Book Review – The Game Believes In You

Watching my kids play World of Warcraft in 2005,  I had a moment of clarity about video games and learning.  At root WoW is a Learning Management System (LMS) with Orcs and dragons in the presentation layer.  But grokking that potential and translating it into improved outcomes in school is a huge leap.

Connecting developmental psychology, brain science, and play is critical to seeing the whole picture. The Game Believes In You does just that.

Ten years ago, after reading Jim Gee’s What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning , Raph Kosters A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, and Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You I had exhausted the canon of the early aughts.

A lot has happened since then.

We’ve seen solid research and several market scale successes (iCivics and Game Up). Most importantly the conversation in schools has shifted from “Why the heck would I do something crazy like that” to “I have no idea how to do it well.”  We have crossed the chasm to the early majority market. That market needs sound advice and guidance on how to move forward.


Greg Toppo’s The Game Believes In You is a welcome addition to the canon of books focused on games and learning.  Gregg covers the education beat for USA Today. He used that perch to spend several years digging into the current state of the art.

Starting as a skeptic he quickly realized that his preconceived notions about games and learning needed radical revision.  

One of the pleasures of these games is, quite simply, the luxury they afford us to learn, to see instantly how well we have learned, and then to try again without fuss or interruption until we succeed. p5

What he has produced is a compelling case for games as a valuable addition to the learning media ecosystem. He manages that tricky balance of connecting compelling personal anecdotes to solid research. The reader emerges with clarity on the impact implementation is already having on kids and the most promising avenues for future development.

Here are two of my favorite passages from the book that demonstrate this connection.

Connecticut psychologist Eric Schleifer…uses games diagnostically. “If I come across a boy who is really into the violent content, that almost assures me that there’s something going on, that they’re struggling with something, that they have a high degree of anxiety…” (page number)

In September 2013…critic Tom Bissell concluded that [Grand Theft Auto] “is basically the most elaborate a*****e simulation system ever devised…”  If your son is playing a lot of GTA, maybe, just maybe, he wants to try out being an a*****e.  Maybe you should try it alongside him and talk about the experience. (page number)


Understanding the twists and turns that got us to where we are is important to those entering the field today. Even someone like me who has been kicking around the space for 10 years picked up whole swaths of background that were helpful.

If you are thinking about implementing games in your school or classroom, I encourage you to read The Game Believes In You. The book equips you with the background knowledge to avoid common pitfalls and provides you with examples that will inspire you to push forward through the rough spots.

If you are developing games or curriculum materials that use games you will benefit from knowing how we got where we are today, what teachers and students are looking for, and where the puck appears to be moving.

This book is strongly recommended.