The Educator Perspective

Video games are not widely used to develop graduate skills, but they are utilised by some educators to support the teaching of subject material. Using games in such a manner does not preclude skills development, however, and those educators who leverage games to develop students’ disciplinary knowledge understand this potential, as the examples in the following excerpt from Chapter 6 illustrate.

The practice of game-based learning

Steve Connelly is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Connelly delivers a module entitled ‘Sustainable Development: A Critical Perspective’ to an increasingly international cohort of students. Remarking that he has “never been one for standing up in front of the class and lecturing for two hours”, Connelly describes how his approach to teaching the module incorporated short lectures augmented by student exercises and discussion, with students presenting material based on, for example, their home town. However, despite this enlightened approach to delivering the module, Connelly began to observe a fall in student participation. Furthermore, students were struggling to understand sustainable development as “a political and very contested idea” with complicated underlying policy processes. And so, drawing on his knowledge of problem-based and experiential learning, Connelly decided to try something different:

I took the crazy idea of seeing whether getting people to do something that was supposed to be sustainable, in real time in the class, would actually be a better way of doing these things. The idea of using Cities: Skylines was born, which to me was insane, because I don’t do computer games.

Acknowledging this dearth of gaming experience, Connelly approached learning technologist Bryony Olney for support. Now Higher Education Training Consultant for Pearson Education, Olney immediately thought of the SimCity series (Maxis 1989-), which might offer opportunities to examine sustainability as applied in a city context. However, after some investigation, it emerged that Cities: Skylines (Colossal Order 2015) had been used by urban planners in the US for consultation exercises and planning competitions. So, as Olney puts it, “if it was favoured amongst the urban planning and design fraternity, I thought that was probably quite a good place to start”. With no previous experience of playing Cities: Skylines, the learning technologist was forced to spend many long hours with the game: “a hardship, as you can imagine”. Olney’s goal was to determine if Cities could be used to illustrate the model underpinning Connelly’s module: the ‘Connelly Triangle’, which considers sustainability in terms of economic, environmental, and social concerns (Connelly 2007). And, while certain social factors were absent – the game lacks any representation of religion or ethnicity, for example – the financial and environmental aspects of the Connelly Triangle were better served by the game’s mechanics. Olney and Connelly remained concerned, however, about “what black box coding, what assumptions the game had made”; for example, the assumption that renewable energy sources, while ecologically clean, are always very expensive. A great many more such assumptions are built into the game’s logic, and often not made explicit to the player. Furthermore, aside from the absence of religion and ethnicity, the game necessarily eschews numerous other factors and processes that influence the planning and sustainability of a city, such as gentrification.

Steve Connelly at the University of Sheffield uses Cities: Skylines to teach his ‘Sustainable Development: A Critical Perspective’ module. Source:

However, the limitations of the game as a system – echoing Kurt Squire’s early experiences with Civilization III (Firaxis Games 2001) – became a focus of the learning. Instead of accepting the version of the world that Cities: Skylines presented, the students were encouraged to critically reflect on and discuss how the game differed from reality. Olney summarises the role of the game as follows:

So, really, the use of the game was a lever, it wasn’t the be all and end all, it wasn’t the thing that everything hinged on, it was kind of a pivot point for them to reflect on some of the theoretical concepts that they were exploring in the sessions.

What is interesting to note here is that while Cities: Skylines enhanced the students’ understanding of subject-specific material, the game also allowed them to exercise their critical thinking and reflective learning. This was exactly what Connelly had hoped to achieve: in addition to the “substantive content” he also intended that students developed “the political and the critical understanding of how contested the concept was”.

While Connelly and Olney found Cities: Skylines better suited to their needs, the venerable SimCity continues to enjoy widespread use in education. Vanessa Haddad, Assistant Professor and chair of Liberal Arts, General Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) Erie in New York, US, has used the game to teach an introductory sociology course, for example. While her experience was marred somewhat by technical challenges – discussed below – Haddad describes the exercise as “semi-successful”. With the aim of helping students understand how factors including law, healthcare, economics, and politics intersect in relation to sociological theory, Haddad observed that students did gain something from playing the game:

Students were able to make connections between very basic functional perspectives – conflict theory, that kind of thing – and seeing what the interplay between social structure looked like in a stimulated environment. And then they had to make decisions about those things. So, it was a good starting exercise.

