The Serious Business of Games

Games are everywhere. Anyone who is likely to be reading this blog will almost certainly have some regular contact with young people, either as a parent, a carer or a teacher, so games will have been a part of your experience at some point in the recent past. Perhaps that contact was as simple as I Spy or classic favourites like UNO? More likely you have played one of many game applications on your smart phone or device, or have purchased a gaming console for yourself or your young person. Perhaps you have even explored virtual worlds like Minecraft or World of Warcraft. You might even have been involved in one of many different board, card, roleplaying or tabletop game conventions or tournaments that are now held.


Regardless of your experience, or lack of it, there is currently a revolution going on in the area of gaming. I don’t usually use such hyperbolic language, but when such a thing as a “board game cafe” becomes a reality, and “gamification” starts to become a subject of intense research efforts, it is simply a matter of fact.

Gamification and game-based learning (in an education context) revolves around the idea of using games or game-based elements to make learning more engaging and to improve outcomes for students.

Why on earth would we introduce something so patently enjoyable as games into an environment that is supposed to be for serious learning?

Aside from the obvious sarcasm in that sentence, the research is suggesting something very interesting about gaming that is actually fairly obvious: they improve motivation, interest and understanding. In fact, a review of research on whether gamification works from 2014 found that all reported studies showed at least partial improvement of behavioural or psychological aspects: things like participation, task completion, enjoyment and attitude towards learning. This was especially true of those studies that were conducted in educational contexts (Hamari, Koivisto & Sarsa, 2014).

As such, many educators are starting to use game elements as part of their classroom practice. In general, this can mean either using actual games (game-based learning) or changing the way a class is organised or assessed to use game elements (gamification).

There are plenty of games that might be used to facilitate game-based learning. Minecraft is one of the most obvious and is already being used in a lot of schools. The ‘sandbox’ nature of the game makes it useful for a range of contexts, while still building the student interest that is desired. But there are a number of other games that can provide interesting vehicles for lessons or units:

  • Assassin’s Creed: a series of games set in various historical settings. The locations can be explored and analysed for their historical accuracy.
  • Portal 2: a problem-solving game where linked portals play with space in unusual ways. Students can explore physics and three-dimensional manipulation, as well as create their own content and work collaboratively with the two-player option.
  • Elegy for a Dead World: a game where the player explores three worlds based around the poetry of three famous writers and uses prompts to write about it. Great for providing writing inspiration.
  • Valiant Hearts: using a unique comic style, this platform game provides an insight into the experiences of soldiers in World War I.

Of course, there are also plenty of games that have been made specifically for educational contexts, such as the UN’s Stop Disasters game (pictured below), and there are a lot of new and traditional board and card games that can be used to drive learning (year 7 transition students might have played a version of Timeline with me this year).


But many modern digital games employ a range of elements that can be brought into the classroom to ‘gamify’ normal lessons. Providing multiple options for achieving a particular goal, for example, is a basic gamification idea, but by also allowing a student to try as many times as needed to accomplish the task before earning some form of displayable badge (or achievement) and progressing to the ‘next level’, gamification can change the normal trajectory of a learning plan.

One of the most important lessons for students to learn is to keep trying in the face of failure. In a game they do this all the time, repeating a level after failing it several times, before finally attaining mastery over it and progressing. Sometimes they’ll even return to unlock extra elements they might have missed the first time around. Imagine a learning environment where this was possible? What might it look like? Would it be valuable?

I, like other educators at Wirreanda Secondary School, am only just beginning down the road of gamification and am really in the exploration phase. But I am excited at the possibilities it might hold, especially for our younger students. The school is currently trying to get a MinecraftEdu account up and running, and a group of teachers have started meeting to brainstorm ideas.

Who knows where it might go…?


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