Gaming the online classroom

There is a ton of information being produced about attempting to turn online learning into a more game-like experience. What we’re saying is that despite the rush of enthusiasm for technology based teaching, the profound effect on society by the interactive entertainment industry renders so much of ‘must attend’ education well outside this zone of engagement.

Consider however that ‘school’ is particular social construct and comes with certain cultural expectations and baggage. For example, school has been a daily experience of the dis-affected fifteen year old with poor attendance and a dislike of school methods. Offering her badges or points is hardly going encourage her to revisit her experiences before time expires and she leaves to make her way in the world. For the exceptional kids who chew through learning, the introduction of a game might well send their parents into a tail spin about how to play-school — a game they’ve probably been winning for years at.

The point I’m making here is that games, game-layers and game-mechanics being developed for the interactive entertainment of society cannot easily be subsumed into educational contexts. By easy, I mean time, investment and executive trust in taking a few risks and resisting the temptation to declare success after a week.

I’ve seen numerous game-systems which are little more than grade-book management and behaviour control. They might meet the power-relations of the teacher and the grade-compliance needs of the system, but I don’t think they should be called a game. Dressing up and talking like a pirate would be just as motivating to students who know game culture like the back of their hand. Let me put down the top three things which have little ‘game-basis’ at all, but never the less have been cited as game-based-learning.

3 elements which are un-proven

  1. Using points to sanction personal behaviour (ie, late to class, no homework, calling out).
  2. Assigning random events. The teacher should know exactly what events need to be triggered to move the student’s experience from A to B and B to C. This has more to do with the Zone of Proximal Development than the roll of a dice. Games do not issue ‘work’ randomly, they do it because the player is ready for it.
  3. Machine-automation should be used lightly. The best games I’ve seen played with students treat the Internet as a medium or layer to transmit important information — such as how the player is going, what they need to do next and so on. Machine programming which orientates to grading students is fluckery and should be avoided.

Why do schools find it hard to develop effective game based learning programmes.

The biggest challenge for schools is they are not used to employing project-managers and/or educational developers to design a game. They tend to hope teachers will pick this stuff up in the way they picked up how to use Edmondo. Games are complex cultural objects. For example: a game should be a re-useable resource which anyone can play. It should be well designed, documented and platform agnostic. It might require the development of illustrations, narratives and other objects … all of which is really hard to do alone or as a side-role when teaching. If the game is being played online, then it will need a community manager to help interpret the goals of the teacher into an experience online that is interesting.

I am not saying avoid games, or consider GBL to be too hard, but to think more carefully about requirements of education verses interactive media entertainment. Ultimately, the game is an experience which impacts how we see the world — if you missed it, check out the PBL Game for the Hunger Games which ran a few years ago. Start not with what we did that made it such a success — but why it didn’t pick up any interest at ISTE 13. The challenge for games is simple: They need at least the same status and investment that is routinely applied to things such as Google Apps … only then will robust, re-useable designs become available.

Games are not classroom toys.

This post is intended to highlight how ‘trends’ in social media CAN create more problems than they solve. In the rush to include popular culture in the classroom, some educators now see games — especially video games as something to port into their so called ‘GBL’ classrooms. They assume that because games are ‘fun’ and that game scholars have shown players learn — bingo — add it to the pop-bazinga-bullshit bouncing around Chitter. Ideally there could be 7 steps, a diagram or a template to slap on top of content.

If games can be brought into school, kids could …. If that is true, then firstly, describe the archetypes of this pedagogy and in what context it might be true. Oh crap, gamification just got harder didn’t it … don’t worry, play splashy fish and just say they are learning. There are some very serious problems emerging from the general idea that everything can be done simply — and that all the answers are online. So far that hasn’t been true for anything else, so why with the most complex media in society?

What they want to know has to fit with what they want to believe, based on what they already know. For example which games are the most fun, and the ones kids learn from the most. They want to believe games short-cut social and cultural disengagement as well as increase academic understanding. A better social inclusion program and assessment plan could also do that too. But these are also things that schools struggle to re-position in society radically different to even ten years ago.

