Motivating through gamification

“Students take on the role of lawyers in a simulated legal case, so they have to take sides with a client who presents [legal] problems. We have two elements that stimulate motivation: on one hand there’s the logic of competition […] and then there’s cooperation…” Quote from interview with Educator – EI03.

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In the research literature, gamification is seen as the application of game design elements in non-game contexts, where the elements do not constitute a fully-fledged game (Deterding et al., 2011). Although the term has come into general use only quite recently, basics elements of gamification like accumulating points and earning badges have been employed for years in different contexts, such as commercial loyalty programs.

In recent years, gamification has gained momentum within the business, corporate management and wellness sectors, and has raised interest in the academic and educational domains as well.

Undoubtedly, the key aspect driving researchers to analyse gamification in education is its potential for boosting motivation and engagement.

In their literature review, Hamari, Koivisto, & Sarsa (2014) report positive overall results in terms of perceived motivation, engagement and enjoyment of learning tasks, but stress that negative outcomes may also be present, for example stress due to increased competitiveness among students, or distraction from learning objectives.

The discourse around motivation informs the literature on game-based learning globally, with almost general agreement about the positive motivational power of games. That said, there is considerable debate about the different types of motivation game elements foster, be it intrinsic (internal drive to perform an action) or extrinsic (drive triggered by external influences), as well as the impact each of these may have on learning (Deci et al., 2001).

This scenario deals with the issues of motivation and competition, portraying the potential benefits of carefully designed gamification. It’s inspired by an example of meaningful gamification reported in the research literature (Nicholson, 2012), in which conventional gamification elements like points are integrated with deeper game elements like narrative and challenges (Enders & Kapp, 2013). Here, extrinsic incentives trigger intrinsic motivation in some learners. It also highlights that whilst competition with peers can have a negative impact on learning, it can also stimulate motivation. Example of this include inter-team competition and the sense of  achievement generated when learners complete a challenge.

Meet Carla and Samira, law students

Carla and Samira are two friends studying law at university. They’ve just met up in the law faculty corridor and they’re having a chat about university life. Carla knows that Samira has taken civil law and she’s curious to know how her course is going. Carla herself took civil law the previous year and found it really hard going: it’s a demanding subject calling for hours and hours of study. In the end she had to repeat the final exam several times before she managed to pass. It was particularly tough because she found civil law boring and had no feeling for the concrete application of what she was studying. This year, though, Samira is attending the course with a new teacher who’s restructured the course. After the first month, the teacher introduced a sort of a game that simulates an entire legal case. The students are playing the role of lawyers and have to complete some tasks in the effort to win the case.

Now Carla wants to know more about the approach. When she was at high school, a teacher tried to introduce something similar but it was all about earning points to boost your position in the final ranking. This made her feel frustrated and stressed because she really doesn’t like being compared with her classmates. No way did earning points motivate her to study.

Samira tells Carla how different her experience is from that. The teacher set up a complete legal case, with a client who comes to a law firm for help. In this way, the students are fully immersed in a legal battle. They all work together in teams so that no one is left out. An assistant lecturer represents the opposition, and a real judge plays the role of the judge. So there’s no competition among the students themselves. The teams work on tasks that reflect the actual steps taken in legal cases and the students behave like real lawyers, studying the law and drafting all the necessary documents. In this way, they gain a real working knowledge of the civil law code. At the end of each task, each group presents its work in the form of a document, or is involved in a simulated judicial hearing. All the team outputs are assigned a grade and feedback is given. So each of the teams proceeds in the case but the final outcome depends on how they perform. The positive aspect is that all the groups can, in principle, win the case if they complete the tasks satisfactorily. Carla sees how completely different Samira’s experience is from her own, and appreciates the way the professor is approaching the subject. Nevertheless, she points out that, at the end, there’s still an exam on the civil law code to pass, and it won’t be all fun and games like the playful experience Samira is engaged in now. Samira agrees, but explains that the game gave her the opportunity to experience a concrete application of the code and so now she’s more motivated to study it, however daunting it may be. In the end, she reveals that actually she’s quite a competitive person and so the approach suits her well.

In a nutshell

The application of gamification in education is a fairly new approach that needs to be analysed further. Benefit would be gained from more rigorous studies investigating aspects like the mapping of the game elements in relation to individual learners and also to specific contexts, as well as short and long term outcomes. Researchers and policy makers should invest along these lines.

Gamification should be carefully designed so to make the most of gaming motivational power.

