Saturday, December 21, 2013

Games & Learning: games as frames, mechanics and structures of learning

Games & learning:
Games as frames, mechanics and structures of learning (Dec2013)

The same paper on PDF format.

"There is no reason that a generation that can memorise over 100 Pokemon characters with all their characteristics, history and evolution can't learn the names, relationships of all capitals option allows you, and the nations in the world."

Marc Prensky (Digital natives. An important point
emerging from the Digital, 2001)

The school's mission is to organise and provide official training that leads to qualifications. Education must, however, take account that the whole society is changing due to the technical and digital culture influences that also change the learning environments and learning habits.

Games are an organic part of youngsters’ lives. Games’ influence in learning and working is visible already today in the forms of edutainment, gamification and game mechanics driven motivation. But what does it mean to learning?

This short paper was originally written in Finnish in January 2013. The purpose was to give teachers an overview of games and inspire them to find different ways to utilise games and game mechanics in learning.

What is a game? 

Let’s start with what is a game. Games journalist Tadhg Kelly wrote in his blog: “Games are belief engines. Games are canvases for stories in motion. Games are a challenge and a learning activity. Games are ideas. Games make life better. Games are addictive. Games are pressure. Games are motivational, inspirational and educational. Games are fun. Games are emotive.”

A game is based on a set of rules, a selection of interaction methods, character roles, objects to interact with and a possible background story. The rules of the game are part of the game mechanics. At the heart of the game is an interactive feedback structure: when a player does something, it causes a reaction in the game and gives immediate feedback to the player. The confrontation between good & bad is one common way to build up the dynamics of the game. A player has to do something to overcome the enemy, to save the world or defeat the threat. A game is typically an endless loop (like Tetris) where a player tries to improve her performance or a linear story (like Final Fantasy games).

Game driven learning

"Game-based learning involves the use of board games, card games, video games, simulations, model building, role play and other competitive activities where students are engaged in play that teaches them an important concept that is part of their curriculum. Many games include an element of fantasy that makes the learning process truly appealing to students. The use of such games serves a dual purpose: the content of the game helps to improve the knowledge of the students and the process of playing the game develops their skills."

David Stuart (, 2012)

In the context of games, learning typically refers to games as media (media education), game mechanics (motivational factors), games as educational objects (learning from games, learning by playing) and the role of games in youth cultures.

Game mechanics can be used to create supportive and inspiring educational content. Games can also motivate and provide an inspiring learning context. Games offer more active role for learners in the process. At its best the game-like learning brings flexibility to learning, which supports various types of learners (slow fast, visual, etc.), and different ways of understanding things. Games also help to make problems concrete and easier to understand from different perspectives.

What’s good in games (for learning)?

1.     Limits. The game structure provides a safe environment and a context to experiment on some concrete topics. It does not matter if you fail, you can always try again. Everyone fails in games. Even the best ones.
2.     All the key ingredients at hand. Relevant source materials and necessary objects to solve the problems are all at hand in a game. A player just has to adapt, solve the puzzles and connect the dots.
3.     Cooperation. Both game development and game play are social activities. In game development, you have at least the following parts to tackle on: game design, story/dialogue, art, sound design and programming. If you do not want to use computers, game design and development can easily be done on paper or with cards, clay, sounds, words...
4.     Examples. Games use a lot of examples to make it clear what a player has to do in a game. Sometimes it first shows how things could be done and then a player can try the same by herself. As a teacher, you could develop your examples and recycle ideas to make it easier for the class to get started.
5.     Co-creation. Let the pupils do the design and implementation. Teacher’s role is to frame the context of the learning objectives and make sure all key ingredients are at hand and included in the game.
6.     Different perspectives. The same thing can look very different from other perspectives. Take advantage of it. Use roles, introduce limitations that force the group to take different viewpoints to the topic and be critical.

How to learn from games?

