It’s not about the games.

I’ve made myself known to people as somebody very interested in games (in a learning perspective, but – hopefully – also in general).

That’s fine.

I love games.

Despite this fascination, I’ve felt an ever increasing concern over the past weeks and months:

It’s a gnawing feeling that has only been growing stronger. Basically, I don’t think games will solve anything.

Some time ago, I gave a talk at the SETT (Scandinavian Educational Technology Transformation) conference in Stockholm, where I tried to elaborate a bit on these thoughts:

There’s a lot of content in that presentation, and I had to rush several things during my talk. I’ve been thinking about this, and feel that it might be a good idea to examine a few topics in further detail.

While I wanted to question the current focus on games, I also wanted to stress that a lot of games are actually really interesting. Take this:

Or this:

Or this promising take on civilians in wars:

Ok. We’ve established that I (still) like games.

One thing is all the fascinating games out there. While there’s always room for improvement, I’m quite opmistic & excited for what’s happening in this field.

It’s another and more problematic thing to ask if “games work” in education, but that particular question is an incredibly popular one.

Work for what?

Control? Transmitting knowledge? Maintaining “the banking concept of education“?

“Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.”

Inspired by Gert Biesta, I’d say that “education is a practice, that always needs to engage with the question of purpose – what are we doing it for?”

This is my current suggestion (it’s a constant work in progress, always up for negotiation):

Education should seek to create the best possible foundation for people to live rich and happy lives, by empowering children and young people to be in the world with other people, to make difficult decisions and to use technology to express themselves and solve meaningful, complex problems in creative ways.

This is not likely to happen on a large scale if we don’t change the way we perceive of and practice teaching. 

It’s also not likely to happen if we use technology or even games to simply “transmit” knowledge to the students for them to internalize. I mentioned, that Minecraft is not important because it’s a great game (which it clearly is), but because it so convincingly illustrates how amazing learning can take place in very different & open arenas.

I think that “play” and “being playful” is really important in all of this. Even more important is the notion of “subversive play”, which game scholar Jesper Juul defines as:

“Play against the intention or authority of the game design/game designer”

 Stephen Totilo once wrote a nice comment on subversive play over at Kotaku:

“I’ve assumed that not following the rules was part of following the rules.  I’ve believed that to play a game partially involves playing with a game, shaking it to see if it breaks, poking it with a stick to see how it reacts, and, of course, always shooting the character who is talking to you in a game to see if they even pause their speech (usually, they don’t).”

I think students should be allowed and even encouraged to “poke” education “with a stick” and “playing with it to see if it breaks”. It would definitely challenge our desire to control whatever happens in the classroom, but that control was always an illusion. If we want students to become innovative & entrepreneurial people who feel competent to engage & shape the world, we need to do this. The same goes for allowing students to figure out what it means to be human and make choices to impact the life they want to live.

One approach to empowering students can probably be found in the many initiatives to transform education from “a shift away from a ‘sit back and be told’ culture towards more of a ‘making and doing’ culture” as David Gauntlett writes. In my talk,  I quoted the always inspiring Paolo Pedercini (AKA @molleindustria) from his thoughtprovoking talk at the recent Games for Change festival:

But one thing I can tell for sure: the act of making games about social issues, has always been a profound transformative experience for me.

 I came to the conclusion that there is a greater liberation potential in designing games rather than playing games.

 I argue that next step of games for impact doesn’t lie in some technological advancement but rather, in helping people to engage with the practice of game design.


How often do we talk about the liberating potential of education? And if all education does is teach us to follow the rules of education, how liberated are we really? If education is not liberating, what is the purpose?

In this, I’m completely in line with Carl Anders Säfström & Gert Biesta, who wrote a “Manifesto for education” a few years ago:

“We propose that to speak for education in an educational manner means to express an interest in freedom and, more specifically, an interest in the freedom of the other: the freedom of the child, the freedom of the pupil, the freedom of the student”

Having very clearly stated that I haven’t reached any conclusions, the only thing I dared say, is that we need to cultivate communities of play. We need to create spaces for playful experimentation, where we don’t assume the answers (or the questions) are given beforehand.

David Gauntlett wrote a really nice piece on this, arguing that:

“If you want to have a culture of playful learning and experimentation, you need adults to have embraced a culture of playful learning and experimentation before you can expect that we might try to make it happen in schools.”

