What can games teach us about educational practice?

Mr Brendon Thomas, Director of Technologies

Video games have been the topic of debate for years. From their association with behavioural addiction to their influence on social engagement, the popularity of gaming among young people is to say the least, contentious. However, removing ourselves from the pros and cons of actual gaming, it can be productive to explore how some of the non-digital techniques—for example, storytelling and character development—are employed by developers to engage players, both young and old. Perhaps an understanding the efficacies of these techniques can be used in the classroom, to better engage students and inspire learning? By analysing the extraordinary immersive appeal of games we can potentially expand on our pedagogical views for how to creatively engage students in thinking and learning.

We know that a well-designed game, like a great novel, has the power to captivate a mind, young or old, immersing players in a quest that compels them to solve problems and identify closely with the protagonist, the narrative and overall hierarchies of the game. Late philosopher, Bernard Suits, defined playing games as ‘an involuntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’ (Suits, 2005) and this theory applies equally to both traditional (such as board games or sport) and online games. Games typically immerse the player into choosing their own directions and making their own decisions in order to solve an array of problems. Once successful, they advance to a new level, where more complex and difficult problems await.

‘Good’ games (online or physical) motivate players to solve problems in different ways, think creatively and laterally. Once a problem is solved, the player is rewarded. There are many examples of this model; certainly, Monopoly comes to mind. Players may suddenly find themselves in debt, forced to mortgage their properties to raise the funds required to keep them in the game, to pass ‘go’ and collect the much-need $200. The player must respond strategically, with a level head; they must also persevere and focus on the end goal, even when things don’t go to plan.

While the classroom may not feature the ‘Mayfair’ of Monopoly, teachers regularly create challenges for students, providing opportunities to problem-solve with clearly defined goals. Using their pedagogy to fine‐tune delivery methods specifically tailored to maximise student engagement, teachers naturally use ‘game’ structures to optimise quality learning. For example, in Year 9 the Technologies Faculty teaches algorithmic thinking by using board games. Using gaming rules and game play, the students investigate concepts of iteration, variables, loops, conditions and general computational thinking through gaming sequence. The students play physical games such as hop-scotch, listing the rules and variations of the game. They play board games like Potato Pirates and Code Master to associate specific rules and programming concepts. Once they are familiar with the games and concepts, students create their own board games, in the context of binary edition, cryptography and general programming concepts. The games unit concludes with digital programming in JavaScript to create digital games using their own unique graphic design, sound editing, narratives and gaming rules.

From the Fitbit, which, tracks everything from steps to sleep patterns, to games that teach surgeons and pilots how to master new systems and processes, games vary immensely and are increasingly challenging the boundary between personal and professional lives. Gaming simulations demonstrate that already, they have the ability to support learning. Educational games such as Nessy, for example, employ multisensory applications to help teach literacy to students with dyslexia.

Contextually, games, online games in particular, may not be perceived as pedagogically relevant, however, through the pioneering work of linguistics professor, James Paul Gee (2003; 2005 cited in Apperley, 2010) we can appreciate that the potential of games for deep learning in new literacies is a credible avenue worth exploring. This exploration stretches beyond the individual benefits, to collaboration between players to solve incredibly complex challenges using our ‘cognitive surplus’, and potentially benefit society more broadly. Shirky (2014) suggests cognitive surplus can be used to work on very large and highly complex problems by making use of free time and talents for the benefit of humanity.

The best teachers are always looking at ways to excite, stimulate and motivate their students to love learning. Although traditional teaching methods are still very important, a good teacher is constantly looking outside the classroom for ways to expand their ‘toolkit’ of pedagogical approaches. Games, with their inherent link to ‘play’, reveal much about what sparks curiosity and interest in students, regardless of their age, and can help in creating exciting and challenging learning environments.



Apperley, T. (2010). What games studies can teach us about videogames in the English and Literacy classroom.  Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2010, pp. 12–23.

Shirky, C. (2010). How cognitive surplus will change the world. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cognitive_surplus_will_change_the_world

Suits, B. (2005). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. (Canada: Broadview Press).