New to games & learning?

I keep writing about how I perceive and work with games in education.

If you are new to the field, however, there are far better ways to get up to speed.

Why not listen to the worlds’ finest experts across research and practice?

Sit back & watch!I always try to do that, and now I’ve attempted to aggregate some of the best videos from around the web & world, where truly inspiring and passionate people are introducing their perspectives on games & learning.

Each video is accompanied by a few of the most relevant links as well as a brief introduction, yet I don’t want to take too much focus away from the actual videos; they’re what matters in this post.

Sit back, watch ’em all in a row, or come back later.

There’s food for thought to keep you going for several days, I suppose.


James Paul Gee

If there’s one person who really must be considered absolutely central to the field of games and learning, it’s James Paul Gee. In “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy“, Gee elaborately examines the principles of games, effectively showing why he perceives “games as learning machines“.

Quite recently another prominent figure, Henry Jenkins, did an interview in 1234 parts, which covers many of Gee’s important ideas.

David Williamson Shaffer

By writing “How video games help children learn” and leading the Epistemic Games Group, David Williamson Shaffer also positioned himself right in the middle of the field. His main interest seems to lie in creating video games as “powerful contexts for learning“.

Here’s David in an enlightening conversation with Gee:

Katie Salen

Most of the people I mention here can’t really be confined to one single category or discipline. This very obviously holds true when talking about Katie Salen. She’s a game designer and theorist, co-author of the widely acknowledged game study tome, “Rules of Play“.

She’s also Executive Director at Institute of Play, where they want to “acti­vate a next gen­er­a­tion of engaged cit­i­zens” by “lever­ag­ing the power of games”. Institute of Play is a driving force behind the marvelous, highly innovative and extremely inspiring game-based school “Quest to Learn“.

Kurt Squire

Back when I wrote my own thesis, I read a lot of Kurt Squire‘s work on Civilization and game based learning in general. I’m also looking forward to reading his upcoming book, “Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age“.

Constance Steinkuehler

Constance Steinkuehler is studying “massively multiplayer online games (MMOs or virtual worlds) from a learning sciences & new literacy studies perspective”. She’s got some very fascinating perspectives on how people interact, learn and solve problems in e.g. World of Warcraft. Take a look a some of her current studies; lots of interesting articles to read.

Michelle A. Hoyle

As Steinkuehler, Michelle is also doing a lot of research in and on interaction and learning in World of Warcraft, particularly in relation to “social knowledge construction, persistence, and constructing communities of practice”. Michelle is one of a growing number of terrific people, whom I’ve only met because of Twitter, where we’re frequently having inspiring and valuable discussions. The presentation to go with the video is here & here in a commented version.

Tim Rylands

As I watched Tim enter the conference room on a Segway in Copenhagen last autumn, I knew I was in for a treat. Tim is a spectacular speaker, delivering a slew of ideas and readily available tools for learning, yet what really sets him apart is the incredible passion with which he presents all of this. As his blog title indicates, it’s about using “ICT to inspire”, which he also does on Twitter.

Derek Robertson

Learning and Teaching Scotland is doing some really impressive work with games and game based learning, which is often explored at the Consolarium-blog as well. Derek Robertson is a key figure in this, and he’s been doing several exciting projects with games, e.g. “Using Dr Kawashima’s brain training in primary classrooms“. Oh, and he’s on Twitter, of course.

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal is not preoccupied with learning per se, yet she does want to save the world, and such a tremendous undertaking can hardly be achieved without including learning. I thus sincerely recommend taking a look at her work, including the recently released book Reality is broken, and following her on Twitter.

Extra Credits

To end on a somewhat lighter note, take a look the very entertaining and enlightening “Extra Credits” series. This episode is devoted to “tangential learning“, trying to illuminate how playing games can make us more interested in learning more about certain topics.

Writing about video games

I want to write about video gamesI have long felt a growing urge to write more about video games.

“But you already do”, even the most occasional reader of this blog would probably argue.

They would be right.

I do write about games, and as often as possible.

What I have come to think about, however, is, that most of my writing about games is carried out in a somewhat detached manner. I am not so much writing about the specifics of games as I’m writing about games in broader contexts, their potentials for learning, their cultural values and so on.

This is all important stuff, and I am very much a contextually minded person.

Even so, I would never neglect or downplay the importance of identifying, analyzing and understanding the specific parts and characteristics of games.