“we need adult culture itself to become more playful and creative, because only then will that really be seen as something valuable that we can hand on to children. We have to look at culture as a whole system, and not think that the ‘education’ bit can be separated off and fixed without changing the rest of it.”

I completely agree, and I’ve always been convinced, that this needs to happen across domains. In fact, I think it’s one of the most important things we can do:

It’s probably also one of the most difficult and intangible. How do you create safe spaces for play, where adults feel playful? How do you nurture communities, where playful experiments is the norm rather than rare exceptions? Where we live life in playful ways rather than merely play a game from time to time?

Luckily, much is happening in this direction already. Lots of amazing festivals & conferences are  emerging for different audiences around the world. People like lifelong playful veteran Bernie DeKoven continue to show us how to be more playful in all aspects of life.

As for my own work, the festival CounterPlay is my most ambitious attempt so far at cultivating such communities, and to bringing people together from many different domains (see reactions from the first edition, which has held in Aarhus earlier this year).

All of this is unfinished thoughts (when is a thought ever finished, by the way?). Even so, it feels like I’m on the right track here and I’ll definitely keep moving in this direction in the time to come. I ended my talk with these questions (from the CounterPlay-SmallTalk game), and I’ll do the same with this post:



Do we need games for learning?

I have again and again argued, that most learning games (or what we choose to call them at any point in time) are often quite disappointing.

At the same time, I still believe good (learning) games are relevant – as one tool among many.

There’s of course also the ongoing discussion whether or not it even makes sense to distinguish between games and learning games. All games are about learning something, and games can be extremely relevant in education without being actual learning games. Furthermore, in many learning games you end up spending too much time on learning something, that is external to playing the game.

Games like Papo & Yo, Cart Life, Papers Please, and (the elephant in the room) Minecraft are brilliant examples of games that are not built explicitly for learning purposes, but which are nonetheless challenging players intellectually and emotionally.

Regardless of this discussion, and regardless of my hopes for better games for learning, what we really need is not learning games.

Or any kind of games.

Or teaching materials or technology in general.

What we really need is not technology (as such), it’s better, more meaningful and relevant educations.

This might seem obvious, so why am I spending the time writing?

I am very concerned that we (again) end up perpetuating the mistaken belief that technology is some kind of holy saviour.

I see these overly optimistic headlines all around the world, stating that games or play or MOOCs or Flipped Learning or [whatever hypeword tomorrow brings]…will save education and eventually the world.

I don’t care much for such predictions. To be honest, I think it’s utter sensationalist nonsense.

To boil it down, tech will solve nothing. We may have new opportunities with new technologies, but it requires changes in the way we think, work and organize ourselves. Changes won’t just magically follow in the wake of technological innovations.

Here in Denmark, I’m part of a forum hosted by the Ministry of Education, where we are looking at the field of “digital teaching tools”. While I unequivocally applaud the initiative, these meetings often leave me confused, because what are we talking about? Do we just want better teaching tools/technologies? We do, of course, but I’m struggling to figure out how much emphasis we should really put on this, and how much we should put on changing the structures, cultures, goals and purposes of education.

If we think of games as nothing but more efficient means to simply transmit knowledge to the students, but otherwise change nothing, we’re not really getting anywhere. That would just be reinforcing the notion of students as recipients and consumers of content.

What is really important in education, then?

Many things are important, of course, and this is an important discussion to keep having. Should I capture as much as possible in as few words as possible, I’d say something like this:

Education should seek to create the best possible foundation for people to live rich and happy lives, by empowering children and young people to be in the world with other people, to make difficult decisions and to use technology to express themselves and solve meaningful problems.

There’s much more to it, of course, but I generally think about education as a way to learn how to be human, how to be social, and how to be and act in the world.

…and this is where we can really learn from games and (not least!) play.

The “magic circle” of play creates a safe space, where we can experiment with roles, with scenarios, with being in the world, with being together, and we can do so in creative ways driven by curiosity, excitement and joy. These activities can be structured like games, or assume a more loose, playful and less controlled structure.

Remembering Salen & Zimmerman’s definition, “play is free movement within a more rigid structure”.

Education then becomes a question of striking the balance between structure and freedom, with emphasis on the latter (if you ask me). The “free movement” is essential if we want students to take ownership of their own learning.

None of this is about technology. No, it’s much more important than that.

