to change our very capacity for learning itself.

There are still games and apps that, usually, don’t count as screen time in our house including learning to code with Hakitzu, raiding with mom and dad in World of Warcraft, or digital puzzles like The Room or Words With Friends, even though I think my kids would consider all those to be a worthy use of what screen time they have.   And apps and the Internet are where they turn first for anything they would like to learn.

But I wait for the day that my kids will deliberately choose to use their screen time on apps where learning core academic content like sums and series, balancing equations, or writing persuasive arguments are a side effect of game play.  And, honestly, I think it can be done.

– Marie Bjerede

Marie Bjerede is founder of e-Mergents, LLC, which advises schools, start-ups, and technology leaders on enabling and scaling teaching with technology.

You can also read her article, “Learning in the Digital Age,” in the new issue of Education Next.

Education Next is collecting a list of the best educational apps at “Our Favorite Educational Apps

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College