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Working with Educational Games

Gender Equity Activities - Education & Early Development

Working with Educational Games his diva portal smash get diva2 744438 FULLTEXT02 pdf in using educational games Page 13 The Developer Perspective Creating games for educational use, and sustaining a business doing so, is very different from working with entertainment games This section describes the differences between the

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ducational Games Fundamental guidelines for developers and educators interested in working with educatio...


Working with Educational Games Fundamental guidelines for developers and educators interested in working with educational games

This publication is a part of the EU-Interreg IV A funded project Scandinavian Game Developers.

Author: Björn Berg Marklund Date: 2014-05-15

THE EUROPEAN UNION The European Regional Development Fund

preface Visuals Artwork and screenshots: Page 4,

Artwork by Johan “Buckster” Wahlbäck.

Game art from Ludosity Learning’s Cloud Island.

Vector graphics:

Page 9 (science icons) Cover & Page 15 (cogs)

Made by Freepik.com Jay Hilgert at bittbox.com

Background research For additional conclusions and guidelines,

as well as more details on the research behind this report:

Berg Marklund,

Björn (2013),

Games in formal educational settings: Obstacles for the development and use of learning games.

University of Skövde,

School of informatics.

Licentiate dissertation.

ISBN 978-91-981474-0-7

This report has been compiled as a part of the EU-interreg IV A funded project Scandinavian Game Developers.

The project is a collaboration between Region Midtjylland,

Viden Djurs and The Ranch Game Incubator,

Århus Social- og Sundhedsskole,

The Animation Workshop,

and the University of Skövde.

About this Guide

This short guide to using and developing games for use in classrooms was written during the European Union Interreg IV A funded project Scandinavian Game Developers.

Scandinavian Game Developers is a collaboration between researchers (the University of Skövde),

educators (Århus Social- og Sundhedsskole),

and developers (Arsenalet and The Ranch Game Incubator),

and this guide is an abridged overview of some of the important conclusions our group has reached during our work in the project.

Whether you’re a game developer,

or principal interested in educational video games,

we hope that this guide will serve as a good tool for you to improve your understanding of what educational games are.

As an educator,

you’ll get some insight into what a game might bring to a classroom environment as well as the different challenges you might face when trying to use games in your regular teaching environment.

For developers,

we’ve put together some guidelines that will hopefully make your first educational game projects flow smoother and properly prepare you for some of the more common challenges that many educational game projects encounter.

If you find this reading interesting and want to find out more details on the development and use of educational games you can turn to the licentiate thesis produced during this project,

Games in Formal Educational Settings: Obstacles for the development and use of learning games by Björn Berg Marklund,

published at the University of Skövde.

As a final note,

I would personally encourage the reader to keep in mind that this guide is not a strictly academic text – in fact it deliberately avoids heavier academic discourse in favour of brevity and readability,

essentially so that it doesn’t exclusively consist of sentences like this one.

This text primarily intends to inspire discussion and to help teachers and developers approach educational games with a better idea of what to expect from them.

Main author: Björn Berg Marklund is a PhD student at the University of Skövde researching games and their place in formal educational settings.

His background is in game design and the field of serious games,

and he is a strong proponent of approaching educational games with a realistic and pragmatic mindset.

You can reach Björn at [email protected]

Games and Education

Games and education have,

always had a turbulent relationship.

On more than one occasion,

games have been viewed by educators and the general public as detractors and distractors from activities deemed more serious and valuable.

During certain time periods,

computer- and video games were at best called a “waste of time” and at worst declared directly harmful to children and young adults.

But as is the case with any technology or medium (e.g.

VHS and television),

games have grown into public acceptance as they started to get into more peoples’ homes and everyday lives – games are not as isolated and alien as they used to be,

and the stigma around the word “video game” is starting to unravel.

As the knee-jerk reactions against video games start to subside,

the discussions regarding games are starting to focus more and more on the positives.

Games are environments that present us with many interesting and unique opportunities for communication,

These qualities can be put to good use in many different areas,

one of the biggest ones being education,

and games are frequently being experimented with as an asset that can radically improve teaching processes.

