Conference on game based learning

As I announced on Twitter earlier today, I’m currently working on a conference to conclude the GAMEiT-Project in a way, which mirrors the overarching purpose of the project – to explore the field of game based based learning (in practice) and to share all relevant knowledge found along the way.
The conference is being held in conference facilities at Park Inn Copenhagen Airport Hotel the 13th October 2011. The hotel is very easily accessible no matter where you’re coming from.

So far, so good (literally and figuratively).

Project GAMEiT

Being the one responsible for planning, coordinating and executing the conference (with help, of course), I’m thus likely to leave my usual mark of openness and transparency on both the process of planning and the conference itself. I’ll attempt to include external partners, announce everything on Twitter (with #gameitconf), and invite inspirational people to introduce projects.

We’ll have a number of keynote speakers (to be announced soon), who will represent some of the most interesting developments in the use of games in education.

Another important component is an open “call for posters”. Again, in accordance with the ambitions of the project, the purpose is to support a more inclusive approach to knowledge-sharing. We want to create at the conference a platform for (primarily) practitioners to tell about the amazing game-related project, they have just carried out. Let me know, if you have done something interesting with games in education, and would like to share it with all of us at the conference (ca. 10-15 minutes).

In conclusion, we’ll introduce the most important findings from our own project; either as a concluding panel or a serie of short talks. In the project, we develop a handbook, which will be available in print for the participants, of course.

Overall schedule will look something like this:

9.00-9.30 Arrival, registration & coffee
9.30-9.40 Welcome – by GAMEit
9.40-10.40 Keynote 1
10.45-11.30 Keynote 2
11.30-12.30 LUNCH (+ perhaps a minor exhibition by developers etc.)
12.30-13.00 Mathias Poulsen with students
13.00-13.50 External contributors (along the lines of Teachmeet and similar initiatives)
13.50-14.30 Keynote 3
14.30-15.00: Panel/Q&A

Pricing is not completely in place, yet count on something around 1000,- DKK (130 €) everything included.

Follow the progress and announcements here, on Twitter, contact me for more information (which will be available soon), if you want to suggest yourself or others as speakers, or if you have any kind of questions.

Oh, and the conference will be in English.

We are looking very much forward to welcoming you!

Intro to game based learning

I’ve been happy participating in the EU-funded “Project GAMEiT” for quite some time, and now we’re in the final phase.

As one of our goals is producing an introductory handbook to the field of game based learning, I’m currently in the process of writing several chapters for this handbook.
One of my most challenging tasks is always identifying that which is not common knowledge in order to avoid becoming too esoteric when talking about games and learning. We all run this risk when diving deep into one or another field, and I keep reminding myself not to stay in the depths, but rather to frequently resurface. I’m obsessed with the idea of sharing knowledge, and I really wish to contribute to both broader and deeper insights regarding games – in general as well as in educational settings. My sharing only really makes sense, however, if I actually manage to step back and “borrow” the perspectives of others.

Project GAMEiT

I’m trying hard, but I’ll probably never be flawless in this aspect (or in any other, for that matter).

In addition to sharing, I have this ideal of being transparent in my work (and as a person as well). I hate hidden agendas, manipulation, secrets. I’m naive that way, but I’ll strive to stay like this.

Anyway, the sum of my rambling is that I like to expose my work and my thoughts and put them to the test before they’re finished (when is a thought ever finished – no, seriously? It’s all just one big process to me).

First chapterHere’s the first of my chapters for the handbook as a very rough draft with room for improvement. I’m also working on a more concrete one regarding game literacy and game development in education, which I’ll present soon.

Read if you like, and please comment – also (not least!) if you disagree, miss something, have questions or simply hate it:

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Context is everything

I can’t stop thinking about context.

I mean; context is really-really important.





Do you ever do anything meaningful without it being embedded in a proper context?

Perhaps I need to rewind even more, and take a brief look at definitions. What am I talking about when talking about context? Turning to Princeton WordNet, I am supplied with two interrelated and appropriate interpretations:

DefinitionsDiscourse that surrounds a language unit and helps to determine its interpretation

The set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event: “the historical context”

Context is that which surrounds, that which adds depth and imbues our decisions and actions with meaning.

Contextual learning

Turning to education, learning in educational settings has for way too long been confined to a life in isolation within the boundaries of the individual institution – and this to an extent, where students’ attempts to break the isolation are frequently considered “cheating“.

