Is the Label “Games Based Learning” Useful?

Whichever way you look at it the words Games Based Learning create a very neat little box. In that box we are meant to see all “learning” that is centred on, or “based” around a game – which invariably and most recently refers to a console or computer game.

In the recent few days I have come to question the terminology we use. Two things have sparked such curiosity. The first was reading Doug Belshaw’s book “Best of Belshaw” – in which he includes a blog post titled “The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies“. The term “literacies” intrigued me and Doug’s quote from Doyle (1994) made me think about the term “games based learning”.

In the last decade a variety of “literacies” have been proposed, including cultural, computer, scientific, technical, global and mathematical. All of these literacies focus on a compartmentalized aspect of literacy. Information literacy, on the other hand, is an inclusive term. Through information literacy, the other literacies can be achieved (Breivik, 1991). In attaining information literacy, students gain proficiency in inquiry as they learn to interpret and use information (Kuhlthau, 1987).

If we continue to use the term Games Based Learning are we just perpetuating a compartmentalised aspect of learning?

Ewan McIntosh underlined my thinking in reference to his recent blog post about the lack of mainstream attention gaming receives and how this impacts negatively upon the use of it in education:

The potential to learn in the game, as well as learn from their production, is lost to all but the most culturally open and connected of educators

In reply to a question on Twitter Ewan said we have to be careful that the terminology doesn’t compartmentalise what is going on when using a game in the classroom- in much the same way the rhetoric of “literacies” has done.

I am undecided, for two reasons.

Part of me knows that when I am explaining about gaming in the classroom to people who have no prior experience, the term “Games Based Learning” helps to succinctly phrase what I mean. It also puts the words “games” and “learning” together.

On the other hand if we set it apart from everything else, if we make the neat little (x)box for it to go in, are we missing the point? Surely it is all really just about learning, in all of its polka-dot and peanut butter flavours and forms – no matter whether it is from a game or from a film.

  1. Thanks for this post. I'm becoming more and more conviced that GBL is going to be one of the major ways of encouraging disaffected (male) pupils. The issue seems to me that a large number of people in education who aren't gamers themselves are quite suspicious of gaming and are fightened (?) of their impact on children. I can only say that the biggest impact on developing my so's reading wasn't me – I'm an English teacher, by the way – or books: it was playing games like Zelda on his NDS and Halo on the 360. I saw a sudden leap in his reading because he had to understand the text to play games. I've no doubt that he also developed a range of other skills alongside that, too. I wonder how much the government would invest in decent GBL – it would certainly have more impact than all the National Strategies resources they've bombarded schools with.

    Great site, by the way!

  2. Thanks for this post. I'm becoming more and more conviced that GBL is going to be one of the major ways of encouraging disaffected (male) pupils. The issue seems to me that a large number of people in education who aren't gamers themselves are quite suspicious of gaming and are fightened (?) of their impact on children. I can only say that the biggest impact on developing my so's reading wasn't me – I'm an English teacher, by the way – or books: it was playing games like Zelda on his NDS and Halo on the 360. I saw a sudden leap in his reading because he had to understand the text to play games. I've no doubt that he also developed a range of other skills alongside that, too. I wonder how much the government would invest in decent GBL – it would certainly have more impact than all the National Strategies resources they've bombarded schools with.

    Great site, by the way!

  3. I also do believe the word “games” comes with a lot of baggage.

    A game can be anything from an novel amusement to a deep and accurate simulation – While these ideas all have a place in a classroom some things are better than others.

    The phrase that most stuck with into me many years ago was “the person who learns the most from a CD-ROM is the one who programs it”.

    I think it is the same today for games – it is one things to consume a game and utilise the content to support teaching and learning and another level again to create games and simulations. We need a series of terms to avoid Game Based Learning tp become – the use of commercial off the shelf games in the classroom.

    If I had an order – I would put tools like Alice and Algodoo/Phun and Scratch and Lego Robots above the guitar hero's of the world. A school fighting robot league is as much a game for kids as something on a console – a game can be social play.

  4. Tom, thousands of games are played each day on Primary Games Arena during the school holidays. That can't be a bad thing can it? I think its mostly due to the easy entry point that kids like them. I'm not pro or anti gaming, I take advice from guys like you but there is obviously a demand for “games based learning”. I hope we are doing a good enough job to provide quality resources that educators approve of!

  5. Tom, I applaud what your doing in the classroom but I would like to see how it works in the secondary world and with research to reinforce it. Normal learning presents enormous problems and I would like to see a set of principles established that would help me use these tools.

  6. I am not sure it is necessarily negative, in fact it is a useful, simple phrase to communicate what we do. But it is much more complex and wide-reaching than that simple phrase.

  7. Perhaps if using gaming in the classroom is ever going to break from it's niche then it needs people to be aware of the facets your refer to Ewan.

    From using “Endless Ocean” it has made me more aware of the ways a sandbox game can be used in the classroom. It is open and allows us, as educators, to layer structure in any form we like. Using World of Goo is different, for example, it presents opportunities for different interactions for the gamer. Making teachers aware of these distinctions seems important to me.

    Your reference to the “Taxonomy of Gamers” post is an interesting one – I agree with the two polarities of “tourist” and “skill-player” but find it too clear cut. I would consider them with more credence if on a sliding scale. I think I am both – I can jump the hoops, but enjoy the minutiae as well. Are we not just creating another neat compartment? I think the type of gamer you are is more complex, just as we are complex learners – nothing like the shallow visual, auditory and kinaesthetic labels all too often used.

