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Games and learning: having control and having the controller

Hamish Curry
Education Manager, Learning Services, State Library of Victoria

Adapted from the author's original article appearing in Connections issue 86, 2003.


In an age where education systems are anxious about how to merge established pedagogies with modern technology, games have emerged as a crucial piece of this challenge. Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, summed it up thus:

... games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultural form directly engages the brain's decision-making apparatus in the same way.

I think everyone at some point finds that games really 'push our buttons': they are ubiquitous, pervasive and invasive. It is no wonder then that games, and the philosophy of games-based learning, creates challenges around their implementation in schools and other traditional learning spaces. Education is reaching the point when it will need to acknowledge that now, more than ever, playing is synonymous with learning. This is a difficult acknowledgement to make. Games in all forms have always struggled for legitimacy in the curriculum; they are not the focus, but often the reward for downtime and entertainment. Yet therein lies the reason games need to be acknowledged in the first place – they are compelling.

Games in schools

There are two main spheres to consider with games in schools: the first is to understand how games are designed to engage and what constitutes games-based learning, often referred to as 'GBL'.  The Twitter hashtag #gbl includes some great links and commentary on this. The games literature landscape and the GBL education communities demonstrate very rich research, thoughtful teaching and valuable learning. The second is to decide on a course of action on how to implement games in various school learning spaces; this decision offers considerable scope, with a multitude of choices and options. It is much more strategic than just putting a Wii in the library.

What is the thinking around games: the philosophy, the attitudes and the culture. Who do you think wants control? What happens when teachers have the controller? To be blunt, games are often perceived as taking control from the teacher and giving students the freedom to choose what they want to do. Critics might argue that this is too much freedom: this is the kind of freedom that children have at home. School is not home and is meant to be serious. One of the functions of school is to prepare children for adulthood, which often clashes with what the students want: to be kids. Games thereby create friction in education institutions because they seem to challenge their purpose. Schools are focused on learning being constructive, ordered and serious. Games by their nature are often the opposite: within their worlds they are destructive, chaotic and entertaining. However, these are the reasons that games are compelling, because within the boundaries, rules and environments of the game, the player is often challenged to be constructive and to facilitate order; furthermore, players usually take the game very, very seriously.

Why do people play games?

Ask the staff around your school about the games they play: mobile, console, computer, board, card and even alternate-reality games. Games are engaging because of their design, their ability to stimulate our imagination, and the innovation they create. Games usually fulfil four basic motives: to feel powerful, to have control, to break rules and to explore a story. These motives also underlie the other emerging games-based strategy, referred to as 'gamification', which has both supporters and critics. Gamification is the process of using game-design concepts or outcomes as a way of making programs or environments more playful. It often uses competition and rewards as key drivers. The Mozilla Open Badges project in the USA is one of the biggest examples of gamification in action within a learning context. These kinds of initiatives add to the sense that wherever we are, we can now play games of all types and all genres. This kind of access means we are retaining more playfulness (often referred to as neoteny) throughout our lives. When a medium is as pervasive as games, a school that bans them at every level can start to look out of touch with society, especially when governments, corporations and philanthropic organisations have already started to invest heavily in games-based learning and its research. There are also large public exhibitions, festivals and international competitions staged around games. Children are designing, building, competing and collaborating on games outside of school, often within families who may be even more out of touch with how to shape their child's interest in games in positive ways.

So if schools are in fact the places where real learning is shaped, then balancing control and risk becomes a crucial challenge.

Digital age, digital solutions

The digital age requires openness, trust and skills. In schools the digital age also requires savvy teachers and experimental libraries. Libraries have a big advantage when it comes to exploring the use of games over other conventional school spaces. They are open to all ages, have access to great collections, are multidisciplinary, can address 'digital divides' and are community- and culture-focused. They are also not driven by a strong curricula agenda, but by a pedagogical one. Ironically this has also made libraries a target for schools with stretched budgets and narrow vision. I have found that more than any other place, libraries understand the value of games – not just as a digital tool, but as a doorway into other channels of games literacy such as through blogs, wikis, reviews, films and even books. It would seem that games are having a greater influence on other mediums than the reverse. So in one sense gaming has created communities of homo zappiens, where homo zappiens are digital and school is analogue. Reading books is still a hugely popular activity for children, but more books are being delivered digitally. A great example is the work of Victorian developers Tin Man Games with their Gamebook Adventures.

There is one crucial element in successfully implementing games-based learning: the teacher (or teacher librarian). Like any aspect of education, implementation requires passion, insight and perseverance. With the right framework, games can be a powerful way to support the teaching of history, science, geography, English, art, maths and physical education. Be wary though: games are often a fusion of fact and fiction, using detailed factual environments and building fictional narratives inside them, such as Assassin's Creed.

