Monday, 23 May 2011

Getting Started with Games in the Classroom

Arguably, this should have been my first post. But hey ho...

This post is inspired by the question "What is holding back widespread adoption of games based leaning?"

The simple answer is there probably isn't enough good quality games based learning out there. A lot of what has been done so far in the field has been with commercial entertainment games. Another answer is that, barring the early adopters, educators have not latched on the benefits of games based learning or simply don't know where to start.

Back to Basics
Developers and educators should get back to basics. If we were buying a car, we might consider whether the car looks nice and suits our needs. We might think about how we are going to use the car. We might worry about support from the dealership. We might think about the long-term and wider outcomes, such as the environment and whether we would be better off using public transport. And finally, we would be concerned about the cost.

These five factors hold true for games based learning and they are: design, delivery (usage), technology & support, outcomes and cost.

Readers can find more on the five factors in a Games Based Learning Analysis and Planning Tool at

While I am writing about Getting Started, it is worth mentioning Digital games in School Handbook.

Digital games in School: A handbook for teachers
The handbook was written in the framework of European Schoolnet's Games in Schools project which began in January 2008 and ended in June 2009. The project's aim was to analyse the current situation in eight countries (Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain and UK) with regard to games based learning.

The core of the handbook is based around three sections:

  • Why use digital games for learning.
  • Choosing the appropriate game. 
  • Conducting a play session.

The Conducting a play session includes a useful section on  evaluating and strengthening pupils’ knowledge through a debriefing session. Unfortunately, the assumption is that the game is played and the educator then debriefs the session to ensure the learning has taken place. This is mainly to do with the fact that the handbook is heavily biased towards commercial entertainment games. But even so, I would argue (see Six Key Principles of Collaborative Games Based Learning) that it is better to create break points during the game play for analysis, reflection and scaffolding. Game playing can be collaborative and be an anchor for conversations, so it is such a shame to see so many photographs in the handbook of young people plugged into the games and donning headphones.

Having said that the handbook is a useful read and includes a taxonomy of games, glossary, a section on games for learners with various disabilities and some links to portals where games can be found - but obviously my loyal readers will know the best can be found at :)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

When Will Educators Get Serious About Gaming?

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Bruce Dixon asked, “What's holding [games based learning] progress back? Is it that gaming, by its very name, cannot be taken seriously by the wider education community, or indeed the wider community in general? Is it possible that gaming is only now starting to reach a level of "maturity" and sophistication from an affordable technology perspective, that it can finally provide what might be to be "serious opportunities for learning"? Or is it something that might be seen as driving what could be called subversive pedagogy?

Whatever the reason, it's time we thought beyond the fundamental research around the value, impact and opportunities game-based learning provides, and spent some time trying to leverage the evidence we do have be presenting it to a much broader community.

I certainly agree with Bruce on this last point and I shared some evidence in a recent blog post (Proof of the Pudding).

I like to think the problem is an issue of evolution rather than revolution. Specifically, rather than  parachuting commercial games or gaming styles into classrooms, we need to consider what teachers actually want. I think that is a teaching resource that delivers outcomes where traditional approaches might not be suited.

As a consultant and lead designer at games-ED I have delivered over 40 classes using games based learning. I have also delivered over 300 workshops using serious games.

During this time I have:

1. Run classes with commercial-style games where it was hard to extract learning, although there was a lot of engagement. There was also technical difficulties due to graphic cards.

2. Developed and delivered a single player game that was designed to work in the classroom. This was more successful in terms of learning outcomes, although again it was difficult to drag students away from the game.

3. I have developed and delivered collaborative games based learning where a whole class takes on different roles in a simulation. This approach fits into standard teaching practice with natural breakpoints for reflection and scaffolding. It delivers curriculum outcomes and improvements in personal learning and thinking skills.

Much of the research done on games based learning has been on commercial games (or games developed in the style of commercial games) rather than purpose built games based learning. It is this fact that is highlighting some of the technical and pedagogical issues surrounding the adoption of games based learning. I say this, as our experience does not fit the research. I would say the two most important issues around the adoption of games based learning are sales and marketing. When the big players start putting their weight behind the approach things will change.

So, on that note, if there are any large education resellers out there, who want to link up with a  games based learning company, I might be able to help :)

Developing Games with Young People: LAP Recycling Game

Following on from a previous blog post (Proof of the Pudding) where I wrote about using games based learning in the classroom, I thought I would share some experience of developing games with young people. I have been fortunate to have led on two such projects / workshops:

While it is worth noting that the trainers from games-ED (pixelfountain) have years of designing and developing games plus are experienced workshop facilitators, this workshop could be replicated without technical know-how.