    When we use games with our classes are we taking into account the types of gamers/learners that children are? When we choose a type of game to use, are we just steering children to use it in a specific way?

  8. Blended Learning makes a lot of sense to me as it fits in with the way I believe things should be done in the elementary/primary classroom. It is about providing choice for learners to express themselves.

    I think we all need to get over the novelty of working with consoles, online or PC games. We need to get over the fact they engage our youngsters. I am not sure what sort of educator you can be if you don't know that already. But as you say knowing is one thing, leveraging it is another.

  9. I am not so sure that I separate the terminology to such a fine grained level David. If curriculum content is built for the PSP, Wii or any other type of console – then surely if it is worth the investment it will be in the medium of games. I don't exclude curriculum based content such as yours from the phrase.

  10. I suppose if people use GBL when referring to fairly unique and innovative use of consoles it can stick. But the phrase of course can relate to any type of game.

  11. It certainly encapsulates some things for those who have never thought about it, I agree. It is an easy term to use for, as you say, the uninitiated.

  12. I think you're spot on, Dean (and it needs more than 140 characters to explain what's wrong with 'games-based learning' as a compartmentalisation). There is actually more nuance by looking at games in their genres, rather than as a non-existent homogeneous grouping. There is no such thing as a 'typical' game, and therefore using the games-based tag is wrong, as it implies there is.

    For an example of some of the different ways we could approach this, with students' own personalities and learning journeys in mind, take a look at some of the thinking on gamer-types (as opposed to game-types):
    http://insultswordfighting.blogspot.com/2008/01

    If that's just for the gamers, what about the games themselves and then what about the different pedagogical approaches? ONE catchall phrase will never be enough in the long term to a) show educational value and b) uncover all the facets video games can reveal.

  13. Great post Tom. I'm agreeing with the compartmentalisation. I'm still going to use the phrase to try and communicate with various groups although I am aware that I may just be perpetuating negativity.

  14. Confusion occurs, I think, because teachers do not encounter pedagogies beyond those installed in University and perpetuated in the culture of schools. That being that most learning is done by absorbtion and that students are our cognitive apprentices. Games based learning is a subjective notion, so is surrounded in ideals and interpretation. It is however a recognised 'theme' for academic research and writing. Today, Game means social immersion. Be that in the game or in the action of playing with others. Game developers know exactly how to motivate players. I

    think that Game-Blended is probably more realistic, but we do like use buzzy-terms like student-centred and 'something' based. It is possible to teach a struggling student maths using a mmo like World of Warcraft, or to immerse primary kids in Quest Atlantis — if you a) understand and are active in exploring games and b) have a conceptual ability to blend learning (which few seem to be willing/able).

    I am also suspicious of the teaching desire to 'showcase' student work as an extension of themselves. I don't think that many see value in games in the first place — and very few are out and out ripping up the seats in the way Ewan (did) or Derek (does). It is also parent-based. My 8 year old runs a level 80 toon in WoW and a Guild with about 20 kids under 10 in it around the world. Does he need his teacher to get all 21C learning – have these kids already not mastered the soft skills though at least a year's hard work. Friends that visit my house are horrified to find a 4 year old playing Poptropica – but to me he's learning to deal with computer-mediated-information.

    Game based learning – no thanks … just call it immersive education.

    Lets talk money. Avatar the movie took $265million in the first weekend. Transformers took $60million. Kids are not influenced are hold any retention for movies … they have a very short self life. In comparison Call of Duty : Modern Warfare 2 – took $365million in the UK and USA alone on it's first day. World of Warcraft cost $80million to make and brings in at least that amount every month for Blizzard.

    We have to recognise that kids see games as a social network. Even the most eager Web2.0 teacher-fanbois won't include game in their teaching strategy, but having said that few will explore project; scenario or game – based learning in terms of academic process and design. The basic tenant of all of those is that they world well if the teacher is prepared to think instructionally, let go of the power-trip and explore blended learning with students.

  15. Personally I find the term “games based learning” very unhelpful. It tends to be used in a way that excludes curriculum based content like SUMS Maths, which runs on games consoles (like the Sony PSP and Wii) but also gets widely used on PCs, laptops, netbooks etc. As far as we are concerned, if we create interactivity such that the student feels that they are playing a game, then that is what matters, not whether the graphics are 3D or whether celebrities are used to advertise it to families on TV.

    In short, the term 'game' has been kidnapped by traditional games console content, and it is time to rescue it.

  16. Use of terminology is always problematic in my experience. I am an e-learning specialist. I work in e-learning. When I go into a meeting with colleagues they have a tendency to see just the 'e', not the 'learning'.

    So they either think I am there to make the technology work or to build the learning community in the VLE – actually I'm there to create the optimum blend for the learning to take place – with and without technoloy.

    So I agree – it's actually useful to have a 'hook' like games-based learning because it's a really quick way of getting everyone to get a handle on what you are talking about but it can easily get in the way and tends to immediately narrow people's expectations down – “Oh yes that stuff with Nintendo Wiis” – regardless of the actual games technology used. This is a bit like talking about learning theory – people can use it as a shorthand without understanding it themselves – or more worryingly, without making sure the audience having any real understanding of the concept. You see it all the time in tender returns for e-learning work.

    Anyway, thanks for raising this – it's always useful to question assumptions – and terminology!

  17. It's a difficult one, isn't it Tom? On the one hand, you want to contribute to something more long-lasting (i.e. jettison the compartment) but on the other hand the compartment serves to explain it to people better.

    Glad my book got you thinking. 🙂

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