Heinrich Söbke, of Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in Germany, uses SimCity 4 (Maxis 2003) in delivering a technical infrastructure management course. Just as Haddad’s goal was to illuminate the intersections between myriad factors, the aim here is to help students understand the many interdependencies in a complex system. Using the game, Söbke can demonstrate that controlling technical infrastructure systems “requires the observation of the effects of these interdependencies and immediate reaction to system changes”. Students play the game in groups, with each group’s screen projected on to the wall, allowing everyone in the room to monitor everyone else’s progress. Söbke runs three supervised sessions: an introductory play session, intended to familiarise students with the game; a session based on a given scenario, where the city zones are already laid out; and, a free play session where students must develop their own scenario from scratch, according to a given specification and assessment scheme. At the end of this session, students are debriefed, and the game status assessed. Söbke is satisfied that the students come away with an understanding of infrastructure planning and the need to “react immediately to an imbalanced development”.

Söbke highlights the time pressure under which the students must operate – simulating real-world conditions – while emphasising that teamwork is essential to achieving a positive outcome. One member of the group might deal with the moment-to-moment micromanagement of the city, while another identifies the measures required to keep the system in balance, while still another monitors and reports back on the other groups’ progress. Thus, playing the ostensibly single-player SimCity in this configuration exercises collaborative and communicative skills in addition to the critical thinking and reflection that playing the game normally demands.

Aside from SimCity, Vanessa Haddad uses a number of indie games in her teaching, including Two Interviewees (Mauro Vanetti 2016) and Every Day the Same Dream (Paolo Pedercini 2009). Two Interviewees is intended to expose the often-hidden gender bias that is embedded in the recruitment process, as Haddad explains:

It shows gender bias in interviewing a male and a female character. You have to make the same decisions for both of them and it shows through empirical research what the outcomes of those decisions would be for both the male and the female character. It’s a really great discussion point for students, for showing what they might be up against in the future and of thinking about how they present themselves in the marketplace.

Haddad has used the game to teach rhetoric, for example, in relation to existentialism. As part of her sociology class, she also uses Two Interviewees to help students develop an “empathetic understanding” of concepts such as labour alienation. She believes that in higher education, much of our time is spent talking about terms and concepts, as presented in books, and that students want something more:

Often, I have found students are looking for more of a connection beyond just what’s in our books and what we are trying to present in a lecture. So, I bridge the gap with that game into an emotional understanding of something that’s very Marxist but also a reality that students might themselves face, should they not make decisions that are in line with who they are and their identity.

Every Day the Same Dream -
Vanessa Haddad’s use of Every Day the Same Dream is documented in 100 Games
to Use in the Classroom & Beyond
(2019), edited by Karen Schrier. Source:

Sherry Jones is a subject matter expert and instructor at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Colorado, US, who has utilised everything from MOOCs to escape rooms in her teaching and has made extensive use of games. Back in 2013, Jones obtained a grant to develop and deliver a MOOC that taught rhetoric and composition. What was different about her approach was that, while there was a supplementary textbook for the course, it was not required reading. Instead, Jones suggested over 50 games from which students should choose to play in order to learn about rhetoric and composition. Each week, students were asked a series of questions about their selected game, related to how the rhetoric of the game was expressed. The approach builds upon Ian Bogost’s work on the procedural rhetoric of games (Bogost 2010):

We put [Bogost’s procedural rhetoric] into action but we made it full-scale, so we said, ‘if you examine what this game is doing, considering what the narrative is doing and concerning the specific mechanics that are implemented, what kind of political message is this game expressing, what kind of social message is this game expressing?’

Jones now uses games to teach moral philosophy and cites Fallout Shelter (Bethesda Game Studios 2015) as an example of one of the many games she incorporates into her classes. Inspired by the McCarthyism of 1950s US politics, and the anti-Communist paranoia that fuelled fears of nuclear Armageddon, Fallout Shelter provided Jones’ students with an opportunity to study the theory of egoism, which suggests any action is morally justified if it serves self-interest. In the world presented by the Fallout series, egoism – and its capitalist and corporatist manifestations – has apparently led to the destruction of civilization and, yet, still governs the actions of the surviving few.