On the contrary, I relentlessly maintain that understanding games is pivotal regardless of our motivation to approach games in the first place, and that we must thus bridge the gap between the learning-centered “game based learning” and the game-centered “game studies”. It is, after all, the affordances of games that make them games and thereby sets them apart from all other media. My preoccupation with larger contexts has always existed in a dialectic interplay with more specific investigations, yet I haven’t been sufficiently explicit about this.

As an immediate consequence of these deliberations, I’ll start writing more about specific games and/or selected components of games. I guess that what I’m aiming for is some sort of video game criticism. You won’t see me reviewing games, though I may share my feelings about a game. You will, on the other hand, see me writing about anything from narrative, characters and dialogue to game mechanics, interfaces and social dimensions.

There’s a noob in the room

I have written quite a lot by now, yet as a video game critic I am but a novice, an untrained rookie. I will take the plunge, risk complete failure, and hopefully my inexperience will gradually change in the days, weeks, months and years to come. As with anything I do, I consider the process just as important as the end state, and I think of this as yet another learning process closely intertwined with my other activities.

This overlap is important, and I clearly don’t see this as going in an entirely new direction. If you are particularly interested in “games in education”, please don’t see my new efforts as being irrelevant to you. As already stated above, understanding games is central to implementing games in education. This is true no matter how we go about doing that, yet completely inevitable when we intend to strengthen students’ video game literacy. If this connection is not entirely clear, I recommend reading a recent post by the ever-thoughtful “Brainy Gamer”, Michael Abbot. I’ll make no attempt at hiding, that guys like Abbot are outstanding sources of inspiration, always reminding me that the best game critics are already making invaluable contributions to the general understanding of games, and this should not be forgotten in educational perspectives.

As a teaser, here’s the game I’ll write my first post about:

Bridging gaps

Credits: Igor Bespamyatnov

…is a major part of what I’m always trying to do. (Using an actual bridge to illustrate the metaphor is cheesy, I know, but bridges look kinda cool, so bear with me).

I am not certain if I am actually particularly suited for doing so, but I am sure as hell infatuated with the core concepts of interdisciplinarity and sharing knowledge across boundaries.

I am convinced that many barriers and difficulties could be reduced, if not removed, if we were to a greater extent able to forge solutions by fusing knowledge from across different fields. This is why I maintain a vision of knowledge and insights not limited by any kind of boundaries, but rather flowing freely – even though I acknowledge the obvious naivity of the entire idea. It is an ideal situation never fully realizable, but nevertheless worth aiming for.

Right from the outset of this crusade of mine, I have been attempting to show how different areas of both research and practice, as well as a wide array of stakeholders could greatly benefit from establishing and maintaining dialogue.

Understanding games >< games in learning

Recently I have especially been considering the possible gap between those studying and writing about video games, trying to more fully understand games, and those preoccupied with the inclusion of games in learning and teaching. The two approaches may for the remainder of this post be labelled “understanding games” and games in learning”, respectively, and they each encapsulate both researchers, commentators, developers, practitioners etc.

The desire to understand games is a goal for the many researchers in the very diverse field of game studies, independent bloggers, dedicated sites, journalists, game developers and so on. These people play games, write about games, talk about games, develop games – they probably love games (just like I do). Among them, they try to identify and understand everything from game mechanics, rules, visuals, narrative and technology to video games culture and video game players.

There is an overlap, obviously, but many of the people working with games in learning are not part of the above group, and oftentimes they are not even aware of the existence of such a (loosely defined) community. I must quickly add, that this depiction is both rough and a bit unfair. Many researchers investigating “games in learning” have been paying close attention to game studies and the “nature of games” (e.g. James Paul Gee’s “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy” and the more recent “Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education” by José P. Zagal). Despite important exceptions, many researchers, consultants and practitioners tend to focus more on learning than on games and studies of games.

What worries me is that these two fields may be moving forward along separate and somewhat isolated tracks, when they should actually be closely interrelated and even intertwined:

Two separate tracks?
How do we make these fields interact- like cogs?

This might become a very critical issue, if not addressed properly soon. The tendency to look at “games in learning” without paying enough attention to “understanding games” can be identified in several contexts, and I recently experienced it at the IMAGINE roundtable monday, where many participants were eager to talk about “games in learning”, and a bit less inclined to talk about “understanding games”.


The Brainy Gamer - brilliant writing on video games

Now one of my favorite bloggers, The Brainy Gamer (also known by the somewhat more common name “Michael Abbott”) wrote another enlightening piece, where he touches upon some of this.