Over the next couple of weeks we will upload the resources necessary to run these lessons. The free resource section can be accessed by signing up to our news and blog update via mailchimp.

LAP Recycling Game - Description
Opening presentation and quiz
The workshop was run as part of the St. Helens Local Area Partnership Climate Change Project. The workshop was held on the 25th January 2011 and began the process of designing a recycling game. The workshop was facilitated by Paul Ladley (games-ED) and officers from St.Helens Council. The young people came from 6 primary schools in St. Helens, Merseyside UK and were aged 7 to 11.

The workshop was split into three parts:

  1. An opening presentation and quiz.
  2. Each school generated an initial idea.
  3. Two ideas were chosen and more detail was added to them.  
    • Two teams worked in three groups to look at game play, graphics for the characters, scenes and menus and finally ideas to keep up the game interesting.

LAP Recycling Game - Challenges
Realism: The larger project was young people led. This meant that the designs had to be what they wanted, even if this meant making them happen would be difficult. It was felt that a sense of realism had to be injected into the designs so young people could design with their eyes wide open. Therefore, the presentation with embedded quiz included a slide on the golden rules of design:

  • Need - Think about what the player wants (educational, fun, challenge and information).
  • Platform - What gaming device should the game work on (internet, console, computer or mobile phone)?
  • Money - Consider the cost of developing the game.
  • Time - How much time will the game take to develop?

Voting: As expected, when it came to the final two, the groups tended to vote for their own design.

LAP Recycling Game - Outputs and Outcomes
The five game ideas:

  1. Polluto – Polluto and his army are trying to stop you from making the world a better place. You only have a certain amount of time in each level. Can you solve the problems and find the green portal in time?
  2. Walk around the World – Your character visits different parts of the world to solve environmental problems. As you try to solve problems such as removing litter, people create more!
  3. Eco Factory – This is a game of mini games such as eco Pac Man. When you successfully complete a mini game, you earn part of an eco factory. When your factory is complete it will create eco products such as recycled pencils.
  4. Eco Busters – You move through rooms in houses with your pet Munchie solving eco problems. As you and Munch (who can eat rubbish) solve problems you earn credits that enable you to buy more items such as another Munchie.
  5. Eco Party Planning – Every party creates a mess! But if you can clear up and recycle everything properly you earn money. With the extra money your next party can be even better, but if you don’t earn money then your next party is going to be rubbish.

Presenting the game design to the group
The initial winners were Polluto and Eco Busters. The latter became the ultimate winner when other schools who had not been able to attend voted.

The children enjoyed the session, learned a lot and worked well right through to the end.

Two technical specifications for the games were generated and can be found in the full report – see the Slideshare widget in the sidebar of this blog or visit

Ultimately, to ensure that the game is developed the following will need to happen:

  • Money to develop the game will need to be found.
  • An individual / design team will need to create a more robust design for a developer to work with. This will make the development costs cheaper, but will mainly ensure the ideas from the workshop are not lost in translation. 

Developing Games with Young People: Climate Crew

Following on from a previous blog post (Proof of the Pudding) where I wrote about using games based learning in the classroom, I thought I would share some experience of developing games with young people. I have been fortunate to have led on two such projects / workshops:

Avatar design
While it is worth noting that the trainers from games-ED (pixelfountain) have years of designing and developing games plus are experienced workshop facilitators, some of the ideas from these projects could be replicated without technical know-how, specifically:

  • Logo theory, design and creation.
  • Computer Games Design.

Over the next couple of weeks we will upload the resources necessary to run these lessons. The free resource section can be accessed by signing up to our news and blog update via mailchimp.

Climate Crew - Description
The project was made of over 40 young people from 2 schools and a Girl Guides group from St.Helens, Merseyside UK. The young people were aged between 14 and 18.

The young people led the project and they all agreed on all aspects of the content of the workshops and skills they were to learn. The project ran three types of media skills workshops that a dual purpose; to provide media skills for the young people and to feed into a design of a game.

Each workshop was held over the course of the morning with additional one to one work in the afternoons for Mill Green pupils. The workshops were repeated in the evenings with the Guides with some changes to expand on the work done by the schools.