It’s about how we’re being humans. Together.

My take on games in education

Most of what I do is somehow related to the idea of using games in educational settings.

This is great.

I simply love the challenges raised by embarking on this rather intimidating endeavor, and challenges are indeed abundant.

One such challenge emanates from the current lack of a common vocabulary and frame of reference. As more and more people are exploring the field, this particular issue is becoming increasingly problematic.

We often lack the ability to clearly communicate our approaches, and I very often find myself trying to explain how I think about and work with games in an educational perspective. Sometimes I am successful, and people understand me. Almost as often, though, I am not and I only leave people more confused than before I started blabbering (this is not only due to lack of common understanding, but also due to me being the blabbering type, I admit).

I will thus try to (somewhat) briefly aggregate and sketch out the multitude of different possible approaches to working with games in education, but I will do so within a particular framework. I do not see myself as having found any holy grail, but consider my thoughts and work experimental. Not (only) because using games in education is a relatively new idea, but primarily because I consider education (as well as life) to be an ongoing and experimental process.

It makes sense to me to distinguish between perceiving games as facilitators of learning within (potentially) any subject matter (game based learning perspective) and studying games as a cultural phenomenon within a larger cultural framework (game literacy perspective).

Game literacy

Roughly speaking, game literacy is about understanding digital games, both in their own right – “what is a game?” – and in context – “how does games relate to other media, society etc?”.

This is done in many different ways, and the focus can be on developing cultural understanding, citizenship, critical-analytical-reflective competences and so on.

In this approach, I am drawing upon work done on both media literacy, digital literacy (e.g. “Digital Literacy across the Curriculum” by Futurelab) and game literacy (e.g. by Kurt Squire and David Buckingham). José P. Zagal has also done important work in this area, not least with his book “Ludoliteracy“, which is exploring “games education”.

Also, I am very much making an effort of including knowledge from the multidisciplinary field of game studies, which is fueled by the desire to actually understand games in a more elaborate manner.

From Zagal (who again is drawing on James Paul Gee), I have adopted the idea of game literacy (or ludoliteracy) as consisting of three interdependent dimensions:

  • Having the ability to play games
  • Having the ability to understand meanings with respect to games
  • Having the ability to make games
A proposed model for Game Literacy (used at GameIT College)

As pointed out by influential game researcher Espen Aarseth, “informed game scholarship must involve play, just like scholars of film and literature experience the works first hand, as well as through secondary sources”.

Understanding games thus begins with playing games.

So the groundwork is done, and we must progress to a “higher level of complexity” (referencing Bloom). This entails being critical, analytical and reflective about games, being able to distinguish the different components of a game (fiction, rules, interface etc.) and perceive the “cultural neighborhood” of games.

And finally it entails being able to build games, either from scratch or using designated game authoring softwaree (or even playing the game-design game “Gamestar Mechanic“). Here we are, as Katie Salen argues, involving a wide array of skills and competences like “system-based thinking, iterative critical problem solving, art and aesthetics, writing and storytelling, interactive design, game logic and rules”.

In continuation of this, it becomes obvious, that like digital literacy, game literacy is not about one specific skill or competence, but potentially a plethora of such (in some of my practical work at GameIT College, I’ve been trying to illuminate this with the figure above – which is heavily inspired by a model for digital literacy done by Futurelab).

As I am really excited about the dynamic exchange of knowledge and ideas on Twitter, I am attempting to categorise discussions related to this topic using #gameliteracy. In my attempt to bring this hashtag to the fore, I had sceptical reactions from as prominent figures in this field as Derek Robertson and Tim Rylands, as “literacy”, in Rylands’ words, is “limiting too because understanding is 1 thing. “Gaining from” is another” (I should perhaps be quick to point out, that I am in no way questioning the enormous work done by both, and I am both impressed and inspired by the marvelous things they manage to do with and for games in education).

I also very much agree that understanding is one thing, whereas “gaining from” is another, and I hope the remainder of this post illustrates why that is so.

Game based learning

Global Conflicts: Latin America

Whereas game literacy is directly concerned with the game (and related skills/competences), game based learning is concerned with the content of the game (and learning related to this content).

Though this is very roughly speaking, I suppose it corresponds with the predominant perception. “Content” can be concrete, subject specific content (history, religion, politics, language etc.), but may also consist of developing competences like collaboration, communication etc.

