The 19 Greatest Gaming Scholars of All Time

by Staff Writers

While new technologies have made games an ever more prevalent and talked-about part of everyday life, the creation, development, and study of these forms of games, especially in learning, is really nothing new. Some of the best and brightest minds in engineering, education, sociology, and computer science have been analyzing how to build, improve, and understand games for several decades. Their research has helped to yield games that are more effective (not to mention fun) than ever and that reflect our changing relationship with technology. If you're interested in delving into some of the scholarship that continues to shape gaming today, these gaming scholars' work is an excellent place to start. Here are 18 gaming greats (in no particular order) whose research has been critical in building and understanding games.

Note: Due to popular demand, we've added Ian Bogost as No. 19 on this list. Sorry for the oversight!

  1. Kurt Squire:

    Kurt Squire is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Educational Curriculum and Instruction and is the co-founder of the Games, Learning & Society Initiative, an on-campus group of faculty and students studying game-based learning. He has written over 75 scholarly publications on gaming in education, often addressing the sociocultural aspects of gaming and the impact of gaming practices on learning, schooling, and society. Squire has also helped to head up numerous high-profile research projects on gaming, including the Augmented Reality Gaming Project and the Education Arcade, and is one of the biggest voices in gaming research today.

  2. Sara de Frietas:

    When it comes to serious games, Sara de Frietas is one of the leading scholars on the topic. She helped to found and now directs the Serious Games Institute, one of the driving forces behind the development of games focusing on simulation and education and a place where the next generation of scholars and developers in the field can get training. Her research has focused on topics like pedagogy and e-learning, serious games for training and learning, and virtual worlds. She has published a number of books on e-learning including The e-Learning Reader and Rethinking Learning for a Digital Age, and was named the most influential woman in technology by Fast Company in both 2009 and 2010.

  3. James Paul Gee:

    James Paul Gee is a professor in literacy studies at Arizona State University and also a faculty affiliate of the Games, Learning, and Society group at UW-Madison. While a good deal of Gee's early scholarship delves into the discourse of traditional, language-focused communication, in recent years he has changed his focus to new literacies, more specifically, to addressing the ways that technologies like video games in education alter social practices, old-fashioned definitions of literacy, and communication. His most recent work focuses on video-game learning in the K-12 classroom and figuring out what principles go into creating a successful game that's both entertaining and educational. Gee has published numerous articles on gaming as well as a recent book titled Language and Learning in the Digital Age.

  4. Marc Prensky:

    Author of five books and more than 60 essays on digital learning, Marc Prensky is one of the defining voices in educational gaming today. While Prensky has done a large amount of research on learning in the digital age (he coined the term "digital native"), he's also a gaming designer and innovator, helping to create more than 50 software games for learning. Those interested in Prensky's scholarship can learn more about it in his books Digital Game-Based Learning and Teaching Digital Natives.

  5. Eric Zimmerman:

    While more of a game designer than a scholar, Zimmerman has nonetheless contributed greatly to the development of educational gaming. He has worked at universities like MIT, RISD and currently works at NYU's Game Center where he teaches game design. Zimmerman is also the co-founder and CEO of Gamelab, a computer game development company. Gamelab was responsible for launching the Institute of Play, a nonprofit that studies game-based learning and has helped launch two schools based on games in New York and Chicago. He has written and published a number of works on educational gaming, including The Game Design Reader and The Rules of Play, both in collaboration with Katie Salen.

  6. Katie Salen:

    Like Eric Zimmerman, Katie Salen is more of a game designer and animator than a scholar. Yet her publications on game design buy her a lot of cred in academia, as does her work with the Institute of Play and, in turn, the Quest to Learn schools run by the organization. In addition to being the executive director at the Institute of Play, Salen is a professor of design and technology and the director of the Center for Transformative Media at Parsons The New School for Design. She is currently developing a number of math-, science-, and wellness-based games in collaboration with scholars at ASU and was the lead designer on one of the coolest educational games in recent history, Gamestar Mechanic, which teaches students how to design their own games.

  7. D.W. Shaffer:

    D.W. Shaffer is another gaming scholar working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he currently teaches Educational Psychology and Curriculum Instruction. Shaffer is also a gaming scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and a principal at EFGames, a company that has produced a number of educational games. Shaffer's research focuses on epistemic issues, a branch of philosophy focused on the nature of knowledge. Shaffer is working to understand how engineers can create games that develop particular frames of knowledge, often through simulation games in STEM fields. He has published a number of excellent articles on the topic of educational gaming, including a book in 2007 titled How Computer Games Help Children Learn.

  8. Pamela M. Kato:

    Health games are the scholarly focus of Dr. Pamela Kato, a psychology professor who believes that games can not only help people to learn but also to live longer, healthier lives. Kato served as the first President and cEO of HopeLab, a nonprofit organization she helped establish in 2001 that has developed a number of health-focused games that have improved outcomes for patients. She also collaborates with scholars at the Serious Games Institute, and her research has made her one of the leading experts in health psychology and video games today.