In the most dystopic of scenarios, schools “teach to the test“, as it’s (un)popularly expressed.

That’s terrible.

It’s as futile and meaningless as it gets, really.

Teaching to fulfil a very specific purpose internal to education without paying attention to the needs of the world. In addition, each topic is isolated from one another, effectively creating an artificial situation which in no way mirrors the interdisciplinary complexity of the world outside school. At the assembly line...

What it does mirror, unfortunately, is the industrial paradigm of the early twentieth century. When content is isolated from context, and the same goes for the different subjects taught, I can’t help but think of the tayloristic idea of scientific management.

Any distraction is removed in order to increase efficiency within a closed system, where each worker contributes only to one small part of the whole process. That worker probably doesn’t have any idea as to why she is doing what she does, or how her effort fits in a larger context.

It shouldn’t be like that.

Learning should be relevant, and ideally it should always connect to the world and the life of the students. It should be clear to the students why we want them to learn this or that, and how said learning could be applied in the larger context of society. This is not just me rambling, as many learning theorists have proposed similar ideas, most prominently probably Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger in “Situated Learning” and Wenger later in “Communities of Practice“.

In short; education always needs to build on contextual awareness. I’ve already labelled educators “designers”, but perhaps a more precise label would be “contextual designers”?

Mediated context?

So. We should not practice education without contextualising said education.

Fortunately, we may actively appropriate media as tools for building relevant contexts for learning. All kinds of media are imbued with the potential to bridge the gap between the classroom and the world outside.

Social education

Social MediaTake the wide array of freely available social media.

Traditionally, written communication remains in a closed circuit including only teachers and students. This has some serious negative implications for the experienced relevance of written assignments, as students see no value in their work, except as yet another possibility for the teacher to assess their current level.

Why not embed those assignments in the dynamic ecosystem of online media?

Whether you choose to let students write blogposts or Wikipedia entries, discuss topics on Facebook, produce videos for YouTube, engage in communication on Twitter, perform intervues – or all of the above – is less important. What really matters, though, is that you challenge the traditional borders of the classroom. Break them down with a sledgehammer. Set the students’ work free – but don’t let them off entirely on their own. They still need support, guidance, sparring.

If you doubt the value of this, think about your own motivation to do things, which have no clear purpose or which contributes in no way to the world.

I, for one, don’t care much about doing such things.

Playful contexts

Games, analogue as well as digital, make for another important example.

Every single good game in the world creates a framework – a context – within which the player takes certain actions in order to beat the game. Whatever these actions may be, they merely consist of pressing buttons, moving sticks, swinging a controller or jumping in front of the screen. This again leads to a variety of consequences – shooting russians, fighting dragons, managing resources, racing cars or solving puzzles – which seem relevant to the player, but only because of the context, in which they are embedded.

Was it not for this context, figuring out how to do those things would probably seem as irrelevant as figuring out how to do social sciences, math or chemistry.

Now, context in relation to games can consist of many different components. The fictional world is one such context, providing us with a more or less satisfactory narrative to explain our actions.

Another context infusing a sense of meaning and relevance to our in-game actions is rooted in the human need to be social. If our actions turn into interactions and in one way or another become meaningful for someone else as well, allowing us to build and nurture relationships, then we have a deep, meaningful and valuable social context.

This understanding of context lies at the core of the reasoning behind game based learning, as described by Shaffer, Squire, Halverson & Gee:

More than a multibillion-dollar industry, more than a compelling toy for both children and adults, more than a route to computer literacy, video games are important because they let people participate in new worlds. They let players think, talk, and act in new ways. […] These rich virtual worlds are what make video games such powerful contexts for learning. In game worlds, learning no longer means confronting words and symbols that are separated from the things those words and symbols refer to. […] In virtual worlds, learners experience the concrete realities that words and symbols describe. Through these and similar experiences in multiple contexts, learners can understand complex concepts without losing the connection between abstract ideas and the real problems they can be used to solve. In other words, the virtual worlds of games are powerful because they make it possible to develop situated understanding.

David W. Shaffer is himself pursuing the directions outlined in the above, when he is doing research in the “Epistemic Games Group“. They create games, where players take on the roles and the epistemologies of engineers, city planners, journalists, graphic artists or negotiators. They work within the context of the professions.