Gamification is a way to design a playful learning environment that can host a comprehensive learning path. Designing and implementing a gamified experience, possibly entailing blended (online and face-to-face) interactions, is a feasible undertaking for individual teachers, whereas digital game development requires a range of professional skills. Gamification also lends itself to progressive and manageable cycles of design, deployment and validation.

Competition can create stress and harm collaboration, therefore its integration in learning environments should be preceded by careful consideration of the specific application context. Ideally, it should also take different forms.

Competition can be a suitable game element to include in gamification, preferably in the form of  personal challenge to achieve a goal, or as part of a mixed collaborative/competitive strategy.

Games and formal education: one size doesn’t fit all

“my boys always engage more with the commercial games. And they didn’t always like the Maths games or Science games, because it just didn’t feel like real games to them […]. But the girls, they did, and the puzzle problems on Nintendos and things, they liked them, my girls” – quote from an interview with an educator. EE02.


Drawing from the experiences of the educators and players we interviewed, we envisage a very creative and informed use of games for learning at school, with a wide range of games used by educators and a similarly wide range of uses. Game choice – as with all choices in the learning design process – should be driven by learning objectives, contextual constraints, and educator experience, and ought to take student preference into consideration.   For example, in some cases teachers may choose short entertainment games that can be played episodically to stimulate discussion. In others, they may prefer to propose longer playful activities requiring authentic problem solving performed by participants in an online environment.  In yet others, teachers might choose a serious game because it helps to achieve specific objectives. In any case, teachers will need to be aware of the risks of making gaming compulsory or using games in which the playful/gameful dimension is a mere cosmetic layer added to instructional interactions.

Most importantly, teachers will need to embed game-based activities into a broader pedagogical design, where game choice is not the only choice to be made in view of desired outcomes. Other aspects to be considered concern how to manage competition (exploiting its engagement potential while avoiding stress), respecting students’ preferences for different types of games but also using games to overcome personal barriers and counter social stereotypes, as well as dealing with digital divide issues. Last but not least, teachers will be aware that the motivating power of games is a double-edged sword, sometimes fostering motivation to win rather than motivation to learn, unless the two are effectively integrated.

Meet Robert, a secondary school teacher, and his students Mary and Paul (aged 16)

Robert is a secondary school science and technology teacher. He is a strong supporter of game-based learning, since he believes that games can successfully support inquiry learning in STEM and positively engage his 16-year-old students. Robert’s teaching with games is informed and fuelled both by his personal experience as a player and by his professional training. This grounding allows him to consider a variety of different games for use with his students and several ways to use them.

When implementing purposeful gaming in his classroom, Robert usually couples it with other learning activities, and spreads gameplay over multiple sessions rather than limiting it to a single block. Sometimes he includes metagames and purposely-designed assessments.

What Robert always does is seek to calibrate gaming activities to his students’ knowledge, needs, abilities and – last but not least – preferences. He’s noticed that there are significant differences between his students’ preferred game types, preferred mode of gameplay (alone or in groups), and of course, abilities. In contrast with some of his colleagues, Robert’s particularly alert to the problem of the digital divide when it comes to gaming. For example, the students with limited access to different consoles and devices at home tend to take longer to get acquainted with the controls.

Robert’s school has access to a substantial repository of quality digital games to choose from, and this makes it easier for him to select the right game for different students and for different objectives. . This repository can be accessed through an online catalogue listing achievable learning objectives for each game and comments from other users, both students and teachers, and it can be accessed from home too. In this way, students can do their homework by playing in a similar fashion to the ‘flipped classroom’ approach. Each student is free to choose from the set of games Robert proposes, without feeling forced to play or getting bored by games they don’t particularly like.

Mary and Paul (aged 16) are two junior students in Robert’s science class. Although Paul is a player (or perhaps precisely because he is) he really doesn’t like serious games. He feels they’re mostly sugar-coated school exercises. That’s why he and some of the other guys in the class prefer to play more creative games (Minecraft and Portal are his favourites) and maker-oriented activities with design kits like Arduino. Mary isn’t much of a player and is more enthusiastic than Paul about playing applied games (especially puzzles) because she sees them as a playful alternative to the usual homework activities. She also likes creating wearable computing gadgets, which is something that many girls in Robert’s class tend to like. For a while now, Robert has been wondering how to get the girls more interested in the Arduino kits in order to broaden their skills in STEM.

