Games, play and learning


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Yesterday I took a class for a colleague, for a module called “Games, learning and play”. The session was a chance for the students to describe a series of games that they had produced and an opportunity to play them. They had been working in teams to produce the games. The session began with the students explaining the nature of their games, the objectives and the rules. For each group I completed a feedback form round the following themes: the equipment list, the objectives and the rules/instructions for the game. I also asked them if they drew on any theory they had covered in the module. In the second half of the session there was an opportunity for the students to try out and play the games, followed by a discussion.

It was an excellent session, the students had produced some really interesting games and there was a good discussion about the ways in which the games could be improved and how the analogue versions they had produced could be digitised.

The teams came up with some imaginative games, these included the following. A scavenger hunt, where the teams had to find and take pictures of things, difficult points were awarded depending on whether the clues were easy, medium or difficult. So examples included: someone drinking a starbucks coffee, someone getting stuck in a revolving door, or a picture of a dog. Another game consisted of two sets of cards. Each player received one card; four were the same, one was different. The objective was to find the odd one out. Each person described their picture in two words, and then at the end of the round the players voted. Another game had teams finding clues to identify a location. Some clues were very generic, for example ‘there are lots of them’, others were more specific, for example ‘a place to study’. Another game had pictures of patients hidden around the building, teams had to find the patients and bring back, depending on the number on the back of the picture, they were awarded a number of coins.  Finally, one game focussed on the use of social media (such as Twitter, blogs, facebook and YouTube), where the players followed the links to collect clues.

These are some of the points that arose from the discussion. Firstly, there was the issue of the length of the game, too short and it might be frustrating, too long and the players might get bored. The timing obviously also depended on the nature of the game. Some games had elements of speed associated with them, whilst others were more about strategy or thinking skills. Secondly, there was the issue as to whether or not the players should work in teams, we discussed how if team-based there had to be a purpose to working together, perhaps through division of labour. Thirdly, the students needed to think about the age range of the players; i.e. was the game for children or adults. Playing the games enabled the teams to see how the games could be improved and digitised. Fourthly, if clues are involved in the game, it is important to challenge the players, so that if they get something right they feel they have achieved something, in other words it is important to strike the right balance between being too easy and being too hard.

In terms of theory, they mentioned the work of James Gee (2011). I think the following list from Gee is useful as a checklist for guiding games design:

  • Experiences are most useful for future problem solving if the experience is structured by specific goals. Humans store their experiences best in terms of goals, and how these goals did or did not work out.
  • For experiences to be useful for future problem solving, they have to be interpreted. Interpreting experience means thinking—in action and after action—about how our goals relate to our reasoning in the situation. It means, as well, extracting lessons learned and anticipating when and where those lessons might be useful.
  • People learn best from their experiences when they get immediate feedback during those experiences so that they can recognize and assess their errors and see where their expectations have failed. It is important too that they are encouraged to explain their errors and why their expectations failed, along with what they could have done differently.
  • Learners need ample opportunities to apply their previous experiences—as interpreted—to similar new situations, so they can “debug” and improve their interpretations of these experiences, gradually generalizing them beyond specific contexts.
  • Learners need to learn from the interpreted experiences and explanations of other people, including both peers and more expert people. Social interaction, discussion, and technologies—all of these flow from the values, established practices, knowledge, and skills of experienced SWAT team members. They all flow from the identity of being or seeking to become such a person.


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They also mentioned the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on flow. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterised by complete absorption in what one does. Csíkszentmihályi argues that happiness is not a fixed state but can be developed as we learn to achieve flow in our lives. The key aspect to flow is control: in the flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces. He states (Csíkszentmihályi 1990) that:

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.

He identifies the following elements involved in achieving flow:

  • There are clear goals every step of the way
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills
  • Action and awareness are merged
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness
  • There is no worry of failure
  • Self-consciousness disappears
  • The sense of time becomes distorted
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.


Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Gee, J. P. (2011). “Games and Education Scholar James Paul Gee on Video Games, Learning and Literacy.” from , last accessed 14/1/14.


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