Games and learning: Having control and having the controller

In an age where education systems are anxious about how to merge established pedagogies with modern technology, games have emerged as a crucial piece of this challenge. Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, summed it up nicely when he said:

... games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultural form directly engages the brain's decision-making apparatus in the same way.

I think everyone at some point finds that games really 'push our buttons'; they are ubiquitous, pervasive and invasive. It is no wonder then that games, and the philosophy of games-based learning, creates challenges around their implementation in schools and other traditional learning spaces. Education is reaching the point when it will need to acknowledge that now, more than ever, playing is synonymous with learning. This is a difficult acknowledgement. Games in all forms have always struggled for legitimacy in the curriculum; they are not the focus, but often the reward for downtime and entertainment. Yet therein lies the reason games need to be acknowledged in the first place - they are compelling.

Games in schools

There are two main spheres to consider with games in schools: the first is to understand how games are designed to engage and what constitutes games-based learning, often referred to as 'GBL'. It is worth following the Twitter hashtag #gbl for some great links and commentary on this. The games literature landscape and the GBL education communities demonstrate very rich research, thoughtful teaching and valuable learning. The second is to choose a course of action on how to implement games in your learning spaces. This decision has more choices, options and scope than you may even be aware of. It is much more strategic than just plonking a Wii in the library.

A teacher guides a student through a digital game.
TODASTWD 008 by Penn State News
CC-by-nc 2.0 

So let's first look at the thinking around games: the philosophy, the attitudes and the culture. Who do you think wants control? What happens when you have the controller? To be blunt, games are often perceived as taking control from the teacher and giving students the freedom to choose what they want to do. Critics might argue that this is too much freedom; this is the kind of freedom that children have at home. School is not home and is meant to be serious. One of the functions of school is to prepare children for adulthood, which often clashes with what the students want: to be kids. Games thereby create friction in education institutions because they seem to challenge their purpose. Schools are focused on learning being constructive, ordered and serious. Games by their nature are often the opposite: within their worlds they are destructive, chaotic and entertaining. However, these are the reasons that games are compelling, because within the boundaries, rules and environments of the game, the player is often challenged to be constructive and to facilitate order; and they usually take the game very, very seriously.

So why do people play games?

Ask the staff around your school about the games they play: mobile, console, computer, board, card and even alternate-reality games. Games are engaging because of their design, their ability to stimulate our imagination, and the innovation they create. It is also because games usually fulfil four basic motives: to feel powerful, to have control, to break rules and to explore a story. These motives also underlie the other emerging games-based strategy referred to as 'gamification', which has its supporters and critics. Gamification is the process of using game-design concepts or outcomes as a way to make programs or environments more playful. It often uses competition and rewards as key drivers. The Mozilla Open Badges project in the US is one of the biggest examples set within a learning context. These kinds of initiatives add to the sense that wherever we are, we can now play games of all types and all genres. This kind of access means we are retaining more playfulness throughout our lives, often referred to as neoteny. When a medium is as pervasive as games, a school that bans them at every level can start to look out of touch with society, especially when governments, corporations and philanthropic organisations have already started to invest heavily in games-based learning and its research. It is even more so when there are large public exhibitions, festivals and international competitions staged around games. Children are designing, building, competing and collaborating on games outside of school, often within families who may be even more out of touch with how to shape their child's interest in games in positive ways.

So if schools are in fact the places where real learning is shaped, then how control and risk are balanced becomes crucial. What a great challenge, right?

Digital age, digital solutions

It has been said that the digital age requires digital solutions. I think there are two responses to this. The digital age requires openness, trust and skills. In schools the digital age also requires savvy teachers and experimental libraries. Libraries have a big advantage when it comes to exploring the use of games over other conventional school spaces. They are open to all ages, have access to great collections, are multidisciplinary, can address 'digital divides' and are community- and culture-focused. They are also not driven by a strong curricula agenda, but by a pedagogical one. Ironically this has also made libraries a target for schools with stretched budgets and narrow vision. I have found that more than any other place, libraries understand the value of games - not just as a digital tool, but as a doorway into other channels of games literacy such as through blogs, wikis, reviews, films and even books. It would seem that games are having a greater influence on other mediums than the reverse. So in one sense gaming has created communities of homo zappiens, where homo zappiens are digital and school is analogue. Reading books is still a hugely popular activity for children, but more books are being delivered digitally. A great example is the work of Victorian developers Tin Man Games with their Gamebook Adventures.

There is one crucial element in successfully implementing games-based learning: the teacher (or teacher librarian). Like any aspect of education, it requires passion, insight and perseverance. With the right framework, games can be a powerful way to support the teaching of history, science, geography, English, art, maths and physical education. Be wary though: games are often a fusion of fact and fiction, using detailed factual environments and building fictional narratives inside them, such as Assassin's Creed. The role of the teacher in the games environment is also crucial for another reason: that reflection is not instinctive in game play. Someone needs to help children draw conclusions and inferences from the games experience, in the same way you would if children were discussing or dissecting their understanding of a novel or film. The Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development conducted games-based learning research trials with a number of schools in 2011, with one teacher stating that - 'I will continue to use games as a vehicle for continued exploration and discussion rather than playing games in brief sessions and moving on. Games that have a narrative context provide a motivating setting for learning through exploration'. In this context though, it is a fine line between whether games are just another way for education to teach the 'teacher's content' and whether they are an opportunity for children to redefine the meaning of learning in the 21st century. It can be a tussle of 'edutainment' versus empowerment.