  • Workshop 1 - Creative Skills:
    • Theory of logo design > design roughs on paper > designs crated in a vector drawing package.
    • The guides developed a flier based on the logo.
  • Workshop 2 - Computer Games Design:
    • The Schools created initial designs: premise > story > game-play and Easter eggs (hidden features in the game).
    • The Guides drew up the screen designs on huge sheets of paper.
  • Workshop 3 - Computer Games Build (done using Adobe Flash):
    • Game inner working and artificial intelligence 
    • Interface, animation and navigation coding
    • Avatar design and coding
    • Real world interaction 
  • Workshop 4 – Testing

Climate Crew - Challenges 
The young people in this project included those with learning disabilities and also young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. To ensure that the young people with learning difficulties could be involved as much as possible we ran follow-on session just for them – A tablet PC came to the fore in these sessions. 

Even though the project ran over a number of weeks and multiple sessions, there still wasn’t enough time to teach the young people the varied skills they would need to design and develop a game. The approach we took was to let the young experience the spectrum of roles in a games company, rather than trying to make them expert in any one area. . The game was completed by the facilitators and can be found at

Climate Crew - Outcomes
Flier design
The young people learned a lot of skills through designing, leading and implementing the project and through the interactive workshops including creative marketing and facilitation, project management, community leadership, computer game design and development.

Before and after the workshops the young people were asked to judge their skills in key areas, the data is shown below.  The data shows that the young people gained skills in design and computer game development as well as communication skills. The workshops were ranked very highly by the young people, particularly the final workshop on game development where they saw all their previous work slot together as they built the game.

Workshop 1
  • 47% improvement in understanding the use of logos for communicating ideas.
  • 57% improvement in understanding climate change.
  • 62% improvement of skills in logo design.
  • 51% improvement of skills in graphic design (taking an idea to completed product).
  • 31% improvement of skills in using a computer art/design package.
  • 23% improvement in communication skills for the verbal presentation of ideas. 

They also ranked the workshop in four different areas:
  • Skills Learnt = 7.6 out of 10.
  • Enjoyment = 8 out of 10.
  • Presenters  = 8.4 out of 10.
  • Interacting with others = 8.4 out of 10.

The key learning messages they will take away include computer drawing skills, the benefit of sharing ideas and team work and taking an idea and developing it into a product.
“Computer drawing skills.”
“Sharing ideas is better than keeping it to yourself.”
“To work as a team and it will turn out good.”
“Taking ideas to full scale.”
Workshop 2
  • 33 % improvement in understanding the use of games for learning and communication.
  • 48% improvement in understanding games design.
  • 46% improvement of skills in games design.
  • 30% improvement in communication skills in the verbal presentation of ideas.

  • Skills Learnt = 7.2 out of 10.
  • Enjoyment = 7.2 out of 10. 
  • Presenters  = 8 out of 10.
  • Interacting with others = 8.4 out of 10.

The key messages the young people will take away include that all ideas are valuable, everyone can have a say, how to lower your carbon footprint and they key principles of game design.
“No idea is a bad one.”
“Bigger understanding of designing games.”
“That we should take our time to think of ideas instead of rushing.”
“That when designing a game it has to be simple but catchy.”
“How to lower my carbon footprint.”

Workshop 3:
  • 25% improvement of their understanding the use of games for learning and communication.
  • 58% improvement in their understanding of games development.
  • 58% improvement of their skills in games development.
  • 31% improvement of their communication skills in the verbal presentation of ideas.

  • Skills learnt = 8 out of 10.
  • Enjoyment = 8.8 out of 10.
  • Presenters = 9.4 out of 10.
  • Interacting with others = 8.8 out of 10.

When asked what they most liked about the workshop all of the students said the learning of the actual skills:
“Learning coding and algorithms.”
“We could do a lot of different aspects of game designing.”
“The animation of some objects.”

Climate Crew - Thoughts of the teachers/group leaders

Coding of the algorithm!

St. Aelreds Catholic Technology College:
“[I liked] when the pupils finally realised that they were in control.”
“Pupils enjoyed the experience, facilitators were fantastic with all pupils and were very patient with them. [The] highlight was last session.”
Mill Green:
 “The students enjoyed working at St Aelreds school, it was a fantastic opportunity for them to work as part of a team with mainstream students. A fantastic idea for our students to have some individual input in the afternoon session back a Mill Green.”

St. Lukes Guides:
 “Having sufficient leaders where the girls could work in individual peer groups worked well. This meant that we could get a good perspective from all ages ranging from 13 to 18. The final testing of the game was excellent – the girls had their own individual computer rather than sharing one between a group.”