Serious Games Interactive have been trying to achieve something similar with their Global Conflicts-series. Here you take on the role of a journalist trying to uncover and potentially resolve a range of issues across the globe. As in any game, you have to learn something to win, and it is the context of the game that imbues this “something” with meaning, making it more than distant, isolated facts and fragments of information.

A very fine Twitter companion, Alex Moseley, is having yet another take on this. He’s “Educational Designer at the University of Leicester” and very interested in the importance of context, and he maintains that “games can engage learners through the creation of authentic contexts“. Alex has written several papers on this topic, and recently he discussed the importance of narrative context to solving problems in games:

Induction, research skills, key skills, work-based learning, assessment, activities… use any of these within a course without designing them with the subject/course context in mind, and you’re setting yourself up for unengaged, poor performing and complaining students.

One final mention this time around should be Simon Brookes, with who’m I’ve also had valuable discussions on Twitter (where he’s @pompeysie). Simon is working intensively with entrepreneurship education, and he’s using “alternate reality games” (ARG’s) to bridge the “reality gap” between education and “authentic experiences”.

Here’s a quite elaborate webinar talk he recently did on the topic (if you just want the presentation, it’s similar to this one):

What all of these examples goes to show, is that games can provide authentic contexts approximating real-life situations, where students/players are working with meaningful, situated problems instead of learning abstract “content”.

As the examples also illustrate, there’s not one right way to design proper contexts. On the contrary, there’s a multitude of inspiring and creative approaches. As a consequence, I’m obviously unable to supply any one simple solution.

Whichever kind of education (also the corporate kind) one is engaged in, context is invaluable. We’ll probably never become good enough at designing relevant contexts, but we should never stop trying. We should always strive towards embedding any kind of learning in a context, where said learning actually makes sense.

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.

The importance of relevance

Writing a blog post to state the obvious may seem like wasting time in a world where no resource is as scarce and valuable as time.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what I’m aiming to do here.

The obvious statement promised would sound something like:

To effectively learn anything, the learning “content” in question must seem relevant to the learner

Most (if not all) of us have experienced asking and being asked “why is this important? Why must I learn this?”

In some occasions, the answer is readily available, and we may actually receive or come up with a satisfactory explanation ourselves, managing to understand or convey understanding of the actual relevance.

Oftentimes, though, no such handy answer can be found, and a less agreeable way to end this difficult situation would be to refer to the curriculum or one’s own authority along the “because I say so”-model.

I know - chemistry IS important!

“Why is this piece of chemistry important? Why must I learn this?”

“Because I say so”

I don’t mean to pick on chemistry in particular, but it is probably the subject I myself have had the hardest time understanding; the question surfaces in every subject, I suppose.

On one hand, we as educators along with the educational system we work within, must rely on curriculum and some more or less reasonable perceptions of what is important, and what is not. Much of what is considered important from this perspective is, sadly enough, often at odds with our student’s answer to that same question.

It may thus seem, that we are left with a grim choice between A) forcing through curricular demands, ignoring our students or B) giving in to student’s more or less informed whims and wishes.

This is not the case, however.

As educators, we have the opportunity to design learning scenarios, where the presumably irrelevant becomes relevant.

Not using any kind of dark magic, torture or heavy-handed persuasion, but merely drawing on our imagination.

A theoretical quickie

The basic idea is that learning can be promoted in other ways than using the widespread “separation of content from where this content could be applied”-approach.

The late John Dewey talked about exactly this when he argued for learning and education to be more oriented towards “learning by doing”, as he famously expressed it.

More recently, this has been explored in elaborate ways by Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger in “Situated Learning” and again by Wenger in “Communities of Practice“.

These ideas are one of the reasons it is really interesting to uncover the potential of “using texting as a tool for improving the writing and spellling proficiencies” or crafting Creative Partnerships, enabling “children and young people to develop the skills needed to play an active leadership role in school  l ife”.

By linking the “content” or learning goals to things and situations that actually make sense to our students, we illuminate why the learning goals themselves make sense as well (given that they actually do, which is not always the case when looking at different curricula). Instead of maintaining the educational tendency to isolate subjects and remove them from the world, we have the opportunity to go in the opposite direction, creating “situated learning practices”, where students actually understand the underlying reasons of learning what we want them to learn.