But it is crucial to keep a level head when delving into this discussion,

in some sense the pendulum seems to have made its full swing from the vilification of games we saw in the late 90s and early 00s to the nearly unhindered adoration we see today.

Neither extreme is very fruitful to side with,

but there is a middle-ground where you can look at games with healthy scepticism and cautious optimism and see them for what they are,

and start putting them to good use where they are suitable.

Games are often celebrated for their unique capacity to represent and simulate complex systems and invite players to experience and interact with them first-hand.

They allow the player to form an understanding of intricate subject matters based on participation and experimentation rather than mere observation,

and thus they are often argued to have great potential as educational tools.

In a game,

the player can take on the mantle of a medieval ruler,

a soldier in the midst of a historic conflict,

or essentially any other human or non-human individual that can be imagined.

If the game is well-crafted,

the player can spend hours upon hours engrossed in it,

trying to master whatever challenges the game contains.

Many games are naturally designed to become progressively more challenging to keep the player interested,

It introduces new concepts,

or characters that the player needs to experiment with and figure out in order to be able to confidently put them to use and to continue progressing in the game’s narrative.

Given these qualities and the wide variety of game genres out there,

it seems as though games could find a natural place in classrooms to teach a wide variety of subjects in a hands-on and participatory manner.

Games seem to correspond nicely to most buzz-words frequently thrown about in the debates surrounding education – the “new” era of education should be engaging and motivating for students,

it should be participatory and active instead of passive,

and it should invite students to interact with new technologies to give them the “21st century skills” that nowadays seem essential to surviving in contemporary society.

While all of this rings true to some extent,

it is dangerous to assume that merely throwing a game into a classroom will create a positive learning environment that embody all those desirable values.

Games are complex technologies,

and while they do provide many exciting new opportunities they also have their own limitations and unique requirements that both developers and educators need to be aware of if they want to use them effectively.

Games can certainly be put to good use in classroom environments.

But it’s important to keep in mind that a game is a tool

a tool with some unique and endearing properties certainly,

As with any other tool it needs to be used correctly in order to function efficiently (or to function at all).

In this abbreviated guide we will take you through a crashcourse that will hopefully expand your understanding of educational games.

The guide is written to be useful whether you’re a developer or an educator,

and I’ve collected some of the more common concepts,

and pitfalls that you will likely face when embarking on an educational game project.

Contents Page 7

an environment not structured support them,

This section outlines guidelines for teachers interested in using educational games.

Page 13

and sustaining a business doing so,

is very different from working with entertainment games.

This section describes the differences between the two and provides suggestions for how to approach educational game development.

Page 18

A Brief retrospective


or at least attempting to use,

computer- and video games for educational purposes is not a particularly novel concept.

You’re likely aware of some of the “edutainment” titles that were available in the 80s and 90s yourself – some of the more widely recognizable ones are Where in the World is Carmen San Diego and Math Blaster (or maybe the Backpacker,

Chefrens Pyramid and Krakel Spektakel series are more familiar if you went to a Swedish school in the late 90s).

But these types of educational games have actually been around for about as long as 5

commercially available video games have,

and they have evolved alongside each other since the early 70s.

The game Oregon Trail is a seminal title in the educational game genre,

it was first created in 1971 specifically for use in classrooms at a school district in Minnesota.

Not only is Oregon Trail one of the first educational game titles released on a digital platform,

it still regularly gets updated and re-made to this day.

The significance of Oregon Trail is that it was devised around the same time as video games started becoming available as home entertainment.

There had certainly been a few primitive,

games for arcades and bars a few years prior,

but in the early 70s video games became a more open consumer market thanks the advent of home consoles with the Magnavox Oddysey being released in 72 and the popularization of home computers with the release of the Apple II in 77.

In these early days,

the ambitions regarding how educational games (back then often referred to as edutainment) would change the educational landscape were very high.

As computer simulations became more and more advanced and showed few signs of slowing down their progress the ideas of what games could achieve continued to grow.

The problem with inflated ambitions,

is that it’s hard to actually fulfil them.

Educational games failed to keep up with the rapid increase in quality of entertainment games that received much larger development budgets,

and controversies around inappropriate content in certain games made many parents and teachers wary of putting them in the hands of children.