A game is an ideal form for teaching something new. A game defines the setup of a specific problem in a form of a story, or otherwise in a limited context. The main objective of a game is well defined in the beginning, and intermediate targets, obstacles and opponents or other challenges are introduced to the player along the way. All of these “frames” help the learners to understand and become motivated of what they should be doing, when and why.

When I was at the grade school, I together with many of my classmates was doing cross-country skiing. We had a skiing table attached to the class room wall. The table was a simple poster where we could draw a horizontal line based on the length (kilometers) of our daily cross-country skiing. We added a few millimeters to the line day after day. The poster was on the wall during the whole winter season. It was a fierce competition even if there were no concrete rewards or prizes. At least I do not remember any of the prizes. For me the bigger reward was the actual competition and a possibility to see your own advancement on the wall. The other students were my opponents and I fought for the victory. I did a lot of skiing that winter and also cheated some extra kilometers. But so did many others, too. It was not that serious – more of a play or a game. It was about trying to be the best but also seeing your own activities over a longer period of time. At the end it was just a piece of paper on the wall but oh boy what a game it was!

Today online service Muuvit offers similar type of a tool to motivate children to do some everyday sport (see picture below). For us the skiing table was a valuable tool to measure the success. Muuvit developers told me that for many kids, the tiny Muuvit notebook also has very big value the its owners. But different from the skiing table, Muuvit is about contributing to a common goal. It is about collaboration. A total amount of minutes the class has exercised during a week is summed up at the end of the week. Instead of competing against the classmates, the class is competing against other students around the world. The evolution from skiing table to Muuvit notebook is very much in line with the recent development of digital games. Besides competition, playing is more and more about collaboration and learning from the peers. Minecraft and MinecraftEdu or Supernauts are all great examples of that.

These two examples nicely highlight the motivational factors behind playing games. A game is played with a certain set of rules, goal and opponents or challenges. The opponent can be another game character, but also, for example, the time (Tetris, Bejeweled), another player (MarioKart, chess, World of Warcraft) or a model performance (Singstar).

There are a lot of great things to utilize from games:

1.     Games are difficult and/or challenging and the players are failing constantly. By failing over and over again a player will learn how to overcome certain challenges and accept failure as part of learning. That a part of the games’ charm. Games can be used to identify learning problems within a certain topic and carry out experimental training and learning because game play is about snack size achievements. A player will advance from one waypoint to another. If a player gets stuck there are clearly some challenging tasks or problems to focus on.

You do not need to worry about errors because "it was just a game". Students learn by making mistakes and making mistakes is about experimentation, not about humiliation. In games the failure can be a shared emotion, something the whole class can strive to improve and adjust.

2.     The structure and the rules of a game keep learning interesting. The games’ progression makes it interesting to learn more and more through waypoints. The player encounters constant challenges to achieve something on the way toward the ultimate goal.

This relates to the idea of learning by doing. Everyone can make games, find ways to make the topics and learning objectives easier to understand. By playing games with others the value of learning from the peers will become stronger. Also by doing things also the level of participation and commitment is strong.

3.     Games are interactive experiences: the player is involved in the creation of events. Actual participation in doing things makes it more personal and increases the feeling of ownership making the experience more valuable, more memorable.

Making things concrete is making them personal: games offer the chance to try out different roles, approaches, situations, solutions, identities and perspectives. When the topic is connected to personal interests it is easier to understand and remember.

4.     Games force players to be active. A game requires players to progress and follow a certain structure. The interactive structure of a game makes it more addictive and challenging.

If a player does not do anything, nothing happens. Games make it natural to interact or react. The it is not only about the most active students, it is about introducing active participation as part of learning. If a student does not do anything, hardly any learning will happen.

5.     Try out games for role-play: observe which roles each one will take and how they act in their roles.

Different learners & different kinds of learners' needs can be catered in games. Games offer a set of flexible components that can be adjusted based on the learners / players roles.

6.     Games emphasize motivation factors like competition, progression, co-creation, social aspects… A more versatile skills management, for example critical thinking, problem solving, logical reasoning, decision-making and fantasy.