He desribes his participation in the Games+Learning+Society Conference, which is probably one of the most prominent conferences on games and learning, and many extremely knowledgeable people were among the speakers. It appeared, though, that the audience did not really share the insight about games:

Richard Lemarchand, lead designer for both Uncharted games, asked a simple question today: “How many of you have played Uncharted 2?”

When I heard him ask the same question at GDC a few months ago, nearly every hand in the room shot up. When he posed it again this morning at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference, the response fell somewhere between a handful and a smattering. Such is the difference between GDC and GLS – two conferences devoted, in very different ways, to games.

Where the participants at GDC (Game Developers Conference) are passionately interested in games, it would seem that the participants at GLS are more obsessed with learning. Fair enough, teachers and other people involved in education should of course have a keen interest in learning, but this does not remove the importance of “understanding games”, which Abbott points to by asking an essential question:

How can we best explore, understand, and harness the unique power of games – and the possibilities we’ve yet to identify – in our teaching and learning?

Where’s the beef?

If it is not entirely clear why I consider it so immensely important to somehow merge the two fields, allow me to elaborate.

Ludoliteracy - how can we teach about games without understanding them?

Let’s start with what may be understood as “game literacy” or “ludoliteracy“, as the notion is dubbed by José P. Zagal. This literacy is a subset of “digital literacy“, and the main focus is on supporting student’s ability to play, critically understand and analyze, and produce games. What are the core concepts of games, what does it mean that games are “rule-based systems”, what makes up the gameplay, how do games tell stories, what makes games appealing, how do games relate to  other cultural modes of expression, what does it mean to “play responsibly” – all questions that could very well be asked and discussed in the classroom. Just as we are approaching books, movies, advertising, the internet etc, we cannot just expect children and young people to develop this critical literacy by themselves. It quickly becomes clear, though, that doing something like this makes great demands on the ludoliteracy of the teacher.

Moving on to another perspective and a recommendable report by Futurelab, where games are described as “teaching tools”. This mirrors “game based learning” approaches, where games are used as didactic tools to support learning in all kinds of subject areas. This covers another way of using games in education, yet the need to know the principles of games remains unchanged. In an article on game literacy, David Buckingham and Andrew Burn argue that understanding games must be considered a prerequisite in order to teach with games:

Education about the media should be seen as an indispensable prerequisite for education with or through the media.

Likewise, if we want to use computer games or the internet or other digital media to teach, we need to equip students to understand and to critique these media: we cannot regard them simply as neutral means of delivering information, and we should not use them in a merely functional or instrumental way.

Games have different affordances when compared to other types of media, and it is these characteristics, that (in some cases) make them especially suited as learning tools. If those people supposed to use games don’t understand games and their core principles and mechanics, then how would it be possible to harness the full potential?

Whether we are interested in ludoliteracy, games as teaching tools or games in learning in general, we must strive to develop an understanding of games as the foundation of our work:

We must strive to understand games!

One of the obstacles hindering this approach would be that it is not entirely clear what it means to “understand games”. Most people trying to do so would probably agree with video game researcher Espen Aarseth, who said that “we are only just beginning, so don’t expect the world at this stage”. Or with Michael Abbot’s comment “heck, we’re still trying to figure out what game criticism is and should do”.

That much is true; we are just beginning. But this should certainly not prevent us from perceiving the described fields as closely related and interdependent. I don’t know exactly what to do, and I’m afraid easy solutions are not among our choices.

Interesting things are going on, though, and among these are the 4th European Conference on Games Based Learning taking place in Copenhagen in the fall. I am especially looking forward to the minitrack “The Teacher’s Role, Identity and Presence in Game-Based Learning“, where it is asked “how teachers’ game literacy influence game-based teaching?”. My answer, based on the argument permeating this post, would be that “teacher’s game literacy” is a highly important factor greatly influencing the potentials of including games in education (in all the many variants)(UPDATE: having participated in the conference, I wrote about how it is crucial to strengthen the weak link between “understanding games” and “games in learning”)

All difficult (and bloody fascinating) stuff. I can only urge you to:

Let's think (by Howdy, I'm H. Michael Karshis)

A model for digital literacy

I have previously written about digital literacy, and will surely continue to do so, as the importance of this new literacy is hard to overestimate.

At the moment I am writing a paper for 4th European Conference on Games Based Learning on developing a special subdomain of digital literacy, namely that of games literacy or ludoliteracy, as it is dubbed by American researcher José P. Zagal.