These factors,

led to a rapid decline in the interest in educational games and in the very end of the 90s,

the edutainment game market had essentially evaporated completely.

Shortly thereafter in the 00s,

interest once again started to pick up.

More and more research pointing to the benefits of using games for healthcare,

and education started to emerge,

and games also became more easily available to a wider audience through social media and mobile gaming.

Interest in educational games is currently very high,

and new examples of games being put to interesting uses in schools pop up frequently from places you wouldn’t have expected a few years ago.

Educational games have certainly had their fair share of ups and downs and they still haven’t really “settled down” in a less turbulent position either.

The now popular term Gamification is a good indicator that we still aren’t really in agreement of how to treat games as tools for things beyond escapism.

New terms that try to encapsulate what games can do for education,

and society at large emerge every now and then and each one carries new values,

Throughout the Edutainment,

Game-Based Learning,

Serious Games,

and Gamification paradigms there has always been tonnes of different opinions regarding how to do things right.

Yet it rarely seems to happen at the scales one would expect given the rhetoric used by many educational game evangelists.

The Educator Perspective

In this section,

some of the more common challenges schools face when they start to use games in their educational processes will be described and discussed.

Games can be an attractive proposition from an educator’s perspective due to their proclaimed ability to offer students engaging,

and (to them) familiar learning environments.

Games are just one of many technologies that schools are trying to make better use of as technology has become increasingly ubiquitous in society and in students’ everyday lives.

Students have certain expectations on what tools should be available to them,

and educators see a need to cater to these expectations to make the students feel comfortable and unhindered in the classroom.

It is certainly a good end-goal to work towards,

and games can expand and improve upon educational practices a great deal.


when you attempt to lift a game with content that can be used for educational purposes into an educational setting,

problems can start piling up rather quickly.

Most games are not inherently suitable for use in a classroom context – even games that are designed and marketed as “educational” can be poorly suited for use in a formal educational setting.

Simply put,

a great deal of complex components need to be correctly orchestrated in order to make educational game sessions possible,

even ones that are relatively rudimentary.

For example,

teachers need to have the right equipment and understanding to effectively use games in their teaching,

and the school or classroom needs to have the correct technology reliably available for game sessions to run smoothly.

The game is a tool,

First off,

it’s important to start out an educational game project or course with the right mindset and expectations.

A big concern teachers often have regarding educational games stems from the misconception that the end goal of using games is to entirely replace traditional teacher led education in the classroom with a more efficient and “engaging” alternative.

This misconception has unfortunately found some footing within both educator- and developer communities,

and it causes problems on both sides.

Treating an educational game as an all-encompassing multi-purpose tool that contain all steps of a learning process is always problematic.

It makes educational games seem quite threatening and intractable,

and it also often leads to disappointment among both teachers and students since there is no educational game that can feasibly accommodate for all potential needs that arise in a classroom.

For teachers,

it is important to think of a game as an educational tool that should elevate and facilitate situations for learning in your teaching environment and on terms you’re comfortable with.

The point of a game should not be to replace or dominate the existing educational environment

it should provide you with opportunities to expand learning activities in new directions – for example by giving you and your students an environment to experience and experiment with different concepts first-hand.

A big challenge for educational digital games is that this perception that they are opaque technologies that can only serve to replace entire educational processes,

rather than specific tools that can be used to elevate or modify certain parts of them.


refers to the technology not allowing its users to get any insight into its internal workings – which makes it impossible for the user to modify or change the technology to make it more suitable for their individual needs.

If you feel separated and 7

excluded from understanding the way a machine or device functions,

it can be very uncomfortable to have to blindly trust that the device is built on sound principles and that it works well for your intentions as an educator.

This challenge can be approached in two ways depending on what type of educational game project you’re getting into.

You can work together with a developer to create or modify a game to fit into your educational process,

or you can tailor your educational process around a game you find that looks suitable for teaching your subject matter.

If you’re working directly with a game developer to create an educational game,

make sure that there is an open dialogue between you and the developer throughout the project.