Games as learning scenarios

And then, like magic, I return to games, as is so often the case.

Games are “learning machines”, as expressed by James Paul Gee. When playing games, we learn what is required in the specific context of the game. What we must learn is not considered removed or irrelevant, because it must be applied to overcome the challenges of the game.

This is what David Williamson Shaffer and his Epistemic Games Group are showing us, when they develop and implement their “brain games”. Instead of teaching inside the confines of single subjects removed from the world, they challenge their students by tasking them with real problems solved by real professionals:

Similar things are being done by the Scottish “Consolarium“. They aim to “always talk about the benefits of creating learning opportunities that are situated within the cultural framework of learners” and showing “how ‘traditional learning’ such as writing could be made even more appealing, relevant and purposeful to learners”.

A last example would be Tim Rylands, and his Myst sessions, where he uses the game to encourage more creative writing and speaking among students. Playing Myst in the classroom, it suddenly becomes relevant to explore language in order to describe the fascinating universe:

Designing for relevance

So really, none of this is revolutionary, to say the very least. It is, however, tremendously important and equally difficult at times.

I absolutely believe that games hold great potential in our endeavor towards making education ever more relevant. I also believe that no game will do this by itself. A very important point implicitly made by Rylands is, that even the best of games need creative teachers to frame them within the learning context.

That makes us designers; not designers designing commercial products, but designers designing better educations. In these better educations, we understand and respect our students, their aspirations, needs and interests.

We design for relevance.

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.


Danish School of Education - home of ECGBL 2010

I love conferences; if nothing else, I always get to see things from new perspectives.

I am not expecting revolutionary breakthroughs, nor am I necessarily expecting to learn anything concrete; just being able to have a peak into other peoples work, ideas and conceptions is enough.

This in itself holds great value, I would argue.

Thus, my enthusiasm is (almost) always quite high when attending this or that conference. When the subject is as near and dear to me as games based learning (this, after all, is where my currently ongoing and complete wonderful journey took off), I am like the child in the candy store.

Simply love it.

So obviously I was greatly satisfied simply by participating at the European Conference on Games Based Learning, which this year was taking place at The Danish School of Education in Copenhagen.

With the conference just concluded, my head is full of thoughts, ideas, words and coffee, but I’ve pledged to jot things down in an attempt to capture my immediate feelings and sentiments (pledged to myself, that is).

As I walked away from the charming buildings housing the conference, my impressions seemed to center around three particular topics, which I will elaborate a bit upon in the remainder of this post.

An essential link

I’ll initiate with what currently occupies a large chunk of my attention; namely that of game literacy or, as José P. Zagal dubbed it, ludoliteracy. I happened to do a short presentation at the conference, where I touched upon exactly this, and you can see my presentation below:

If you had the patience to click through all of the above, you will see why I am going on about something, which might at first glance seem to be going in the wrong direction.

As my argument goes, we simply need to understand games in order to fully understand and be able to harness their potential in any games based learning scenario.

This also means that I am not missing a single opportunity to stress the importance of linking to the knowledge accumulated in the fields of game studies and game design. Games based learning consists of “games” and “learning”, but learning seems to me to have been given the higher priority; perhaps because researchers within the field were first and foremost interested in learning? Whatever the reasons, we simply sometimes tend to forget that it is just as much about understanding the game, their characteristics, special affordances, inner components – and so on.

I did go rambling about this issue earlier, where I concluded that ““teacher’s game literacy” is a highly important factor greatly influencing the potentials of including games in education (in all the many variants)”.

After the conference I feel even more certain that this is definitely the case. This goes for researchers and developers of learning games, but also the educators supposed to apply GBL in practice.

Challenging assumptions

We all make assumptions and even the best and most thorough of researchers are to some extent conducting their work in accordance with these underlying assumptions. Our preconceptions might get reinforced to such a degree that they establish a discursive hegemony and become the only valid way to see and talk about a topic – but this does NOT mean that they are universally true.

The field of GBL is just as riddled with these assumptions as any field of research, and a number of them was addressed during the conference:

  • Children have a high level of competency in playing digital games
  • COTS games difficult to employ in content based curriculum
  • All children enjoy playing digital games
  • If a game becomes a big enough phenomenon, we must work with it in schools
  • When new generations of teachers start teaching, things will solve themselves out
  • Games are inherently motivational

Despite their durability, we are able to challenge these assumptions, though, and this was stressed as essential by many speakers. I couldn’t agree more, as much of our potential progression depends on our willingness to continuously attempt to work, talk and think differently.

