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:



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