As an educator you know details of the subject matter you’re teaching and the details of your school and its students better than the developers do,

so make sure that you invite the developers to understand the situation as well so that they can create a suitable game for it.

You also need to go into the project knowing that you know less about game design and development than the developer does,

so you also need to be receptive to what they have to say.

The game should primarily have a clearly stated function in your educational setting,

it’s seldom enough to just proclaim that “I want a game that teaches the English language”.

You need to think about the way you teach English,

and work with the developers to identify a place in your teaching process where a game could have an interesting use.

Maybe you prefer working on collaborative exercises in the classroom in which students need to use their English vocabulary to solve problems together.

In this situation,

the game itself can in fact contain very little actual English – but the students will still need to communicate with one another in English to solve the challenges presented by the game.

The matter of “what the game needs to represent” is very important to figure out,

and comes down to your own teaching methods.

The game does not necessarily have to contain all the details of the subject

you can for instance make sure that the core of the subject is introduced in lectures and other classroom activities and then use the game as an environment where students put their knowledge to the test in interesting ways.

But it can also work the other way around – the game can introduce the details of a subject and allow students to experiment and interact with it,

which can be followed up with discussions,

lectures and presentations in the classroom where students get a chance to reflect on what they experienced in the game.

If you’re not working with a developer and you are instead looking at existing games that you think represent a subject matter well,

you need a slightly different approach.

Going into educational games without any connections to developers places more responsibilities on you as an educator.

It requires you to spend even more time with games,

trying them out and identifying their relevant parts to your subject – in a sense you need to start thinking like a developer and create a good educational tool out of a bigger and bulkier game.

Since there’s a limit to how significantly you can change the game itself without its developer to help you,

you will need to modify the educational processes around the game.

Most games are not designed to teach a very specific thing and can have a lot of content that is superfluous to what you want to achieve in the classroom.

In general,

games want to entertain and engage their players for long periods of time,

but as a teacher you’re working with very strict time limitations and thus need to focus on the parts of a game that are relevant to your lesson plan.

Minecraft is a very good example of this because it’s a very big game that many educators have put to good use by focusing on smaller segments of it.

Minecraft is the type of game you can spend a lot of time in since it’s very rich and varied in its content.

can build and decorate a home,

But if you want to just use the game to teach mathematics,

a lot of those functions won’t really effectively contribute to that goal unless you know how to set up expectations and rules for your students before you start playing.

Maybe you skip all other parts of the game and just focus on mathetmatically describing optimally efficient collection of different resources.

Or maybe you task students with finding ways to visually represent the effectiveness of different tools in the game.

Both of these approaches require the student to look deeply into the game’s mechanics,

to describe the basic mathematical concepts behind them,

to finally try out their theories in the game.

This can once again be followed up with presentations and discussions in the classroom.

You need to make sure that the game has a well defined part in your bigger educational process,

just as you would when working together with a developer,.

Thinking of the game as a part of a bigger educational process is really the core mindset that this guide wants to promote.

Games can do many things very well,

but they certainly cannot do everything at once.

Especially not without solid supporting structures around them.

If you think of your educational process as encouraging your students to discover,

you can start mapping out the parts of the process in which a game could play an important role.

A game can introduce a concept and help the students discover something interesting they want to know more about.

It can be a venue for finding out more about a certain phenomenon,

It can be a platform for experimentation and interaction with something they couldn’t normally interact with.

In short,

a game can play one or more parts in this process,

but you need to make sure that you encourage your students to actively reflect on what they are doing,

to articulate it to themselves,


Discover Research

Reflect Analyze

The most important actionable advice here,

regardless of where in your educational process you use a game,

is to always find ways to tie the game activity to the physical and social space of the classroom.

Just like you would when you read a book,

or have a field trip with your students – you always want to encourage them to discuss and deliberate on the experience and its meaning both before and afterwards.

Games are not magical environments where students learn automatically,

they learn once they start to actively reflect on what they are experiencing or have experienced.

The structure of education vs.

Another common concern educational games are facing is that they can add significantly to teachers’ workloads.

This concern is very well founded and should not be disregarded as mere superstition or an overly critical perception of games – games are complex things to use and place heavy requirements on an organization’s technology,

and support structures in order to work reliably.