At school, however, Robert usually gets them all to play the same game, otherwise handling the class would be too complicated. In cases like these, he gets them to form teams and play as a group. In this way they develop collaboration skills, and it also avoids the better performing players predominating.

In a nutshell

One game certainly does not fit all. Students have individual preferences and teachers should try to respect these as far as practicable. However, schools are generally not designed, equipped or run to cater for variation.  One way to tackle this is by moving towards more open classrooms, where one or more teachers can follow different teams of students doing different activities. To facilitate teachers’ game choice, individual schools or school networks could create repositories of games offering a rich game choice.

Students’ acceptance of game-based learning can be improved by avoiding mandatory play activities or games where the playful/gameful dimension is a mere cosmetic layer added to instructional interactions. It is also important to take into account students’ individual differences when designing game-based learning activities. Particular attention should be paid to social and gender differences in order to avoid demotivation and frustration.

The European Commission could play a key part by supporting teacher education and professional development initiatives devoted to game-based learning. In this case, priorities should be placed on fostering virtual communities of teachers for the exchange of know-how and experience, and on supporting the establishment of repositories, in order to broaden access to effective games and lesson plans.


  • Taylor, A. S. A. (2015, September). The active instructor: Benefits and barriers to instructor-led serious gaming. In proceedings of VS-Games, 2015 7th International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications (pp. 1-8). IEEE.
  • Tsekleves, E., Cosmas, J., & Aggoun, A. (2016). Benefits, barriers and guideline recommendations for the implementation of serious games in education for stakeholders and policymakers. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(1), 164–183.
  • Wouters, P., & Van Oostendorp, H. (2013). A meta-analytic review of the role of instructional support in game-based learning. Computers & Education, 60(1), 412-425
  • Minecraft
  • Portal
  • Arduino
  • Gravity simulator

Games and formal education: a difficult marriage

“[The limitations on games in formal education?]  Undoubtedly, timetabling is one. And it’s an issue that’s been debated for years, because it creates many problems. […] Our timetable, our morning, is divided into slots separated by the ring of the bell bringing the lesson to a close. Generally, the use of technology clashes with this idea of whatever’s happening, the lesson is over now”. – Quote from an interview with an interview with an educator. EI01


Integrating games in formal education is not easy. Firstly, not all teachers are familiar with games or game-based learning and not all students see this ‘marriage’ favourably, especially when asked to play serious games, which often do not have the engaging power of entertainment games. Secondly, gaming is by definition a free exploratory activity, while formal education has its rules, its constraints, and sometimes the use of games isn’t compatible with these restrictions. More in general, playing at school is almost an oxymoron: the nature of play is such that it cannot be done ‘under teacher supervision’, that is, with a teacher who chooses where, when, and what to play. How can these tensions be tackled? Can such a marriage actually work? And if so, should games be adapted to the existing school system, or should school change to better embrace the flexibility required by gaming and by other types of technology supported activities?

It is probably no coincidence that nine out of our twelve educator-interviewees were players themselves or had been in the past. Nor is it surprising that their teaching with games largely appeared to be informed and fuelled by their experience as players. There is a wide variety of ways the potential of games can be harnessed for educational purposes: from the most obvious – though not risk free – use of serious games developed expressly to achieve specific learning objectives, to the use of popular entertainment or artistic games to stimulate reflection and discussion on ethical or philosophical questions (e.g. That Dragon, Cancer; Fragments of Him; Dear Esther). Our research also suggests that the time is not yet ripe for the creation of a school context which is fully supportive of teachers’ efforts to adopt game based learning approaches. School managers, teachers and parents are generically in favour of game based learning due to its recent popularity. However, there is also an underlying scepticism, especially among parents and teachers, that play can support learning as well as, and often better, than other teaching practices.

Meet Jan, a middle school maths teacher and Irina, who teaches geography and history in upper secondary school

Jan teaches maths in the third year of a lower secondary school. His pupils will face the national exam this year, so he feels very committed to making sure they will be able to pass their first important summative test. The class consists of 25 children, most of whom are around 13 years old, with big differences as to commitment and learning outcomes. Jan believes the better performing students could be of much help to the others, but this is not happening spontaneously because several students are new to the class and the atmosphere is not collaborative enough.