Say you have a green light to start offering games in the school library, or setting up a games club, or offering games as a resource to subject areas. You appreciate the power of games. You have read about their advantages and you're aware of the limits. What actions can you take to begin introducing games? Perhaps the better question is: What are you trying to solve by introducing games? You'll need to consider this carefully. It also pays to think about the other aspects of implementation around the configuration of spaces, the required resources (for computers, consoles, or mobile devices), and of course, the games. Let's look at some games that provide a good foundation for getting GBL happening and don't come across as 'point and click'. The main contender here would have to be Minecraft. It is a global phenomenon that a game with 16-bit graphics, and lots of blocks, could have such a massive player base. It is basically digital Lego. It is collaborative, highly creative and allows players to push the boundaries of design. Minecraft also has a strong education community - check out

Students built this library in Minecraft; acknowledgement of their values in the physical world influencing the digital world.
Students built a library in Minecraft; acknowledgement
of their values in the physical world influencing the digital
world. Printed here with permission.

As more schools begin to implement iPad programs, these devices are offering better games that encourage good learning. One of these is Scribblenauts. It is a playful problem-solving game using different environments where nouns, adjectives and verbs are the key to success. Some other great iPad apps include Osmos, Windosill, Machinarium, WilderQuest and Toontastic. Of course the other angle at which to approach GBL is with games development. This can be extremely powerful because it requires students to understand the functions and narratives in games in order to design their own. There are some great software packages that schools have used to develop games such as Microsoft's Kodu, Game Salad (good for mobile devices), Blender, Game Maker and MIT's Scratch. Quite a few commercial games also offer in-game design and in-world collaboration, such as Little Big Planet, Lord of the Rings Online, Civilisation, or Quest Atlantis. These types of games create excellent simulation environments for all kinds of learning; they expand upon another aspect of games research called 'Serious Games'. As games are integrated into learning and libraries, teachers discover that their anxieties were less about the students and more about their own perspectives: 'I am not a major game player, not a programmer, not an ICT "geek" but the entire process has been extremely valuable and rewarding. I have connected and engaged with my students in a completely different way and have built relationships with those kids who would have been labelled "difficult" to teach. It has been really rewarding - and fun!' These highlight the positive impacts games can have in education, and with the introduction of the Australian Curriculum, games can address the blended learning opportunities across the General Capabilities.

So where does that leave the next steps?

There is a wealth of great information and great books out there on games-based learning. It is worth looking at the work of people like James Paul Gee, Katie Salen, John Seely Brown, and Jane McGonigal. If approached with the right mindset, and designed with sound pedagogical principles, games can unlock students' motivation and imagination for a range of key learning areas. Some principles I developed myself with thinking about integrating games into libraries uses the acronym of PLAY as a guide:

Participate - turn your users of the library into participants in the life of the library. See them as producers of content and not just consumers, and help give the library human faces to the activity going on inside its walls.

Learn - learn to see patterns and not pieces in the physical and digital realms. Look up the term 'apophenia' as a way into understanding this perspective, but it might involve using technology to highlight the interconnections between games, other media and literacies.

Activity - be prepared to experiment with different activities in order to build communities of interest. Think about what the library offers your users that they can't get at home, such as the social elements and great content.

Youth - engage with your audience on their level by using multiple channels to reach them. This might mean creating a student working group in formulating a plan, developing rich resources around games, or running student events about games (such as a debate or workshop).

From this perspective, education seems to be shifting. Education is not as much about memory, but about being memorable. Schools are using more measures to encourage playfulness as part of learning. While playing and learning might be synonymous processes, playing video games is often seen as physically passive. It is logically assumed then that no real progress or skill enhancement is happening. In sports we can see skills develop; in classrooms we test to prove it has happened. Educators are quickly realising that games can be a mode for real-time assessment and powerful feedback. The danger is that it becomes a way to cram more tests, competitiveness and analytics into education to satisfy a content-driven curriculum; gamification is often cast in this light. Rather, it should be a vehicle for meaningful achievements that generate pride, tangible progress and new connections.

Perhaps it's time to see your library not as an information service provider but as an 'inspiration service provider'. A place where you can have control, and you have the controller.


Futurelab, Computer Games and Learning Handbook, 2010, pp. 18-19, www.future

DEECD, 2011, Innovating with Technology: Games-based Learning Research Trials,


86. HamishCurry

Hamish Curry

Education Manager, Learning Services
State Library of Victoria
Twitter: @hamishcurry