Think of individual and interpersonal motivations and how to bring those to the learning process.

Could commercial games be used in teaching?

A game can break down learning topics into snack size pieces, and help to look at a subject from different point of view.

Commercial games can also serve as tools for learning outside the classroom. Finnish academic Pekka Kuusi in his book “In this human world” (1982) listed eight special human characters that define human behavior:
1) Communication and language,
2) Love and socializing,
3) Competition, power and war,
4) Data and science,
5) Skill and technology,
6) Myths and religions,
7) Beauty and the arts, and
8) Economy & social order.

All of these can also be seen as game genres. Love simulations, sport games, world creation and management games, fighting games… Game titles ranging from Civilization to Myst and from Tetris to Heavy Rain. Games imitate certain parts of life and are inspired by it.

Majority of commercial games are developed to entertain us. In the sense of entertainment products, games are similar to books, films or television series. They are aimed to inspire, entertain and in some sense educate and inform. Media literacy enables people to analyze and create messages in wide variety of media modes.

If you want to utilize learning games and take a one step towards more concrete examples. Marc Cunningham (2010) has collected 17 of the teaching of the available commercial game examples, how it is used in teaching:

But if you want to do something on your own and create games with the students, read on.

So: how to get started?

"Playing should be fun! In our eagerness to teach our children we studiously look for "educational" toys, games with built-in lessons, books with a "message." Often, these "tools" are less interesting and stimulating than the child's natural curiosity and playfulness. The play is by its very nature educational. And it should be pleasurable. When the fun goes out of play, most often so does the learning."

Joanne e. Oppenheim (Kids and Play, ch. 1, 1984)

Motivation works as a source of energy and controls the behavior (control and regulation). Games can give a different viewpoint to topic of everyday life, or lessons learned in school. Motivation in games is about intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation factors include the acceptance, curiosity, socializing, and improving your own skills and competition and/or revenge. The games evoke emotions. Emotions are an important fuel for commitment and getting things done.

But if you do not know anything about games - How to get started? Let’s start with the fact that you are not doing Mario or even Tetris as your first game. That’s for sure! Here’s my keep these in mind top 6:

1.     Forget 3D, massively multiplayer, and technology mumbojumbo. Instead think about the game’s rules, structures and mechanics. Think about what kind of game is in question (e.g., problem-solving, adventure, martial arts, simulation) and think about how the game will be carried out (an interactive computer game, a board game, a card game, game prototype, animation, dice game, character play...).
2.     Think small – What is the small idea or experiment, what subject or thing would you like the students to learn?
3.     Define and write down the learning objectives
4.     Chop the greatest challenges and learning goals into smaller, intermediate objectives – into snack sized pieces
5.     Recycle and copy game ideas
6.     Keep the official ratings and games separate. Rewards are important but it cannot be an official evaluation of the tasks carried out.

Here are two examples of game “frames” based on these six starting points you can use to generate games with the class. The following examples are very rough ones just to highlight the thinking behind using games as structures and chopping learning objectives into measurable snack sized pieces.


Example 1: City at war (history, communications)

Building of a game in a co-creation fashion can go like this:

1. Start with defining the game:
·      Type of a game: problem-solving adventure game (combined with memory & puzzle features)
·      The rules of the game: The game will be played in a classroom when every student sits on his or her own places. The players are dealt 10 playing cards each. The cards can represent traps or be memory cards that help to advance in the game. The game uses a dice. By rolling a dice the players will advance in the game. Players need to solve different challenges to advance in the game.
·      Mechanics: there are traps, bonuses and penalties (cards), aimed at increasing the randomness.
·      The plot: It is year 1939 and the city of NN (your city) is being bombarded. Your home is in the middle of the crisis region. Find out how to avoid the bombs and help others to find a way out of the crisis.

2. Start with a small idea:
The game is a memory game played in the classroom. The idea is to discover the history of the homestead and make the history more tangible.