For this reason, he has designed a gamified path connecting the main topics of the math curriculum, and for most of these topics he has found or invented a game supporting its learning. Recently,

Recently, the headmaster has been encouraging Jan get the other teachers involved and scale it up to school level. Recently, the headmaster has been encouraging Jan to get the other teachers involved and scale it up to school level. A discussion among them has convinced them that gamification intended as ‘pointification’ (adding points and badges for motivational purposes but without deeper integration with the content) is not what they want. They are afraid that too much competition can create more problems than advantages. Anxiety is not the kind of feeling they want to prevail inside their classes. Jan’s colleagues enriched the path with new activities and games, and their creative input has proved very useful. This is turning out to be quite a lot of workload, but it also has some big advantages. Firstly, the switch they made to inter-class competition makes the atmosphere inside each class more cohesive, as it leads classmates to support one another. Secondly, the typical scepticism of parents now clashes with a whole team of teachers very much convinced of the approach, which helps a lot.

Jan’s wife, Irina, is a teacher too. She works in an upper secondary school, where she teaches history and geography. They often discuss the ways games can be harnessed for learning. Irina has only recently begun introducing games in her classes, but her school principal is sceptical and has been less supportive than Jan’s was, making it much more challenging to get the resources and institutional backing she needs. She therefore has to count on her own resources and time only. Luckily, as a gamer, she knows a lot of games. She’s found one, called Rise of Nations, that’s ideal for introducing her students to complex geopolitical topics. She’s confident that playing the  game will help give them a firmer grasp of geopolitics than they  would otherwise get through the rote learning of notions.

The demands of the school timetable mean that she can only manage a single one-hour game session per week in class. So Irina has encouraged the students to carry on playing outside school hours and then discuss their thoughts and impressions about the game content in class.

In a nutshell

Teacher education and professional development in support of game based education should be promoted and should focus on specific game based learning design principles, including criteria for game choice as one of the decisions teachers take while designing for learning. Although most of the responsibility for pedagogical design will be on teachers’ shoulders, they should not be left unsupported. To deal with the limitations imposed by formal education contexts, teachers need active support from all stakeholders: school leaders, their fellow teachers, researchers, students and parents. 

Investments in teachers’ professional development and in research in learning design principles for game based learning are needed. As recent learning design research has pointed out, participatory approaches to learning design are to be privileged, centred as they are on communities of practice. These allow  teachers to access and share success stories and failures, with the aim of overcoming problems and devising innovative solutions, and increasing awareness of both the potential and the pitfalls of using games for learning.

Gambling and dark design

“The problem is a lot of the [free-to-play] games do use the gambling style mechanics to generate an addiction to try and maximise the revenue from those players. So done well with the right game, I don’t think free-to-play is a problem at all. But like anything it can be used irresponsibly.” –  quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28783.

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While academic research demonstrated a bias towards studies of violence, developer and player stakeholders in particular were more concerned about the manipulative application of psychological principles linked to dopamine triggers in the brain. These were referred to broadly as ‘dark design patterns’ and commonly tied to paid activities, such as compulsive buying of in-game goods or creating gambling-related reward systems. These systems frequently exist in legal grey-areas. For example, under British law the purchase of ‘loot crates’ (random collections of in-game items that may significantly improve the player’s performance) is not considered gambling because the player cannot ‘cash out’ their winnings (i.e. sell the in-game items), but other countries have varying legal perspectives on this. Regardless of perspective, many competitive games rely on small loot-crate-esque purchases to bring in the only source of revenue that the developers get, so changing the legal status of loot crates may have a profound impact on many game developers; however, the methods of stimulating purchases can be done in a variety of ways, on a scale from fair to manipulative. When implemented unfairly, these systems can result in heavy financial burdens for vulnerable players. The loot crate idea, and other systems like them, are not a priori manipulative, but the presentation and surrounding systems may make them socially problematic. Careful evaluation and tracking of such systems is likely to be a much more urgent concern for the future ethical status of video games than scare-mongering stories about violence.

Meet Karen and Davide, players of an online multiplayer warfare game

Karen and Davide have been playing online together for a few years. They both have two jobs to try and make ends meet, so playing a free game online in the evenings is a cheap way of relaxing. Characters in the game can be slowly made stronger, but there’s a random chance of getting a big boost to your character if you pay for a loot crate. Most of the crates have only minor improvements in them, but occasionally a bigger benefit will be in there and many players want to accelerate their characters’ growth to win more fights.