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Proof of the Pudding...

I’ve written a lot about collaborative games based learning from a theoretical perspective, so I thought I would share a bit of practice.

Firstly, let me state I am not a teacher; in fact most of my skills as a trainer have been learned on the job.  Before we started our games based learning (ad)venture games-ED, my fellow directors and I ran a businesses called pixelfountain (actually we still do), where we delivered over 450 workshops using learning simulations. Around 40 of these workshops were delivered in schools, colleges and universities.

Pride in a winning score.
As part of our launch of games-ED, which licences our collaborative games based learning to educational establishments, we have recently delivered a couple of pilot classes. The first was held in Primary School for a group of nine and ten year olds. The second was delivered in an all girls school in London to a year 8 tutor group aged between twelve and thirteen. The ages were particularly important as we wanted to test the games with a younger age group.

Learning outcomes in the two schools:

  • 77.5% improvement in subject knowledge.
  • 57% improvement in decision-making skills.
  • 67% improvement in understanding of cause and effect.
  • 51% improvement in group working.

The Class Teacher / Deputy Head at Mellor Primary, who observed the session, provided us with the following comments:

  • The children were fully engaged for all the session and the ‘buzz’ in the room was one of real active learning. 
  • The money aspect involved really captured the children’s interest and they were genuinely interested to see the impact their purchases had made on the town. They were disappointed to see the results/consequences of their purchases in Year 2 and were keen to rectify them in Year 3!
  • The workshop pulled together many elements – working together, impact of managing and dealing with other people who have differing opinions, dealing with consequences of actions, environmental issues, dealing with money, managing a budget plus many more. 

Pupils considering issues.
The Teaching Assistant at Mellor Primary School stated, “I thoroughly enjoyed the session, as did the children. This group of children love anything involving money so it really captured their attention whilst dealing with lots of important and complex issues.”

The Assistant Head at Central Foundation Girls School said, “The students were engaged in the activity and enjoyed seeing the results of their decisions.”

In a sense, the teachers confirmed what we already knew, but as the old adage goes ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. I won’t repeat my previous blog “Six Key Principles of Collaborative Games Based Learning”, but it is worth re-iterating five of the six principles and relating them to the experience in the two pilot classes:

  • Create a sense of realism (as opposed to fantasy) – In the words of a pupil, “It was great being in charge of the town and seeing what the result was.”
  • Deliver engaging interaction by means of authentic activities (not just playing for the sake of it) – Being able to spend money in the game really captured the pupil’s interest, but it was the link to the outcomes that was key, as one pupil said “[I liked] the way you were free to make a decision by yourself and your team mates and whatever you did it affected the village.”
  • Group level game play where the goal is collaborative problem solving – all of the teachers picked up on the fact that the pupils were engaged in the activity and that they enjoyed seeing the results of their decisions.
  • Provide an anchor for multiple learning conversations – The “buzz” in the classrooms was not a metaphor that was literally the sound of the children as they all discussed what they were going to do.
  • The game needs to work in a learning continuum – the children played Sustainaville, which teaches sustainable development and links to geography, citizenship, PHSE, science, business studies, enterprise and supports mathematics and English. 

Dynamic main graphic of Sustainaville games based learning
The children enjoyed the constructivist learning style, typified by comments such as ““[I liked] the way you were free to make a decision by yourself and your team mates and whatever you did it affected the village.” I write in more detail on the value of Situated Gamed Based Learning in a previous blog.

If you want to read the full case studies of they can be found at Slideshare (see widget on the left-hand side of this blog) or visit the games-ED website:

  • Mellor Primary School case study.
  • Central Foundation Girls School case study.

I was going to write about a couple of projects where we designed and developed games with young people, but given this post has gotten a tad large, I think I will save that for my next instalment…

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Six Key Principles of Collaborative Games Based Learning

1. Create a sense of realism (as opposed to fantasy):

  • Provide relevant context that draws the learners into an authentic experience / scenario, so they become part of the learning as opposed to passive recipients.

2. Deliver engaging interaction by means of authentic activities (not just playing for the sake of it).

  • Game playing can be a springboard for skills and knowledge, but better still game playing can be the development and practice of skills and knowledge.

3. Group level game play where the goal is collaborative problem solving (as opposed to single player games):

  • The learning is inclusive and the game easy to understand, to ensure that everyone participates.

