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