Sherry Jones uses Fallout Shelter in her Moral Philosophy classes. Source:

Over time, Jones’ approach has evolved from treating games as texts to be studied, to using them as a form of assessment. As Jones remarks, “no teacher should think, yes, I’ll just give a game to a student and they’ll just learn something. Well, they play games on their own, they don’t learn anything”. Instead, Jones teaches her students the relevant theory in a more conventional manner, through lectures, readings, and discussion, then asks the students to play a particular game without any specific direction. The students make notes and take screenshots as they play, assembling a corpus of data about the game. Then, Jones asks the students to identify which of the taught theories is manifested in the game, using the materials they have gathered to produce a report that demonstrates how, for example, the game illustrated a specific virtue. Jones elaborates:

So, we do very deep analysis of the game, but the point of this exercise is that the students were already taught theory before they were getting to play the game. I never tell the students, ‘hey this is a theory you’re supposed to get from the game’. I just tell them, you need to play the game, with a scholarly mind.

Nudging her students towards the upper reaches of Bloom’s taxonomy, Jones finally asks them to redesign their game so that it either represents an alternative philosophical position, or reinforces the philosophy already present in the game by incorporating additional elements. Such elements might include a new narrative, additional characters, or modified game mechanics.

This post originally appeared on Stanford University’s Tomorrow’s Professor.

Barr, M. (2019). The Educator Perspective. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 157–180. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_6

Reflections on Game-Based Learning

In Chapter 5, the empirical data presented in previous chapters are discussed, exploring how this work aligns with established theories of game-based learning. A range of graduate attributes are considered in turn, and ancillary benefits such as stress relief are also discussed. In this excerpt, the relationship between video games and the development of the ‘Ethically and Socially Aware’ attribute is examined.

The attainment of this attribute is particularly difficult to evidence. The qualitative data, however, suggest that students see the potential for games to increase their ethical and social awareness via two means: by experiencing alternative perspectives through the games and by interacting with players from different backgrounds in the context of playing games together. There are clear connections with several of Gee’s principles here, including the Cultural Models about the World Principle’ and the Identity Principle. Participants’ comments also recall points made in The Civic Potential of Video Games (Kahne et al. 2009 pp. 51-53) wherein the authors call for educators to help young people “reflectively engage with video games” to increase civic and political awareness. They also note that educational games such as Real Lives (Educational Simulations 2001) can “help foster empathy and understanding of the lives of others and teach about dynamics associated with different political systems, economic structures, cultural beliefs, and religions”. This idea very closely mirrors what George Eliot had to say about novels, which she believed could offer an excellent understanding of moral sentiment: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies” (Eliot 1881). Eliot suggested that a good novel could provide insight into the true social, moral, and political beliefs of the “social classes”, noting that we “want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness” [1]. In assuming the role of, for example, the border official in Papers, Please (3909 LLC), video games might well be considered “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”, as Eliot says of art more generally. There is also a potential connection with Francis Bacon’s belief that “Reading maketh a full man, conference [discussion] a ready man, and writing an exact man” (1625). Games, as evidenced here, can certainly form the basis of useful discussion, so perhaps ‘playing’ could be substituted for ‘reading’ in Bacon’s aphorism: playing maketh a full person.

Kahne et al. also cite the commercial title Democracy (Positech Games 2005) as an example of a game that might be of interest to educators tasked with developing students’ social awareness. Rusnak (2015) has shown that a purpose-built serious game can be used to support affective learning and change students’ attitudes to social issues (in that case, homelessness). Based on interview responses given here and bearing in mind that the proportion of games selected for this study that were intended to relate directly to this attribute was small (two of eight), it may be that there is still untapped potential for commercial games to be used in this capacity.

