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.

By Mathias Poulsen

PhD student at Designskolen Kolding. Studying how we might design for playful, embodied and speculative democratic participation. Founded CounterPlay and the Danish Play Think Tank.


  1. Mathias,

    Thank you for a beautiful piece!!! Whow – how nicely you sort things out, put pieces together, and really help us create a novel sense out of one of the most important areas for the future. As well as point to new directions.

    I realize that I have to let your ideas stir up my mind further before I even try to put them together. I feel enormous excitment though.

    The other day I suggested that the subject "Spelförståelse" (Swedish for something close to Game literacy) should replace Swedish (as a subject) in the Swedish core curriculum. And now you just handed us a nice outline of what it might be (I only hinted, cause only had a vague idea).

    Unfortunately I did publish my blog post in English. But if you are interested and understand Swedish (tried google translate, made it awful 😉

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thank you very much for commenting (and for being incredibly nice as well!),

    I'm tremendously happy that my musings may prove relevant for someone other than myself, as I mostly consider my blog to be an esoteric project, where I try to figure out approaches and sort out my thoughts.

    I'm no expert in Swedish, but didn't have too difficult a time reading your blogpost, and I very much agree that “Spelförståelse” is increasingly important (in Danish we talk much about "spildannelse", which probably resembles “Spelförståelse” as well as game literacy). I'm working closely with GameIT College (, a highschool, where we are attempting to make game literacy the core of the education. We're not there yet, but we're getting better 🙂

    I'll certainly keep exploring, talking and writing about this, so stay in touch, and perhaps we can help each other move further!


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