Even without moving into this more specific area, talking about digital literacy might easily become muddled and lack a clear sense of direction. What do I, for instance, mean, when stating that digital literacy is important?

Bloom's taxonomy - revised edition

First of all, I – and most people in the field – maintain, that digital literacy must be about much more than basic functional skills. Being able to use digital media is important, of course, but these skills must be supplemented by higher “cognitive levels of complexity”, refering to Bloom’s widely known work on a taxonomy of learning. Without entering a discussion on the validity of the taxonomy, it probably makes sense to see the progression described herein as parallel to the progression required in developing a more holistic digital literacy. As in the taxonomy, being digitally literate requires more than “applying” digital media.

Digital literacy across the curriculum

This is the basic premise of a new handbook from Futurelab called “Digital literacy across the curriculum“, wherein the authors make a very qualified effort to turn the pompous discussions into something a bit more concrete and down-to-earth.

They do this by focusing more on practice than theory, by relating to concrete examples, and by asking questions like the following:

What does digital literacy look like in the classroom? And how can teachers go about developing it within school subjects?

Another part of their approach is to list (some of) the discrete components of any overall digital literacy, as they state that ” it can be helpful to think of digital literacy as made up of a number of inter-related components or dimensions”.

I absolutely agree, and deconstructing the concept might help demystify it by showing “what’s inside”. Such a take may also consequently force us to acknowledge the multimodality of a comprehensive digital literacy consisting of skills, knowledge and competencies on different levels.

Even so, one might argue that the process of breaking a digital literacy into smaller bits and pieces can never result in a fully comprehensive understanding, as any relevant literacy must be inherently dynamic. In addition, a critic could object that isolating components indicates an internal independence between said components. Both points are overly academic, however, and not really relevant in this case. Models work to simplify complex phenomenons, thus making it possible to actually work with them in practice, and this is what’s relevant.

Enough talk, here’s the model in all it’s simple glory:

A model for digital literacy - from Futurelab

The model illustrates the necessity of broadening our scope, and approaching digital media from a number of different perspectives and with different goals in mind. Hopefully this model along with the handbook in general (and all the other tools and publications available) can support the ongoing tendencies towards a more diverse inclusion of digital media in education.

Digital natives get lost, too!

Kids know the media. They multitask with ease, surfing the internet while watching a movie, writing an sms, making a call on Skype, listening to music on iTunes and reading a book (the latter might be reserved for the few remaining book-geeks). They navigate with a convincing sense of direction; never losing their bearings in what seems to bystanders to be an anarchistic audio-visual chaos.

At first glance this might seem obvious, as most people have probably seen (or heard about) a scenario like the above. In many books and articles on the subject, this is proposed as an almost archetypical situation, arguing that kids are digital experts. Or that they belong to a “Net Generation” with computers and the internet hardwired to their brains (who said crazy sci-fi?)(Well, actually, it seems that the use of technology does change processes in our brains, but in the same way that our brain has always adapted itself to new impulses).

Or that they are digital natives – born digital and as such, natives of the digital world. Like the na’vi on Pandora.

The origin of this concept can be traced back to the American author, Marc Prensky, who published the widely known article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” at the turn of the century, wherein he claims that:

“”Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”

With appealing and convincing clarity, Prensky argues for the dichotomy between the digitally competent kids and the equally incompetent adults, who have only recently immigrated into the digital world. As with the humans immigrating to Pandora, the majority are never able to fully understand this new world and its strange, blue inhabitants.

If I were Jesse Schell, I would probably call the idea of digital natives “total bullshit”. Clearly, I am not, and instead I will suggest an approach a bit more balanced. The essence, however, is covered sufficiently by the b-word.

The notion of digital natives is an oversimplified one, greatly lending itself to misunderstandings and faulty initiatives (or lack thereof). During the first decade of the new millennium, this has manifested as an inappropriate unwillingness to adress the issue of digital media and digital literacy in education, as teachers are often intimidated by the way kids seem to juggle with technology.

An incompetent native?

At the very core, the metaphor itself is flawed. Being a native of any kind never equals being a perfect speaker of your native tongue, deeper knowledge of linguistics etc. Even natives learn their language by socializing, training, exercising and so on.

digital native
Via Francis Anderson

Natives can very much be incompetent, and this of course also goes for the digital natives. They might be born into a world of digital media, but they are not automatically speaking some magic “digital language”.