While some players may have enough money to spare to invest in virtual in-game goods, not everyone does. Some games are purposely balanced to entice players to buy a random loot crate in the hope that the reward will enhance their overall enjoyment of the game. However, each purchase is a gamble that might pay off, and if it doesn’t players can feel like it is worth spending more to have another chance of success. Various social mechanisms, variable-ratio schedule reward systems, game design choices, balancing of league competitions, and other techniques can be applied to push players to spend their money. These psychological techniques are linked to both gambling and addiction, and may affect players differently. Without sufficient current research, it is hard to say whether vulnerable players may particularly be negatively impacted, or if there are appropriate precautions that game developers could take to maintain their livelihoods without the risk of damaging or exploiting their players.

In a nutshell

The ethical spotlight in video game research is often pointed at violent games, but other aspects of game design would benefit from ethical study. Dark design patterns that exploit or manipulate players need to be closely examined with a balanced review that can guide developers away from using them either intentionally or accidentally.

Studies into past and present systems of monetisation and compulsion-inducing gameplay should be conducted. Great care needs to be taken to recognise the complexity of game systems and balancing: loot crates and many similar aspects of game design are not automatically unethical, and neither are free-to-play games, but aspects of their content and context may lead them to be exploitative or manipulative. Such studies will need to be conducted with the assistance of industry professionals who can assess and the multiple subtle ways in which such systems are implemented across the whole game experience, not only as an isolated systems. Such an isolation would result in flawed or binary moral/immoral judgement that does not match the nuance with which such systems can be integrated into games; such an outcome would not benefit the industry, nor would it contribute to potential guidelines.


Reframing and refocusing the rhetoric of play

“The very act of playing […] assumes certain privileges and how we interact with others […] just the kind of social and financial and cultural capitals that people need to play […] I think we don’t necessarily think about those people that don’t sit within the same paradigms”-  Quote from an interview with a researcher. R09.

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As one of the multiple ethical considerations raised by our participants, a notion of ‘play as privilege’ was posed by one researcher during our interviews, highlighting a specific ethical concern around the assumptions made about the use of video games and gamification techniques in particular contexts.  This suggests the need for a consideration of ethics around video games that is highly contextualised and dependent on the particular experiences of those involved in gameplay. Here, ethics is positioned as being contingent on social factors, rather than necessarily being an inherent feature of the game itself. Moreover, it suggests that any ethical agenda around video game scholarship should include a careful critique of the context in which the game in situated and the privileges that are being assumed (or otherwise) by the researcher.

This scenario, therefore, is about reframing and refocusing the rhetoric of play in social research. Instead of taking a top-down approach, where a gamified strategy is viewed as a universal  ‘magic bullet’ for improving an educational experience, the researcher adopts a ‘bottom-up’ mindset, involving the participants in the design of the project.

Meet Iain, a digital media researcher and Ruby (aged 8) a school pupil

Iain has designed a project to look at the affordances and constraints of using a video game in a geography lesson, with a particular focus on the attitudes and experiences of the participants involved. Rather than focussing purely on the educational outcomes of the planned intervention, Iain is careful to explore with the children their perceptions of the task. Moreover, working alongside the children, rather than dictating the approach he tentatively designed, he encourages them to explore their own usage of the game. Taking advice from the children, he adapts the approach to suit their needs. He ensures, for instance, that the intervention allows for independent work, as well as group work as some of the children express their anxiety at being made to play alongside others. Some children also explain that they feel that they need access to more conventional learning materials, such as books and on-screen texts, in order to help them make sense of the learning task.

By the end of the intervention, Iain has developed a complex and multi-layered approach to incorporating a video game into a particular educational context which is perhaps much more nuanced than the original top-down approach he had in mind. While this approach could not necessarily be adopted in every context, Iain’s final research output makes a number of valuable methodological recommendations for researchers and educators looking to make use of video games in a range of contexts.

In a nutshell

Play can be powerful, enjoyable, exciting and empowering. However, play does not suit everyone, all the time.

We need to take a critical approach to game play in order to consider more about the context in which it may and may not be most appropriate.

Game literacy in the curriculum

“I feel like our school system […] is not very game friendly in any way, shape or form. I think that’s a big problem. I think they really need to start – because there’s so much tremendous opportunity there.”- Quote from an interview with an educatorPE02

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Many of those who took part in our interviews enthusiastically described the ways in which video games could be employed for educational purposes, but it was clear that these are often talked about as opportunities that are not yet being fully realised. In part, these ideas of what we are calling ‘game literacy’ involve enabling students to understand games; how they are conceived and constructed, the lives and stories that they represent, the cultural and global context in which they are created, even giving young children hands-on opportunities to develop their own games. In addition, interview participants talked about games as multimodal texts that can be actively read but also ‘lived’ and experienced by players, as a cultural and empathy-building experience.