The vast majority of teachers are already hard pressed to fit all their lesson planning and individual teacher-student hours into their workday.

Starting up a project where a completely new technology is to be introduced into the classroom situation is a laborious and time-consuming task,

especially if the classroom environment does not have the proper infrastructure required to make use of new technologies.

In this case,

infrastructure refers to a school’s technological devices,

and the organizational structures needed to support the use of educational games in classroom environments.

For example,

teachers’ available working hours,

their technical know-how and understanding of games,

the funds available to support purchasing and implementing new educational tools,

availability and maintenance of technological devices necessary for play scenarios,

and good support from the organization’s IT-department are all factors that you need to take into account when you start working with educational games.

The teacher’s experience and expertise is particularly crucial.

The teacher needs to understand the game in order to understand what students are doing within it,

and be able to translate game progress to curriculum progress and learning goals.

The teacher also needs to be skilled at setting up gameplay sessions in a limited amount of preparation time.

As discussed previously,

teachers also serve the important role of anchoring the game sessions as learning activities,

so they need to know how to contextualize the game content in the subject matter being taught (or vice versa).

A deep understanding of the game being played can also be important for evaluating student progress through the curriculum.

For example,

if you notice a student has become very knowledgeable of something inside the game you are using in the classroom,

you need to be able to “translate” that knowledge to progress in the curriculum.

This can be a bit tricky,

since games sometimes offer the player many different ways of reaching certain goals.

On the technological side of things,

all necessary technical components need to always be available to support teachers’ working processes.

Basic practical necessities like the availability of computers and tablets for preparing and conducting game sessions can be difficult to maintain,

but teachers need to be able to trust that the necessary technology is reliable and available.

If it isn’t,

a teacher takes a very big risk if they build their lesson plan around game activities – if technical difficulties or problems running the game arise unexpectedly during a semester,

a lot of planning can go to waste.

In all these cases,

educators are put in a bit of a bind.

While many educators are excited to use games and tap into all the interesting things you can do with them,

games are as of yet not as reliable as traditional means of education.

Working with books,

presentations provide easier methods for assessments and evaluations

the learning that takes place in games can seem inefficient,

and difficult to assess in comparison.

The same goes for the problems of technology requirements and reliability,

games can put high demands a schools technological infrastructure,

and more often than not schools are far better suited for traditional educational tools rather than the use of advanced games.


there are no generally applicable solutions to these problems since every individual school’s infrastructure and organizational culture is unique.

Every school has their own areas in which they excel and ones where they often run into issues.

If you’re an educator that wants to start working with games,

the first thing you need to do is take inventory of your surroundings and find the strengths you can leverage and the shortcomings you need to either work around or work at improving.

These conditions will be the fundament on which you build your game-based lesson plan,

so make sure that you understand what you’re working with – and don’t be afraid to start small to test the waters.

If you’re working alongside a developer,

you should have plenty of opportunities to make sure that the game can fit well into your working situation as well.

Don’t forget that your students are an immense asset too,

and they likely have a lot of ideas themselves on how some of the games they enjoy could fit into their learning environment.

Having your students deeply reflect on how a game can be useful for learning certain things can be a valuable learning opportunity in itself,

so discussing your plans openly with your class can be very rewarding.

Both educators and developers need to be aware that learning games require a great deal from a school’s infrastructure in order to work well.

The importance of understanding the practical constraints and opportunities of the setting you’re working in cannot be overstated.

If you’re only thinking about the conceptual aspects of educational games – how to make sure they are as fun as possible,

or what your students should learn from them – without considering the practical realities you’re working with,

you can run into big problems quite early.

In the end,

failing to take the practicalities of formal education into account will always prevent you from achieving all of the promising goals you set out for yourself.

Game art from Ludosity Learning’s Cloud Island.

Remain cautiously optimistic


a personal recommendation I have for educators is to regard all examples of highly successful or wildly unsuccessful uses of educational games with cautious optimism and healthy scepticism.

Successful examples are of course worthy of admiration and can serve as great sources for inspiration and guidance,

but one should never forget the that the local conditions are unique for every school – that of course includes the schools where education