Why is a classroom a place to start toying with complex media is a serious social concern. Why not do it though research? Why does it have to be done ‘live’ with kids (who get no say and may well suffer as a result) — and why conduct it via Chitter?

Games are not made from things which will be ported into classrooms to make kids happier, more engaged or more interested in what the teacher has to say. This won’t of course stop teachers dragging games into classrooms and not only doing a really bad job of using games — but waste valuable time tinkering with things they don’t understand when they could focus on things that are needed.

You can’t run today’s game-culture on your busted platform or find the answers on chitter.

Using the Disney Method in teaching

So the Disney method? Well it’s quite simple. Disney thought that in order to engage the natural thinking styles of a group of people (we all think differently) the it’s important to understand both their communication and relational skills. Without doing this, whatever is being introduced will be un-matched to the group and fail to influence. If you’ve ever watched a powerpoint and fell asleep, this is the opposite of Disney’s theory of engaging audiences. It’s a parallel thinking technique.

Disney saw people in four ways. This also connects with Kieren Egan’s theories of imaginative education which is why I like it for games. The Spectator, The Dreamer, Realist and Critic provide a model of thinking styles that is relevant to children’s approach to transformational play (something that Bron Stuckey) talks about so well. Classroom games are experiences, not necessarily digital objects, so the importance here is to offer experiences around a game object or game-like scenario that match or influence the thinking style of the students.

The SPECTATOR looks at how this is viewed from the outside. You look at facts and evidence, rather than opinion. They use data to argue facts.

The DREAMER is critical to developing new ideas and goals – to widen the areas of thought. These don’t have to be achievable or even real. To the dreamer, anything is possible. They are not constrained by reality or judgement or criticism. In students, this helps develop agency.

The REALIST is necessary as a means of transferring those ideas in concrete expression – defines actions to be taken. This means taking what is being communicating and un-packing it using cognitive knowledge and skills. What can be done in reality, and what is best left to the imagination. The problem with realists is that if they don’t learn to balance what CAN be done with what is imagined, hypothesised and unreal, is that they become lock-stepped by narrow thinking. In other words, even the most realistic and pragmatic, need to act as if anything is possible more often.

The CRITIC is necessary as a filter and as a stimulus to refinement – evaluates pay-offs and draw backs. This isn’t the hater, the non-participator or the saboteur who often uses rhetorical fallacies to assert their opinion. In Disney’s model, the are learning how to make arguments and predictions based on evidence presented and experience. They learn strategies for ‘what if’ problems occur or ‘how can’ we make this better.

So when we ask a question to direct children’s learning: there is a need to ensure that we communicate the problem and under pinning ideas and concepts such that they match or influence the thinking styles of children.

This is a common method used in German Engineering for example, but little known these days. It was a method used by Disney to create ideas and evaluate them towards a workable solution. It was used at the height of Disney’s studio system.


  • Allows students to discuss an issue from 4 different methods (Spectators view, Dreamers View, Realisers view and Critics view).
  • Spectators view – look at problem analysis from the outside. It uses facts and data to make arguments  not opinions. For example. If trying to understand why countries go to war, children would look at data and facts external actual war. How many countries are at war, what was the longest war, the shortest. Which war has the most post-war problems or benefits (how can we tell). Looking at the problem from this perfective allows problem analysis.
  • Dreamers view – They ask what is the ideal, dream view of this solution if we made it. What is that we wish to happen. What is the extreme boundaries of our ambition. This is divergent thinking.
  • Realists view – Their job is to use convergent thinking. To look at the ideas presented, consider them mindfully with the spectators view and start to organise them such that they roughly appear as: done before, reasonably do-able now, could be done in the near future. They are not judging the dreamers, just helping to organise them. They would come up with a PLAN and they will have agreed and set CRITERIA. This helps students sift ideas and identify the most significant elements in the ideas. The PLAN is a set of steps to implement the IDEAS.
  • The Critics: Are looking at the risks and dangers, who would oppose the plan, what could be done to the plan to improve it. On what evidence should the plan be refined, rejected or implemented.