The most widespread and (perhaps) misused of the above assumptions, as it seems, is that of motivation.

When talking about GBL, most people take ”motivation” or ”fun” as their point of departure. It has thus become a popular habit in our “community” to automatically assume that students find games to be fun and motivating, thus providing a much desired catalyst for learning anything within the framework of the game. We find this argument everywhere, and even the best of us have heard ourselves talk about the potential motivating factors of introducing games in class.

Kids play games voluntarily all by themselves, so games must be motivating, right?

What is worth remembering, however, is that those performing game studies have not yet reached upon any consensus as to what exactly makes games motivating.

Take the highly discussed presentation that game designer and assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon, Jesse Schell, gave at this year’s Dice Summit (for those of you who somehow missed it, see it below – it is highly entertaining):

Schell is clearly making a case for extrinsic motivations in the form of achievements and rewards as the primary driver of player engagement. I am not one to pass judgment on his ideas at this time, as it doesn’t matter whether he is wrong or right.

What does matter is that the highly vibrant and dynamic community of video game researchers and bloggers quickly picked up on Schells talk, putting it under critical examination. Danish video game researcher Jesper Juul, among many, assumed a critical position, and the blog Critical Distance did a nice compilation of the perspectives. One argument was that extrinsic motivation in the form of rewards would be outgunned by intrinsic motivators in the long run, but many other notions was brought to the fore.

The point is that if these rather competent people are not able to explain what makes games motivating, how can we just somehow assume that they actually are? And if we do assume that games have the potential to motivate, we must make more of an effort to explain why.

…which throws me back to the preceding paragraph; to understand why games can be considered motivating, we must understand the game itself.

Should I bring a suggestion to the table I would look towards the simple, yet complex concept “interactivity”. Games are by some considered a “series of interesting choices” (to quote the famous game designer Sid Meier), and many players of games like to make choices and feel responsible for the corresponding actions within the game. In my experience, this also helps explain the situations when students involved with GBL are more motivated to work with the game; they feel empowered and in control of their own learning process.

As a side note, even if games are actually particularly motivating, we can’t just leave it at that. Motivation is not really that interesting in itself but must be directed in certain directions in order to support the specific learning goals. What good is it, that I am highly motivated – if not motivated for anything in particular? Or perhaps I am motivated to counter the teachers’ agenda? (a point also made in a great talk by Kieron Kirkland from Futurelab).

Integration or challenge?

My third and final observation regards the relations between our existing school practice and the (ideal) practice of GBL.

Some researchers see a (unbridgeable?) gap between these two, and may thus be inclined to deem GBL incompatible with formal educational settings.

But what if these “formal educational settings” are incompatible with the surrounding society? What if GBL may in some respects better support the needs of contemporary society than current curricular demands? What if we would be better off not trying to cram games into the existing framework, but instead mobilizing games in order to revise and challenge this framework?

I got carried away there, and may also be a bit naïve and unrealistically idealistic, but I am just reluctant to let down my visions and ambitions in this field. And hey, why not allow ourselves to be somewhat idealistic from time to time? Reach for the stars and all that mumbo-jumbo, right?

Our educational systems = supertankers?

The educational sector is often compared to a supertanker because of its immense size and inherent inertia. But here’s another metaphorical assumption which is not necessarily promoting what we want to achieve. If we promote the idea of a supertanker, we promote and reproduce the idea, that changing anything is effectively out of our reach.

The framework of education can be changed, even though it might obviously take both large amounts of time and hard work. We must ask the difficult questions and try, at least, to provide the complex answers.

Suzanne de Castell

This brings me back to the first keynote speaker of the conference, Suzanne de Castell, who made a great impression on me. Castell is doing intervention research, because – in her words – not intervening risks rendering her research ethically problematic.

I am paraphrasing here, but I would consider it equally ethically problematic if we know what would be the best solution – to challenge existing practice – but still choose the easiest solution – to integrate into existing practice, thereby reproducing it.

It is not always a matter of ultimate polarity, I know, and I often do end up being the pragmatic realist. But for now I allow myself to dream of a world, where we have the courage to go all the way. If nothing else, this fantasy might inform smaller changes.

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)