3. Learning objective:
• To concretely understand critical reasons and implications of war
• A comprehensive understanding of local history and its legacy
• Discussion skills

4. Milestones:
(a) Understanding of the point of time of the War.
(b) The effects of the war on the civilian population and living conditions.
(c) Play through one short period of the wartime to better understand the longer timeframe.

5. The game:
The idea is borrowed from the game Monopoly. The game has memory, knowledge and trap cards. Memory cards express the experiences of the local inhabitants of that time. Knowledge cards give details of the war and its impacts to the local community. Traps add the aspect of randomness and challenge to the game.

6. Rewards:
Use a game to make learning more concrete and enhance the actual learning experience. The prize comes from the gameplay itself. The students will not be graded based on their performance.

Example 2: Flower picking (biology, sports, locality)

1. The definition of the game:
·      Type of game: collect and compare.
·      Rules: each plays alone or in a team. They will collect plants by taking photos of the plants with a camera or a cell phone (camera). In the collection they will find out which flowers or plants they have collected and write a description of them.
·      Goal: try to get as rich collection of pictures as possible, complete pre-defined collections and find rare plants. Get rarity and victory points based on the collection.
·      The plot: the story is about setting up a plant information bank. The students need to help in localizing the plants.

2. Starting with a small idea:
The game is flower-picking game and is played with a cell phone/a camera.

3. Learning objective:
• Examination of flora, learning about different plants and their role in the ecosystem
• Learn about the impact of pollution, soil, seasons…
• Understanding of regional biodiversity

4. Milestones:
·      Collect a diverse array of plant and flowers in a plant gallery.
·      Sort and identify common and regional plants.
·      Give a more detailed presentation of the collection or generate a game to be played with other students (instead of a presentation) to support learning from the peers.

5. The idea is borrowed from the Pokemon games (“Gotta Catch ‘em All”).

6. Players will be rewarded in a form of a leaderboard and achievements. Players will get special points based on rarity of the plants, the biggest selection and so on.

Consider utilizing different viewpoints or playing personas in games. Different views help to understand some topics better. Cooperation is a nice way to change the dynamics of a game. The students no longer compete against each other but collaborate and try to achieve something together.

The game can also be just a structure where a student will add the story. If the students are into snowboarding, Harry Potter, anything… they can use their hobby as the background story and that way make the learning objectives easier to understand. That way they will also understand the possibility to apply certain common topics to different contexts.

So what’s the problem teacher?

Games could be a great addition to the primary teaching methods, but often they are not used because of the following issues.

- Curricular requirements: schools follow the curriculum and the learning is based on books and lectures. Games cannot be found in the curriculum because their efficacy has not been proven. True but this is about to change.
- Attitude: games are bad for us. This idea is typically based on stereotypes or some extreme cases that exceed the threshold of mainstream media. Try to think about games as a motivating learning structure, not as Grand Theft Auto.
- Information technology is not the only option: if playing on a computer or a cell phone does not sound like a good idea or the access is limited to computers or cell phones are banned in schools, just use pen and paper.
Teachers do not play games: Teachers do not generally have an extensive knowhow of games, which makes it harder to come up with good ways to utilize games in schools. Forget digital games for now. Think about games as structures.
- Evaluation: the gaming skills are not considered to have any value in school’s context. Do not evaluate gaming or edugames the same way as more traditional learning.
- Evidence is missing: educational games are not yet broadly used so there only a few practical examples to copy and try out.

There is still a long way to go in order to make it easy for teachers to adapt and adjust existing learning game examples. BUT by experimenting with games your class can be an important source of information for other schools.


There are some more traditional educational games that could be used as inspiration. For example:

The Traveler IQ challenge:
World heritage destinations:
The life of the ice age (BBC)
The Victoria times: women's right quiz:
The China game:
Educational game portal (in different subjects and grade levels):
Game portal:

Literature (used as a source for this summary):

• The Use of Games in Education (, 2012):
• Moving learning games forward (MIT, 2009):

If you are interested in using free game-development tools and making actual games, you might want to check out my presentation on “Everyone can design games” on Slideshare:

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