Drawing on our interviews and workshops, these ideas are framed in relation to particular understandings of literacy, rather than necessarily being aligned with the computing or information technology aspects of the school curriculum. As such, these perspectives focus on multimodality and cultural enrichment, underpinned by the need to develop an alternative understanding of literacy. This involves the educator valuing (and being enabled or even permitted to value) multiple modes of meaning making, moving beyond common conceptions of school-based literacy that involve only written texts and rigidly defined outcomes.

These understandings of literacy already exist and are established in the field of new literacies and multiliteracies, through the work of James Gee, Brian Street, The New London Group etc. However, they are not the dominant conceptualisations of literacy that are currently being drawn upon by policy makers, who tend to favour a skills based approach that generates measurable outcomes.

In the first dimensions of this scenario, therefore, we envisage a classroom that is open to the use of video games as educational resources and experiences, working around existing curricular restraints through a generous interpretation of the curriculum. In the second dimension, we strive to imagine an educational system bolstered by policy which actively acknowledges the cultural value of video games and even encourages their use, drawing on the extensive research around new literacies as a basis for creating this shift.

Meet Simon, a primary school teacher

Simon is a primary school teacher in the UK, in his fourth full year of teaching. He is currently responsible for a class of 27 ten-year-old children, as well as coordinating Literacy across the school. He enjoys his job and has developed a positive rapport with his class. In part, he attributes this positive relationship to the fact that he values the interests of the children and strives to make his teaching relevant and interesting for them. He is aware that many (but not all) of the children in his class are regular users of technology at home and feels that his classroom, and the school more widely, should reflect and take account of this ‘real world’ situation.

Faced with a Literacy curriculum that makes no mention of using technology – let alone games – in lessons, Simon has nevertheless made his classroom a place where videogames are valued as a relevant cultural resource alongside other media such as films, books, and other print media. He has used games on various occasions, thinking of them as ‘texts’  that contain and generate meaning, in similar ways to more traditional print based texts. He has used video games as a stimulus for descriptive writing (using the visually intriguing exploration game ‘Myst’), explored the idea of personification (using the independent, narrative puzzle game ‘Thomas was Alone’) and helped children to create their own text based games (using the free game creation software called ‘Twine’). He has also run a club at lunchtimes where children play ‘Minecraft’ on the school iPads, working together in small groups to create virtual play spaces. He is always enthused by the social interactions that this generates during the club.


Many other teachers in the school are less confident with using games in their classroom. However, through a series of staff meetings, Simon has introduced them to some possible ways in which video games could be brought into their classrooms often with little technical knowledge on the part of the teacher. This often involves the use of paratexts – print based and video texts that refer to video games – rather than directly using the games themselves. So, in other classes, teachers have been encouraged to supplement their existing resources with ‘how to’ guides for popular video games such as ‘Assassins Creed’, and even use video trailers for games in lessons as a means of discussing issues around critical literacy. As a result, the literacy curriculum experienced by the children is one enriched by a mixture of traditional texts with video games and other media from popular culture.

All of this has only been possible with the support of the headteacher, who believes that teachers should be encouraged to innovate in order to provide exciting, relevant learning opportunities for pupils.


Meet Andrea, Educational Policy Maker and Curriculum designer

Andrea has a role in designing the literacy curriculum for primary school children in the UK. As part of a new government assembled team, Andrea has listened to teachers, educational professionals and researchers. They have expressed concerns that the existing curriculum is limiting the opportunities for teachers to deliver exciting, relevant and innovative literacy lessons that reflect the way in which literacies (as social practices) are lived and experienced in the 21st Century. Having grown up playing video games herself, Andrea also has a good sense of the cultural significance of the form and understands that video games have a potentially significant role to play in the lives of children, at home and in school. At school, this involves educating children about video games, as well as using video games as a educational resource, all the while encouraging and promoting a critical approach – just as learning in school traditionally involves teaching about books, and using books.

With this in mind, rather than being driven purely by outdated notions of literacy simply as a pre-defined set of skills to be taken on by children, Andrea and her team develop a curriculum that takes a broader view of literacy. Amongst other things, this supports teachers in understanding and using video games as multimodal texts with multiple affordances. This refined curriculum includes examples of the ways in which specific video games could be used by teachers as rich, multimodal texts that allow children to explore ideas of narrative and character; to consider issues of representation and motive in games; to explore the ways in which different game environments and settings influence or interact with the player. Suggestions on how some games can be used in social contexts can encourage teachers to look beyond outdated and limiting notions of video game play as a purely solitary pursuit; instead, teachers can consider how collaborative play experiences offer their own educational potential. There is also suggestion that paratexts around video games can provide excellent resources for prompting creative responses, written, spoken and performed by children alongside, of course, more established and traditional print based texts.