A concrete example would be using a game from Serious Game Interactive‘s Global Conflict-series, e.g. Global Conflict: Latin America to support students’ learning about Latin America and social/economical/political issues (example in case is taken from an actual field study I did back in 2009).

Other examples could be using Civilization to grasp history, learning about ecosystems with Resilient Planet or studying games to explore physics.

COTS titles can be used as well as dedicated learning games (a subset of serious games); the pivotal question is whether or not the game is able to support the specific learning goals.

At its core, game based learning is about understanding the learning principles inherent in games (as described in detail by James Paul Gee and tested by Futurelab) and utilizing these to create learning scenarios within and around games, where knowledge and skills are developed to solve concrete problems. When you play games, you learn what is relevant in order to beat the game. The “trick” is to make the connection between “what is relevant in order to beat the game” and “what is relevant to learn in a specific educational situation” as close as possible.

Epistemic Games led by David Williamson Shaffer is showing how games can teach us to think and act like valued professionals, e.g. journalists, city planners, engineers, graphic artists and so on. When you play “epistemic games”, you must adapt the epistemology, the mindset of a particular profession, and learn to think and act in accordance with this epistemology to “beat the game”.

Talking about game based learning, it may be easy to forget, that it is never just about the game. Even more weight should be put upon the learning situation or the didactic context of the game. Example in case: Good games create what Csíkszentmihályi famously dubbed “flow“. Flow is considered a good learning condition. Good learning games can thus be expected to create a good learning condition. But flow must be broken “to produce a state of reflection over the game-based experience”, as Thomas Duus-Henriksen writes.

This alludes to the role of the teacher, which remains pivotal in game based learning scenarios, and games could thus be viewed not as “teachers” by themselves, but “teaching tools”. “Viewing games as ‘teaching tools’”, Ben Williamson writes, “is a useful distinction because it highlights the key role that teachers play in defining the purposes for their classroom use, in planning activities, and in providing curricular context”.

Discussions on this topic is already taking place on Twitter, so follow #gbl. I also touched upon this earlier, though I failed to come up with a satisfying definition. The field is also ripe with at least one dedicated journal, several conferences, a large and growing number of research projects etc.

Conclusion: no one way

So now I’ve put things in boxes, which I dislike.

Let’s get them back out in the charming complexity of the world.

The above distinction, of course, is by no means neither rigid nor indicating that the two approaches exist independently of one another.

On the contrary, they are closely intertwined and interdependent. One of my main conclusions upon last years “European Conference on Games Based Learning” was precisely related to the necessary link between an intricate understanding of games and the possibility of really harnessing the potential of game based learning – if we don’t understand games, it’s difficult to understand and implement learning with games.

Also, we will very often find ourselves doing projects, which include both dimensions; If you do build games with your students, and aim to not only improve understanding of games (game literacy) but also focus on the process to develop skills and competences related to process handling, systemic thinking, collaboration etc., You are obviously merging the two fields.

To get back to Tim Rylands, this is very much what he was doing with his presentation at the Game Based Learning conference last year:

Great talk, and great example of how games can be used in a variety of ways.

Why is it even important to categorize and discuss approaches, when a guy like Tim is doing such great work without delving on what may seem to be academic trivalities? Why not just “do” instead of all this “talk”?

Because it is very difficult for most people to grasp the perspective of games in education if we are not able to somehow create an overview of the possible approaches, and also to illuminate the different potential outcomes of working with games.

When I say “games in education”, I have a very clear picture in my head; a very clear picture of variety, diversity, possibilities. In other words, a very clear picture of a huge mess.

We must strive to make order in this mess while still respecting that games provide us with a multitude of possibilities, among which we must carefully select those, that support our (also carefully selected) educational goals.

I’ll conclude with an analogy: Consider books. We are not constantly trying to frame books within one particular mode of use, as we know “books” to be a very diverse phenomenon. We can read and write books/writing to understand books and writing (literacy), as well as we can read books about specific topics (book based learning, if you will). But we’re not limited by these petty delineations, because we see books as a rich medium fulfilling a wide varitey of purposes and even today imaginative educators are coming up with new and creative ways of using books.

Think of games in the very same way.


As a post scriptum, I propose using #edgames as an equivalent to the very popular #edtech when talking about games in education in a way not fitting precisely with #gbl or #gameliteracy.