The Disney method was designed to be simple, and to allow teams to rapidly develop ideas and put forward workable plans for production, but also to ensure that the organisation had sufficient ‘dreams’ documented that could be revisited. This method was central to the development of much of Disney’s films, television, literature and theme parks.

I think that this method could be used towards games in the classroom. It could be applied to any topic, if presented as a problem – and even in PBL, it encourages teachers to approach the same problem in four ways using a method – it’s a way to overcome PBL fatigue where students quickly learn the seven steps and become bored with it.

How do we know you’re really serious this time?

You know that feeling, when you want to write about things that wash down the gutter of social edutainment channels. Oh, maybe you don’t … but there is an increasing amount of ‘game based learning’ debris floating past of late. Here are two things I think are fundamental to how educators think about games in learning.

First, the job of a game is to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Secondly, they are there to change the way the student perceives and interacts with the course.

This doesn’t require a computer, iPad or any other technological tool. It requires imagination – and work. New work, work no one’s going to Tweet @you for free either. It means getting up earlier, sleeping less and doing it because it’s the right thing to do – not because it adds to you’re CV or allows you to sandbag your power-tower.

In many ways, technology is the villain here, not the hero – and it seems apt that the protagonists of techno-learning experiments (students) are set to un-cover some big-fat lies as they sail down the educational canals. Little has changed and even less is ‘new’. Sadly, a good deal of what used to be called Computer Science and Computer Aided Instruction has been told to wear a ballet-skirt and balance on a beach-ball for it’s keep.

The computer was never going to make students smarter or more successful, but to give the student some agency over what is presented as ‘real and ‘true’. That’s what I do as a parent – we use it to poke a digital-stick and the world and to learn from how it reacts.

For example: Educational pundits have constantly used “the slippery slope” and “suppressed evidence” to get what they want, under the illusion that learning was ever remotely a perfectionist endevour. It’s messy and people get things wrong all the time. Wrong is not bad, or the opposite of Right – unless you’re willing to accept that rule.

Pundits have consistently avoided games for the last decade for a good reason. In a culture where false dilemmas and new idioms are sufficient to maintain power-hierarchies, it became lucrative to act as propaganda agents and as a result, many full time staff or evidence-based researcher are now left wonder what the revolution happened to scholarship and ethics.

Games in education, yes please – but not supplied by same people who blew billions on … well

The Web2.0pian War of self-importance.

Let’s put down the idiom ‘game based learning’. In the context of feed-cultures it is another territory being fought over in the endless cyber-war between educators online. Oh yes, we’re all colleagues and networked, but there’s more than a dash of Orwell in Web2.0pia.

“iPads good, Xbox bad” – the sheeple.

You’re busy, I’m tired, so let’s just say that what lies inside games is not motivation, engagement, badges or other weak-arguements. Inside games is a culture of persistent success, which can be seen by millions of people though standard measurements.

You can’t pretend to be good or know about Warcraft like you can pretend to know about peer-assisted-learning or instructional-design. No wonder the Web2.0pians stick to rhetoric and allegories. If I present a 7 year old with a level 50+ in Warcraft in a classroom designed for tic-tac-toe.

Any game-kid long ago ascended beyond the dogma of web2.0pia and associated power-point pirates of 2013. Stop wasting time on this, kids actually like school as school, stop trying to fashion school into some weird version of the un-forfilled rock-star dreams of middle aged men who’d struggle to sign up for Wow, let alone play it.

All teachers set out to do what games set out to do.

There is not revolution here, no lag and no gap. Good teachers know their content and engage their students with infectious enthusiasm. The crap ones don’t. A student can spot a good teacher or a bad one. They’ve been doing it their whole lives – as humans are actually pre-wired for it.

Anyone who has set out to teach anything is already doing what games do – as teaching and learning is a ectype of gaming. You learn to play but in ways that are far from symbolic, despite the fantasy nature of the narratives and characters in games.