As well as being framed as texts to be read, video games are also positioned as artefacts to be remixed and created by children, alongside other visual and audio media. This ranges from early stages of design, through to hands-on video game creation, afforded by pre-existing and specially commissioned software designed to scaffold the game creation process for younger users. This curriculum is published online, featuring a significant  interactive repository section that enables teachers and educational professionals to upload and link their own resources and ideas, making this a truly collaborative vision for an innovative and exciting curriculum that can finally be considered ‘game friendly’.


In a nutshell

There is a significant and relatively untapped potential for using video games in educational contexts, often held back by the restrictions posed by standardised curriculum requirements.

This has been a recurring theme throughout the project, with the overarching recommendation being that we all need to move beyond the realm of ‘serious games’ to include what might otherwise be considered ‘entertainment’ games into the classroom. This process of inclusion has more to do with literacy, than with the computing or information technology aspects of the school curriculum.

The discourse around games

“We have this silly word ‘game’ and it just sort of encompasses everything […] in a sense there isn’t necessarily a lot similar, you know, if you have to actually make parallels between ‘Uncharted 313’ and ‘Candy Crush 14’, it is a completely different kind of experience, […] the interactions are completely different and the experience is completely different, and where you might play that is completely different”. Quote from an interview with a researcher. R03.

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During the project, participants talked of the need to understand games as complex and multiple, rather than acting as if there is anything like a ‘generic’ video game. One participant even suggested that it was the responsibility of researchers and other professionals to re-write the canon by turning the focus of their gaze towards games that were less commercial or less readily written about.

The view of gaming as a complex medium assumes that under the broad umbrella of gaming there is a multitude of different themes, mechanics and content, in the same way as ‘film’ is a medium that incorporates anything from video art, to documentary, to Hollywood blockbuster.  This view is  increasingly accepted but still faces some resistance which, perhaps unwittingly, seems to originate in the so-called ‘gamer’ cultures. Here, rather arbitrary distinctions seem to exist between real games, usually focusing on player mastery, competition and clearly defined win/lose states,  and ‘non-games’ or ‘artistic games’ which experiment with and sometimes subvert those categories.    

The identities and professional profiles of those who make games are also changing, reflecting a diverse range of personal, educational and technical backgrounds, and different design priorities are not necessarily aligned with those of large commercial publishers and the so-called ‘mainstream’ industry.  

Meet Steven, a journalist and Daisy, a game developer

Daisy is an independent game developer. Her trajectory started while she was still at university, studying in a game development course. She put her studies on hold when she got a job in a large development studio as a junior animator.  Nonetheless, Daisy thinks her university experience is a valuable source of inspiration and cultural diversity. She fondly remembers attending extracurricular seminars in the sociology department, meeting and conversing with students and lecturers about different topics and interests.  Over the past five years Daisy has worked on many games, but always felt that the focus on specific tasks within large projects was too narrow.  This year, Daisy decided to ‘go indie’, setting up a small studio with a couple of trusted friends. Her first project is based on a personal exploration of issues that matter to her personally – she wants to create an interactive experience that challenges expectations of what a game can do. They are conscious that such a game wouldn’t necessarily have mass appeal, and they are ok with it. With her friends and colleagues, she decides that crowdfunding offers the best chance to ensure creative independence and a direct connection with their intended audience. They hope to make a small profit to support their livelihoods and continue doing what really interests them. Days starts by tapping into her networks to do some marketing and raise the profile of the studio and the first game. After some time she lands an interview with Steven, a freelance journalist who writes about technology and games for a number of online and printed outlets. Steven is a keen technology enthusiast and a gamer. Immediately, the interview takes a slightly disappointing turn for Daisy…

 A more mature approach towards gaming, coupled with an acknowledgment of the complexity and multifaceted nature of this medium, could boost efforts to develop, understand, research and use video games in new, innovative, exciting and relevant ways. Dominant ways of understanding video games, and what they are, need challenging at all levels in order to generate more generous and nuanced understandings of the medium and its possibilities, in relation to education, culture and society.