Skills, competencies, literacy

Without knowing Prensky in person, I would guess he originally was inspired by a scenario similar to the one initiating this post, observing kids intensely immersed in several media experiences all at once. He thus states that kids today are “surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age”.

So far, so good. I won’t oppose the idea, that kids are possibly engaged in a “heavier” use of media than any other structural group in society. Neither will I argue against the widely held belief, that kids are less fearful when approaching new media. They might even possess a certain curiosity-driven intuition, fuelling their seemingly competent use of these media. This, in some cases, allow them to master the technology – at a skill-based level, that is. They are able to use a computer, a cell phone, a television and they can retrieve funny videos on YouTube. Sure.

But this doesn’t make them neither digitally competent nor digitally literate. Both require more (much more) than just the simple ability to turn on a computer and play a game. It requires, for instance, the competence to critically evaluate the information found on the internet. It requires the development of analytical approaches, allowing the individual to understand the way different media work, relates to other media and is positioned within the larger media ecology.

On an even higher level of reflection, it is necessary to be able to reflect upon ones own use of and experience with media.

Even if we accept kids as skilled and with a certain intuitive way of using digital media, it should be clear, that they in most cases are neither competent nor literate. These higher levels of abstraction are seldomly reached without the support and guidance of tutors of some kind – e.g. teachers, parents etc.

1 kid = all kids?

Another hugely problematic trait of Prenskys framework is its tendency to make generalizations far beyond the limit of reason. It simply doesn’t make sense to assume, that children and youth are constituted as a completely homogenous group with equal approaches to digital technology. On the contrary, when looking at kids – even within the same class – we see a motley crowd, constituting a very heterogenous group. It almost goes without saying, that this diversity is also mirrored in the way, these kids approach, use and reflect upon various media.

In continuation of this, adults are not just one homogenous group either. We are not all digitally incompetent, helplessly left on the losing side of the digital divide. The dichotomy itself is a false misinterpretation placing us in a deadlock, where no adults dare to challenge the digital experts.

Goodbye, confusing concept!

If we could please leave this misunderstood metaphor behind, and move on, we would all be better off. Such a step forward might allow us to establish a much more inclusive, balanced and up-to-date approach to kids’ digital literacy. I don’t want to do Prensky or his metaphors injustice, and they might have served a purpose earlier on, when people had to acknowledge what it meant to grow up in a digital landscape. Yet, as Henry Jenkins argue in “Reconsidering Digital Immigrants…“, “the metaphor may be having the opposite effect now — implying that young people are better off without us and thus justifying decisions not to adjust educational practices to create a space where young and old might be able to learn from each other.”

Luckily, Jenkins is not alone, as a number of smart people (smarter than me, at least) have already challenged the simplicity of the dichotomy – native >< immigrants. Danish media researcher Mette Nyboe makes this unmistakingly clear in the book “Digital Literacy” (Digital Dannelse, my translation), where she states that:

[…] No children are born digitally competent. Through their media experiences in the digital media culture of their leisure time, children and youth develop knowledge and skills, which, with appropriate sparring, can be transformed into competence. But competence does not come by itself (my translation).

In “The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence“, the authors thorougly examine the “digital native” discourses and arguments, and conclude that “they have been subjected to little critical scrutiny, are under-theorised and lack a sound empirical basis”. In addition, they reach other important conclusions along the way:

It may be that there is as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations.

The picture beginning to emerge from research on young people’s relationships with technology is much more complex than the digital native characterisation suggests. While technology is embedded in their lives, young people’s use and skills are not uniform.

Finally, in relation to the “Web Use Project“, the article “Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the “Net Generation”” was published very recently. In this article, Eszter Hargittai presents a study on internet use by college students, and instead of uniform expertise, Hargittai points to the diversity:

While popular rhetoric would have us believe that young users are generally savvy with digital media, data presented in this article clearly show that considerable variation exists even among fully wired college students when it comes to understanding various aspects of Internet use.

Regarding widespread assumptions about the inherent digital savvy of young users often referred to as ‘‘digital natives’,’ it is important to note that the data presented here do not support the premise that young adults are universally knowledgeable about the Web. Rather, we observe systematic variation in online know-how even among a highly wired group of young adults based on user background.

Hopefully it can no longer be doubted, that kids are not better off by themselves when it comes to digital technologies.

So please, don’t leave the natives by themselves. In spite of them being born into a digital world, they might get lost, too. Let us supply them with maps and compasses and support them in learning how to use these tools for navigating this rather confusing digital society.