  9. Ken Perlin:

    Ken Perlin is a rockstar in the computer science world. He's won numerous awards (including an Academy Award) for his work, has been featured at the Whitney Museum of Art, and his invention of Pelin noise is now a standard in computer graphics and movement. Luckily for gaming research, he's also very interested the development of games for learning. Perlin is currently a professor of computer science at NYU's Media Research Lab and the director of the Games for Learning Institute. Much of Perlin's academic research involves graphics, animation, augmented reality, and user interfaces, but he has also delved into issues related to the development of multimedia experiences and games to teach science.

  10. Constance Steinkhuler:

    While usually an assistant professor of digital media at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Steinkhuler is currently on leave to act as a senior policy analyst for the Office of Science and Technology Policy. There, she's responsible for advising the president about policies related to games and learning, a subject she knows quite a lot about. Her academic research has focused on cognition and learning in online games (she's focused a great deal of attention on World of Warcraft), including the science, literacy, and social skills students take away from online play. She has published extensively, contributing to books, essay collections, and journals.

  11. Jane McGonigal:

    Jane McGonigal doesn't just want to use games to help others learn, but hopes to actually use them to change the world. She's helped to develop games that tackle health challenges like depression and chronic pain, as well as those which ask players to consider solutions to real life problems like hunger and pollution. McGonigal is Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future and the founder of Gameful, a consortium of game developers interested in creating world-changing games. McGonigal's research has focused largely on using games to transform the way people live their everyday lives, with the goal of discovering ways to help people feel better both mentally and physically through gaming.

  12. Sivasailam Thiagarajan:

    Sivasailam Thiagarajan, also known as Thiagi, believes games can play a key role in helping people improve their performance at work. He's one of the world's leading experts on interactive learning and has run a consulting business related to gaming for more than 30 years. Over his career, Thiagi has written 40 books, designed 120 games and simulations, and written more than 200 articles. His research and scholarship has helped to shape the ways companies use simulations and games to train and educate employees.

  13. Jesper Juul:

    Gaming theory, or ludology, has been greatly influenced over the past decade by the work of this professor of comparative media at MIT. Much of Juul's early research focused on the use of narrative as a means for understanding video games, but in recent years he has turned to examining the bizarre half-real/half-fictional space that games occupy. His most recent publication, Half-Real: Video Games Between Rules and Fictional Worlds addresses just that issue. His work doesn't necessarily address how games can be used to learn, but instead focuses on the ways they affect us psychologically and socially.

  14. Sasha Barab:

    Even if you haven't heard of Barab himself you've undoubtedly read about or used the educational game he created, Quest Atlantis. Barab is currently a Professor in Educational Leadership and Innovation ASU, where he plans to continue his research into the social, material, and cultural complexities that shape how we build knowledge and learn, especially with regard to gaming. His current focus is on the development of rich learning environments that can help children develop a sense of purpose individually and in their communities through the use of play.

  15. Janet Murray:

    An early developer of humanities-related computing applications and theorist of digital media, Janet Murray has long been an internationally acclaimed designer and scholar of interactive programs and media. Over the course of her career, she's done significant research into the sociological implications of gaming and notably published a book in 1997 called Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace that examined whether or not computers can add to expressive forms of narrative. Murray's research has done a great deal to expand how we understand the role of computers in our lives, especially with regard to games and artificial intelligence.

  16. Henry Jenkins:

    Today, Henry Jenkins teaches Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, but he was a seminal figure in starting gaming research at MIT and worked there for over a decade. He has written 12 books on media and popular culture, including a number on gaming, such asBarbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games and Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. He also has been a key figure in research and development at the Project New Media Literacies group, which is working on the development of tests and educational materials steeped in new media. In addition to his research, Jenkins has been an outspoken advocate for games in Washington, advising against censorship and promoting the educational use of video games.

  17. Brenda Laurel:

    A pioneering researcher and designer in the field of human-computer interaction and interactive narrative, Brenda Laurel's research is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the performative and sociological aspects of gaming. A big part of her research has also been dedicated to gender and gaming, and she spent four years working with the Interval Research Corporation to understand how boys and girls interact differently with games. Those interested in learning more about her work can gain access through her readily available books Utopian Entrepreneur and Computers as Theatre.

  18. Espen Aarseth:

    Professor Espen Aarseth currently teaches and researches at the Center for Computer Game Research at the IT University of Copenhagen. Aarseth is known for his investigations into computer game theory, digital culture, humanities computing, and digital literature, and in 1997 published a book called Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, a theoretical comparison of games with other aesthetic forms. At the crux of his research is a desire to understand games themselves and to gain a better understanding of using them to tell stories, learn, define space, and even the addictive effect they can have on us.

  19. Ian Bogost:

    Currently serving as the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Ian Bogost knows gaming inside and out. The many books he's authored or co-authored include How to Do Things With Videogames and Newsgames: Journalism at Play, and speak to his expertise of covering important social and political issues through the expressive medium of videogames. Bogost's games — including the viral Facebook game, Cow Clicker, originally intended to be a satire of Facebook games — have been played by millions, and he is routinely considered one of the top scholars in this field.