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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Games and Learning

By Samantha Ahern, on 23 March 2020


Image by Eric Perlin from Pixabay

I recently attended an Educational Technology Masterclass organised by the Moorfields Education Hub about Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning presented by Dr Matthew Barr from the University of Glasgow.

During the session Dr Barr spoke about research he had undertaken on the use of commercial video games to develop graduate skills, in particular:

  • communication,
  • adapatability
  • and resourcefulness.

In order for the students to persist with the games, the games selected needed to meet the following criteria:

  1. provide a variable feedback system,
  2. enables less experiences students to get something out of the game whilst they develop skills,
  3. and failure needs to have a cost, even though games give us a safe place to fail.

For the study, the students taking part participated in 14hours of total game play across 8 different games. The game playing took place in a specially equipped room. The games used in the study were specifically chosen and played in ways designed to require effective communication, adaptability and resourcefulness.

More information is available in the following papers:

The game play enabled students to develop both tacit and articulated knowledge, but also facilitaed the act of becoming re: graduate attributes.

This session had me thinking about my own practice. I have always used games (usually boardgames or puzzles, sometimes online games) or playful / experiential learning experiences when introducing or explaining concepts. I have also had the opportunity to test a breakout box experience designed by colleagues for their students. The premise of a breakout box experience is that there are a number of locked boxes that you need to unlock. To do this the students need to use what they have been learning to help untangle the clues that will help them unlock the boxes. This is designed to encourage teamwork and critical thinking.

Why should we use games and ‘play’ in higher education?

There are three dimensions of learning: knowing, making and playing.  Play can be defined as trial and error with no fear of failure, we do not neccesarily know what is going to happen, the outcome, but that is of little interest. It is the process of playing that is important, not the result as it may be unexpected or  something thst cannot easily be measured but is learning that affects your personal development. We can tap into this with games.

Gee (2014) talks about the “Game/Affinity Paradigm” (GAP), what is required for this is a well-designed and well mentored problem-solving space. This can be provided by games. An example of this is the game ‘Portal’ and the online community built around the game.  The game itself is not about learning Physics, however players need to develop and apply an understanding of the physics of the game to solve a number of problems and be successful in the game. A tacit, embodied understanding, but neccesarily and articulated knowledge of physics. However, the tacit embodied understanding can give situated meaning to articulated knowledge, developing / enhancing understanding Games as a media are affective, providing a much richer interaction with the content and ideas presented in the game(s) compared to other media, allowing the player(s) explore and discover things about themselves and the world around them. This can be a very powerful learning tool, opening up richer reflection and critical analysis opportunities. This illustrated in the examples below of games-based learning.

Applications of Game-Based Learning

During the talk Dr Barr also provided a number of examples of where video games were being used as part of regular teaching, with many more discussed in Chapter 6 of his recent book Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning. These included:

  • Kurt Squire’s use of ‘Civilization III’ as the basis for a module on world history. Students developed conceptual understandings of history, geography and world politics, but also questioned the interpretation of these in both the game and their own understanding.
  • Sherry Jones’ use of the mobile game ‘Fallout Shelter’ to teach moral philosophy at Colorado Technical University. In particular ideas around egoism and surveillance.
  • Steve Connelly’s use of ‘Cities: Skylines’ in the teaching of sustainable development at the University of Sheffield. In addition to using the game to model considerations such as the economics and the environment, students were encouraged to critically reflect on assumptions made by the game and what was missing e.g. social concerns re: sustainable development.
  • Tom Boylston’s use of ‘The Long Day of Young Peng’ to elicit empathy amongst Social Anthropology students at the University of Edinburgh. Students became more confident in their understanding of the course material and associated reading as a result of interacting with the text-based game.


Barr, M. (2019). Graduate skills and game-based learning : Using video games for employability in higher education / Matthew Barr. (Digital education and learning).

Etchells, P. (2019). Lost in a Good Game: Why we play video games and what they can do for us. London, UK: Icon Books.

Gee, J 2014, Games, passion, and “higher” education. in Postsecondary Play: The Role of Games and Social Media in Higher Education. Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 171-189.

Koster, R. (2005). A theory of fun for game design / by Raph Koster. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press.

Squire, K. D. (2004). Replaying history: Learning world history through playing “Civilization III” (Order No. 3152836). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305195950). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/docview/305195950?accountid=14511

Thomas, Brown, & Brown, John Seely. (2011). A new culture of learning : Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change / Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. United States]: [CreateSpace].

THE Journal article: Breakout! Gaming to Learn

Wired article: Meet Fallout’s philosophers who are obsessed with the game’s intense political feuds

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