In a nutshell

Although we often talk about video games as a singular entity, they are, in reality, diverse and complex. As a medium they offer a range of different features, experiences and opportunities to players in a varied range of contexts.

By considering games as singular, however, we are potentially simplifying debates and maybe even lowering our expectations. Funders, researchers, educators and developers are all responsible for advocating a more diverse and multifaceted notion of what a game can be or do. Funding Social Science and Humanities (SSH) research projects that survey the representation of cultural themes would allow the development of video games studies in curriculums at all educational levels, and increase their future relevance.


Research on technology, education and games: disciplinary divisions and their discontents

“Unlike some of the games research that I tend to come across, where researchers are really interested in ‘does a game increase this, does a game lead to more motivation or better outcomes’, what I’m more interested in (…) is really looking more closely at the role of interactions, social interactions that are happening around games” – quote from an interview with a researcher. R13.

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In our own research, we found that academic researchers and game developers rarely communicate with each other. However, it soon became clear that deep divisions also exist within the academic world itself, in particular between:

  • a psychological or social scientific perspective still vigorously seeking to confirm or debunk the causation argument (‘video games cause x‘), focusing mainly on commercial, off-the-shelf games;
  • an outcome-oriented, engineering and computer-science perspective working mainly with applied or serious games, often with an educational focus;
  • An emerging, fluid ‘game studies’ perspective interested in a variety of issues, ranging from the technical aspects of game design to the cultural practices, identities and politics associated with games.  

These distinctions are leading to bodies of knowledge that do not interact; the respective proponents often treat each other with suspicion due to ingrained theoretical and methodological differences. This problem runs deep in the entire academic world and is compounded by the fact that small and large scholarly communities tend to gravitate around highly selective journals and specialised conferences. In a field so practically (and commercially) oriented like game development, this is particularly confusing and unhelpful. How are developers – established or aspiring – hungry for knowledge and advice about the cultural and educational ramifications of this medium supposed to engage with such a fractured landscape?

Meet Jane and Deka, two researchers

Jane is an internationally established psychologist and computer scientist who published extensively about video games and human behaviour. She is an affirmed university professor and the editor in chief of a top-ranking scientific journal that often features research involving video games. Recently, Jane’s university launched a new, experimental undergraduate course in video game design. The course was designed through consultations with industry veterans and most of the staff have little academic experience, but plenty in game development. One faculty member is Deka, who shifted to academia after several years working as level designer for a successful game studio. She is now trying to develop her own original research agenda, drawing on her professional experience and her personal views as a woman of African descent. During the time spent in the industry, she came to realise that game development is influenced by a multitude of cultural factors. In particular, she grew increasingly dissatisfied with the high-powered, ‘macho’ culture that dominates the sector and with the unhealthy working practices (the so-called ‘crunch’) that burn out many talented developers. She is finding it very difficult to secure funding to do some research. So far, she has only managed to publish a conceptual article in a cultural studies journal that examines how her personal trajectory in the industry, and her personal heritage, influenced her professional output as a level designer.

One day, Deka and Jane meet at an internal networking event, which is part of a mentoring scheme that connects early career academics with more senior colleagues. Although they have been paired as ‘video game researchers’ at different career stages, it quickly becomes apparent that Deka and Jane have rather different views on this medium, the type of  research needed, and who should be the audience for such research. From Jane’s perspective as a psychologist, research on effects, influences and risk factors is relevant and highly valued in the scholarly community. From Deka’s industry-centric perspective, research should focus on how to make gaming a better medium: more responsible, accepting, diverse, deep, complex, culturally relevant and so on.  Jane and Deka meet several times after their first meeting and, gradually, what began as a traditional mentor-mentee relationship evolves into a mutual learning experience. Thanks to Jane’s guidance, Deka becomes more familiar with the complexities of funding applications and peer review. Jane, on the other hand, gains a valuable insight into the changing cultures and values of video games and game development, beyond the confines of her academic community. After some time, they decide to write an article together, focused on the need for more interdisciplinary research that reflects the changing nature of video games and their growing cultural relevance.

In a nutshell

The tendency of academic research to operate in ‘silos’ has been accused many times before of being counterproductive and not conducive to the sort of social impacts funders increasingly seek. The situation is unlikely to change until the current system of specialised journals and conferences is challenged. This state of affairs is particularly unhelpful in emerging multidisciplinary fields such as ‘gaming research’.  

Universities, journal editors and conference organising committees in the area of gaming research should focus more on establishing mechanisms and platforms for researchers from different backgrounds and with different research interests to collaborate.