However, it is important to recall the participant who rightfully decried the heteronormative homogeneity of game protagonists: diversity of representation is generally lacking in contemporary commercial video games. Female protagonists are seriously under-represented in mainstream video games and people of colour or those from the LGBTQ community are even less common as playable characters (Jayanth 2014). The study here did include games with female protagonists (Borderlands 2, Portal 2, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light) and depictions of LGBTQ characters (Gone Home) but it is notable that titles such as Team Fortress 2 don’t, by default, include any female player characters.

Undertale (Toby Fox 2015) features a number of LGBTQ and non-binary characters. Source:

This is a potential issue to explore in any future work and it is likely that greater emphasis should be placed on games that represent more diverse characters, cultures, and identities. In order to avoid excluding or discouraging students for whom the stereotypical straight, male protagonist is not relevant or appealing, it would be important to include more diverse options in the games used in a higher education context. Furthermore, including such diversity can only help expose students to alternative perspectives and cultures where they might ordinarily choose to accept stereotypical player characters. This was the reasoning behind including a game such as Gone Home, and the comments of Participant N (“I’m not a lesbian, so…”) suggest that there is certainly potential for an exercise such as that described here to provide new perspectives for students to consider and new identities to explore. And, while mainstream games featuring LGBTQ characters are few – notable exceptions include Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare 2014) and The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013) – there are numerous smaller budget ‘indie’ games besides Gone Home that offer greater diversity, including Undertale (Toby Fox 2015) and Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall 2017). Indeed, while video games are not celebrated for their rich tapestry of representation, recent work by Adrienne Shaw has revealed LGBTQ game content exists in games various forms (Shaw & Friesem 2016). Shaw’s LGBTQ Video Game Archive includes hundreds of examples of “non-normative” content in video games and work such as this may help reveal potential for games to help educate and inform players about LGBTQ culture. As noted by Participant O in Chapter 4, LGBTQ – or even female – characters rarely feature as the playable protagonist in mainstream games, but Shaw’s work suggests that greater diversity may lie below the surface. The widespread occurrence of homophobia and transphobia (not to mention racism) in game culture is worrying but, if presented in suitable terms, such content might aid discussion and understanding of these problematic points of view – not least because, given the right game, players may experience the negative consequences of regressive attitudes for themselves.

Altmer in Skyrim often make racist remarks.
The Altmer, or High Elves, of Skyrim may be heard making overtly racist comments throughout the game, primarily in relation to the supposed ‘supremacy’ of their own race. Source:

Such opportunities may, indeed, extend to issues such as racism: in common with good science fiction, games can use allegory to tackle weightier issues such as race. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios 2011) is one example of a mainstream game that permits the player to observe the effects of racial discrimination ‘firsthand’, albeit in a limited sense (Simpson 2015). It may sound facile to suggest that a player may learn something by encountering tensions between fictional races in a game such as Skyrim. However, games not only offer the obvious benefit of an immersive and interactive environment where the player’s actions can have consequences; when played collectively as a group, the shared nature of the experience can also provide an opportunity to discuss the issues encountered and to reflect on different players’ actions and the consequences thereof.

[1] Dr Steve Draper, whom the author must thank for making this connection between games and Eliot’s remarks, maintains a set of notes and links to further reading at

Barr, M. (2019). Reflections on Game-Based Learning. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 127–155. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_5

Video Games and Learning

In Chapter 1 of my book, Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, I explore how a range of established theories of learning relate to video games, including experiential learning, social learning and mastery learning. In the following extract, I look at how constructivism manifests in games.

Constructivism refers to the active process through which learners may themselves construct new knowledge, by applying existing knowledge to new problems. Describing what he terms “radical constructivism”, Glasersfeld (1995 p. 18) states that “knowledge, no matter how it be defined, is in the heads of persons […] the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience”. Bruner (1960 p. 17) states that prior learning “renders later performance more efficient” through “what is conveniently called nonspecific transfer or, more accurately, the transfer of principles and attitudes”. In this way, Bruner argues, such learning “consists of learning initially not a skill but a general idea, which can then be used as a basis for recognizing subsequent problems as special cases of the idea originally mastered”.