4. Provide an anchor for multiple learning conversations:

  • These conversations not the technological interactions should account for the majority the lesson.  
  • Dialogue and articulation of knowledge occurs amongst learners (sub-teams), at the class level and can be educator-led. 
  • The educator provides a crucial role, rather like the conductor in an orchestra, keeping the process flowing and providing scaffolding and stimulus as and when required.  

5. The technology and design needs to be appropriate:

  • The use of a single computer makes the games appropriate for all teaching situations.
  • Round-based play allows for natural break points to enable group and reflective learning.
  • The teacher uses the computer so that the learning flows and the game doesn't become an exercise in ICT skills.
  • The interface, game play and technology need to play second fiddle to the learning. Time spent moving around an interface or world, might add to the contextualisation, but it can also reduce the amount of time spent actually learning. One of the key problem of commercial games is they can take too long to get into.

6. The game needs to work in a learning continuum:

  • Games need to be integrated into the curriculum.
  • Game play and scores need to feed into an assessment model.
  • The games need to inspire follow on activities / exercises and encourage reflection. 

This post is taken from a section in our white paper Games Based Situated Learning which can be found on the resource page of our corporate website.

Games Based Situated Learning

Let there be light...
After my previous tongue in cheek post on Bill Gates and his funding for games based learning, I thought I would write a more serious summary article of our white paper Games Based Situated Learning, which (by-the-way) can be found on the resource page of our corporate website.

Games based learning, if it is to succeed, needs to be more than a bit of fun that motivates students and needs to be underpinned with learning theory. Measuring outcomes such as fun, engagement, and motivation generates buy-in, to a certain degree, but it provides no guiding principles for designers and educators (teachers/ lecturers). Situated Learning provides such a theoretical underpinning, and while some have argued that game simulation stretches the original basis of Situated Learning, the consensus is in favour of viewing GBL from such a perspective. Games Based Situated Learning (GBSL) moves away from the pure “apprentice model” of learning but it still stays true to the key tenets with little modification, as shown below:

  • Information must be given in authentic simulated context.
  • Learning must take place within social interaction and collaboration.

In terms of authentic activity, simulation maybe as close as it is possible to get to the real thing.  It is not just emergency training where simulation provides the only option; for example, it is only through simulation that young people are going to experience many scenarios. Logistical and cost barriers exist, but time is a key problem. Games can compress time and can simulate events in a different period.

A well designed simulation that has been modeled on expert knowledge, which offers collaborative learning in the form of blended delivery provides a powerful experience that does not merely engage the learner, a benefit in its own right, but anchors the learning process by contexualising it with ‘real’ scenarios.

Herrington and Oliver, who have written extensively on situated learning and multimedia, suggest that to marry up to the theory, programmes need to:

  • Provide authentic context.
  • Provide authentic activities.
  • Embed expert performances and model processes.
  • Provide multiple roles and perspectives.
  • Support collaborative construction of knowledge.
  • Provide coaching and scaffolding.
  • Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed.
  • Promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit.
  • Provide for integrated assessment.

Much of the criticism of games based learning, and there is some, is levelled a commercial games that have been used “as is” or have been slightly modified. Purpose built games should not suffer from flaws such has being more about fun than understanding and not linking to the curriculum, but developers need to think seriously about the logistical issues of educational usage. Games need to modified / designed to work in classroom both in terms of content, in terms of time and technology. Are those fancy 3D graphics and soundtrack necessary? Do they add to the learning? Will they run on school computers? If the game is a standalone game, then it will require a trip to the IT suite. And if does, can we truly say that games are being used in the classroom?

Our games-ED products have been developed from GBSL perspective. The games can be described as resource management games. They are played in classroom environment on a single computer by the whole class. The games narrative is structured around a relevant context such as a community – they are situated. The class is spit into sub-teams that have to collaborate to achieve common goals such as improving the community.

Our experience with games-ED has shown us that if educators are to take a leap of faith, then games based learning developers need to meet them halfway. Developers cannot expect decades of good teaching practice to be thrown away. To this end Games Based Situated Learning supports the evolution of teaching and not require a revolution.

Next time I will outline six key principles of collaborative games based learning.

Further Reading  

  • Jan Herrington and Ron Oliver (1995). Critical Characteristics of Situated Learning: Implications for the Instructional Design of Multimedia
  • Jan Herrington and Ron Oliver (1997). Multimedia, magic and the way students respond to a situated learning environment.
  • Jan Herrington and Ron Oliver (2000). Towards a New Tradition of Online Instruction: Using Situated Learning Theory to Design Web-Based Units