The role of the teacher in the games environment is also crucial because reflection is not instinctive in game play. Teachers need to help children draw conclusions and inferences from their games experience, in the same way that they do when discussing or dissecting students' understanding of a novel or film. The Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development conducted games-based learning research trials with a number of schools in 2011, with one teacher stating: 'I will continue to use games as a vehicle for continued exploration and discussion rather than playing games in brief sessions and moving on. Games that have a narrative context provide a motivating setting for learning through exploration'. In this context though, there is a fine line between using games as just another way of delivering the 'teacher's content' and using them to provide students with an opportunity to redefine the meaning of learning in the 21st century. It can be a tussle of 'edutainment' versus empowerment.

Getting started

You have been given the green light to start offering games in the school library, or setting up a games club, or offering games as a resource to subject areas. You appreciate the power of games. You have read about their advantages and you're aware of the limits. What actions can you take to begin introducing games? Perhaps the better question is: What are you trying to solve by introducing games? You'll need to consider this carefully. It also pays to think about the other aspects of implementation around the configuration of spaces, the required resources (for computers, consoles, or mobile devices), and of course, the games themselves. Let's look at some games that provide a good foundation for effective GBL and which involve more than simply 'pointing and clicking'. Minecraft is a global phenomenon: even with 16-bit graphics and lots of blocks, it has a massive player base. Minecraft is basically digital Lego, it is collaborative, highly creative and allows players to push the boundaries of design. Minecraft also has a strong education community; see http://minecraftedu.com.

As more schools begin to implement iPad programs, these devices are offering better games with valuable learning outcomes. One of these is Scribblenauts, a playful problem-solving game using different environments where nouns, adjectives and verbs are the key to success. Some other great iPad apps include Osmos, Windosill, Machinarium, WilderQuest and Toontastic.

The other strong angle with which to approach GBL is with games development. This can be extremely powerful because it requires students to understand the functions and narratives in games in order to design their own. Software packages that schools have used to develop games include Microsoft's KoduGame Salad (good for mobile devices), BlenderGame Maker and MIT's Scratch. Quite a few commercial games also offer in-game design and in-world collaboration, eg Little Big Planet, Lord of the Rings Online, Civilisation, or Quest Atlantis.

These types of games create excellent simulation environments for all kinds of learning; they expand upon another aspect of games research called 'Serious Games'. As games are integrated into learning and libraries, teachers discover that their anxieties were less about the students and more about their own perspectives: 'I am not a major game player, not a programmer, not an ICT "geek", but the entire process has been extremely valuable and rewarding. I have connected and engaged with my students in a completely different way and have built relationships with those kids who would have been labelled "difficult" to teach. It has been really rewarding, and fun!' These highlight the positive impacts games can have in education, and with the introduction of the Australian Curriculum, games can address the blended learning opportunities across the General Capabilities.

Next steps

There is a wealth of valuable information on games-based learning. It is worth looking at the work of people like James Paul GeeKatie SalenJohn Seely Brown and Jane McGonigal as a starting point.

If approached with the right mindset, and designed with sound pedagogical principles, games can unlock students' motivation and imagination across a range of key learning areas. Some principles I developed for integrating games into libraries use the acronym PLAY:

  • Participate – turn your users into participants in the life of the library. See them as producers of content and not just consumers, and help give human faces to the activity going on inside the library walls.
  • Learn – learn to see patterns and not pieces in the physical and digital realms. Look up the term 'apophenia' as a way into understanding this perspective, but it might involve using technology to highlight the interconnections between games, other media and literacies.
  • Activity – be prepared to experiment with different activities in order to build communities of interest. Think about what the library offers your users that they can't get at home, such as the social elements and great content.
  • Youth – engage with your audience on their level by using multiple channels to reach them. This might mean creating a student working group in formulating a plan, developing rich resources around games, or running student events about games (such as a debate or workshop).

From this perspective, education seems to be shifting, becoming not so much about memory as about being memorable. Schools are using more measures to encourage playfulness as part of learning. However, while playing and learning might be synonymous processes, playing video games is often seen as physically passive. It is then logically assumed that no real progress or skill enhancement is happening. In sports, we can see skills develop; in classrooms, we administer tests to prove it has happened. Educators are quickly realising that games can be a mode for real-time assessment and powerful feedback. The danger is that it becomes a way to cram more tests, competitiveness and analytics into education to satisfy a content-driven curriculum; gamification is often cast in this light. Rather, it should be a vehicle for meaningful achievements that generate pride, tangible progress and new connections.

Perhaps it's time to see the library not as an information service provider, but as an 'inspiration service provider'. A place where you can have control, and you have the controller.


DEECD 2011, Innovating with Technology: Games-based Learning Research Trials, www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/edulibrary/public/researchinnovation/findingsreport.pdf

Futurelab 2010, Computer Games and Learning Handbook, pp. 18-19, http://www.futurelab.org.uk/resources/computer-games-and-learning-handbook

Johnson, S B 2005, Everything bad is good for you, Riverhead Books, USA



Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)