Savery and Duffy (1995) offer a number of instructional principles that support what they term the “philosophy” of constructivism:

1. Understanding is in our interactions with the environment

2. Cognitive conflict or puzzlement is the stimulus for learning and determines the organization and nature of what is learned

3. Knowledge evolves through social negotiation and through the evaluation of the viability of individual understandings

Savery and Duffy consider the first of these propositions to be the core concept of constructivism (their emphasis on the ‘in’). Indeed, this this seems a neat summation of the idea, but the second and third components are also useful, and serve to illustrate constructivism’s close coupling with the sort of learning games can stimulate. What is a game without some “cognitive conflict or puzzlement”, after all? Related to this point, Savery and Duffy also note that “it is the goal of the learner that is central in considering what is learned”, which aligns with another aspect of video games: that they – to varying degrees – often permit the player to set their own goals or, at least, attempt to tackle the game’s challenges at their own pace. In their third proposition, it is interesting to note the importance that the authors place on social aspects of learning – these are discussed in relation to games below.

As noted, ‘constructivism’ is not a clearly delineated concept, and nor can it be attributed to a single scholar. Alongside Dewey (1938) and Montessori (1949), Piaget (1956) and Papert (1980) are two of the names most closely associated with constructivism in the literature. However, their ideas about constructivism are not identical. Papert suggests the modified term ‘constructionism‘ which, like the constructivism described by Piaget, characterises the concept of learning as “building knowledge structures” while also adding “the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe” (Papert and Harel 1991). Piaget and Papert are both constructivists, then, but Papert is also something else and it might be problematic to assume that ‘constructivism’ carries the same meaning for all when applying it to video games, or any other pursuit. A further issue associated with some of the seminal work produced on constructivism – especially that described by Piaget and Papert – is its focus on children; it is mostly applied to adults only by extrapolation. This book is concerned primarily with video games’ effects on adult learners, and so it should also be noted that Piaget’s theories have been successfully adapted and applied to tertiary level education (for example, see Wankat and Oreovicz 1993).

In gaming terms, one could see constructivism taking on multiple meanings. First, it might refer to the learning that occurs as a player turns their attention to the process of developing their own game, or perhaps more commonly, creating their own modification or extension of a game, or using built-in tools to construct new levels or in-game items. While the player here is undoubtedly drawing on their existing experience of playing video games – they must possess some understanding of the form and conventions associated with games before they may construct their own – this is a highly literal application of the constructivist concept, more akin to Papert‘s notion of constructionism. A stronger interpretation might acknowledge the process of learning to play a game based on previous gaming experience, and on real world experience: games are conceived and designed in the real world, even if their settings or themes are otherworldly. Thus, our understanding of the world around us may also be used to inform our play. This idea may be taken further, and reversed: in learning about the world around us, may we not, in constructivist terms, draw upon experiences gained through video games? Interactions with other players, for example, may serve as an analogue for effective communication in the real world.

If learning through constructivist means relies upon prior experience, then the recollection, or retrieval, of memories associated with such experience is an important factor. Karpicke and Blunt (2011) state that “because each act of retrieval changes the memory, the act of reconstructing knowledge must be considered essential to the process of learning”, demonstrating that “retrieval practice is a powerful way to promote meaningful learning of complex concepts”. In showing that practicing retrieval is as effective, or more so, than elaborative learning techniques (such as the drawing of concept maps while studying source material) Karpicke and Blunt’s work suggests that the act of recalling what we have learned is as important as how we store this information in the first place. It is conceivable that, at a low level, video games may also excel at providing players with reason to practice such retrieval, leveraging the same effects that Karpicke and Blunt elucidate, in order to teach players how to play. When a new game concept is introduced – for example, a new skill or ability that one’s player character obtains – this new knowledge is not typically intended to be stored away for later use, to be examined by means of an in-game test at some point in the possibly distant future. Instead, the player is usually expected to start retrieving this knowledge almost immediately, and often repeatedly, until it becomes second nature. The player may have constructed their own knowledge by observing the mechanics of the new game concept – it is not necessarily spelled out for them – but it is in the repeated act of retrieval that they truly understand how to apply it.

Barr, M. (2019). Video Games and Learning. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 13–16. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_1