Here is what a game like Minecraft is teaching kids all the time. Its also what a teacher should be aiming to do all the time (even if some days, the activity falls in heap). You see you can have a crap topic, lesson or lecture and not have to beat yourself up – nor do you have to get a sodding iPad to revive it.

  • Learning to learn.
  • Learning about one’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner.
  • Becoming better at solving challenging problems and accomplishing challenging tasks.
  • Learning some general strategies for problem solving.
  • Transfer of learning from game-playing environments to other environments.
  • Intrinsic motivation— being engaged because they want to be engaged.

If you want, you can do this with any kid and any game. What makes a game ‘educational’, well mostly it’s not about the game, it’s about content. What I think we (if we are allowed) could do is …. work on how to make the way we experience content more like how we experience games.

That has nothing to do with badges and MOOCs – that’s about on-going rivalry in the never ending Web2.0pian War of self-importance. We are still in the first battle of the war. It’s foolish to think the Web2.0pias would not also try to take over the game-colonies in their ambition. No Level 90? No Gamerscore? Shut up.

#gamebasedlearning can be added to #digitalnative and #21stcenturylearner.

5 stages of Games Based Learning

The Kübler-Ross model suggests suggest that the patterns of grief are one way of describing the basic patterns of integrating new information that conflicts with previous beliefs.

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” said Schopenhauer of the learning process.

I’m not sure he’s right – he had some barking-mad ideas … yet corresponds to the five stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model with ridicule being denial, opposition being anger and bargaining, and acceptance being depression and acceptance.

It is hard to deny social-media for educators is awash with people seeking satisfaction, and though we are more free to do what we want – we’re still can’t simply will it.


  • This is high-school, high-stakes tests, so games are not relevant to the way we teach.
  • We’re not in charge of curriculum, if change is needed, they would tell us.
  • I don’t have gamer-kids here, these just are my students.


  • I can’t believe you think games are academic!
  • Why is no one showing us more about using games!
  • It’s just going to consume more time we don’t have!
  • This is just a waste of my time!


  • What about I just change grades to points?
  • Can we just talk about it next semester when I have more time?
  • To do this, can’t you lighten my teaching load?
  • I suggest we ask the parents before we decide anything.


  • Sigh. We’ve done all this work on blogs, wikis and now you tell us these tools are not so powerful?
  • There’s so much in this, it’s really hard to get my head around.
  • What’s the point, it’s just another thing that won’t last.


  • Lets take a look at the ideas in a way that doesn’t compromise our goals or professionalism.
  • Lets look at the scholars we already know about’s theories and ideas about games, play and imagination.
  • Wow, kids who play games develop skills we can use to teach them even better.

Massively Outback


Just over a year ago, I went to the Northern Territory to a small community, famous for honey-ants called Papunya. It was a short trip, but has finally resulted in getting the local kids immersed in all sorts of learning and fun – at all ages. This is great as often the ‘computer room’ was sees as a place for young-men, and others tended to not get a look in. I can’t take any great credit for making it happen, that was down to the local brilliance of CAYLUS – an organisation fully worthy of support.

Many challenges included lack of bandwidth, hardware, local supervision, busy day to day needs and so on, but thanks to amazing Blair McFarland, Minecraft has arrived with a local server, locally-sourced youth-expert and a dozen accounts. From a year ago, these photos show a completely transformed computer room.


They’re adopting the model of allowing kids to explore the vast open landscape and along the way, use the experience to produce stories and art. Papunya is famous for its Indigenous artists and art-centre, so it’s even more amazing to see a culture more famous for dots that squares leap into Minecraft. The room is packed – and of course no one has to be there.



What is great to see is how using imagination and ‘positive deviation’ from the purpose of Minecraft (as a game) leads to kids of all ages working both collaboratively and independently .

With the help of CAYLUS I hope that it will grow and maybe to get back there next year to help other communities (*doubts will get funding). Best of all the Chief Miner has handed over running it to the local community already which has given several kids new ‘roles’ – something I suspect will pay dividends in the months ahead.

Grats to Blair, Jenny and Lelep – Massively Outback is up and running.