First thoughts from Barcelona

I’m at the second European Conference on Game-Based Learning in Barcelona. I haven’t had time to see much of the city so far, but even the hotel is full of quirky interior design features, so that will keep me going for now.

The conference kicked off this morning with an enjoyable keynote from Simon Egenfeldt-Nielson.  I really liked how he started off by pointing out the problems with ‘edutainment’; that it is often reward-based and lacking in intrinsic motivation, there is no integrated learning experience, and that it is based on drill-and-practice learning. I couldn’t agree more.

He then went on to talk about what makes a good educational game design, saying “a good learning game is also a good game. A good game is also a good learning game.” True, but perhaps missing the issue of what is being learned and whether it is appropriate. He gave the game ‘Bully’ as an example of a game where there is learning inbuilt (learning what it’s like to be in an English boarding school, apparently). Now I could rant for a long time on the ethics of this game, but aside from that, I’m still not sure I see the relevance of this learning.

Simon also presented an interesting framework for evaluating the learning from a game, looking at substantive elements that generate interest (audiovisual and story) and what he calls ‘verbs’ that generate engagement and challenge (a defined problem-space, choices and decisions, consequences, feedback, balance and rewards). He argued that a good learning game needs the right substantives and verbs, but also the following three elements:

  • integration (how does the actual action in the game relate to the learning?);
  • motivation (is the game activity motivational?);
  • focus (does the game teach what you want it to teach?).

Finally, he talked about some of his own research and development work and how the games developed can be embedded within a curriculum. Interestingly, he found that despite extensive teacher support tools (manuals, worksheets, etc) on embedding the game and associated activities, there was still an expectation among teachers that they could simply let their students play the game.

A lot of my current thinking is around the importance of high-end production values for education games, and I asked Simon a question about how important he felt this was at the end. He responded saying that “games will always be more expensive than traditional learning” and that it is important that learners need recognise that something is a game before they engage with it, and that a higher-end environment leads to greater immersion. I’m not sure how much I agree with any of these points (particularly in HE) but it is certainly interesting to get a different perspective.


  1. Alistair Owens

    Harnessing the advance in educational games technology will be a boon to children. The greatest retention in learning is associated with practice. What greater way to practice than incorpaate the function in a video game.

    Kids love to play games and improve to the next level. This ” learning in disguise” also has another hidden element; children learn a huge amount from other children. Capturing interest, presenting a challenge and inducing ready support is an amazing combination. But the game designers need to liaise closely with teachers to combine the two disciplines correctly.

    Alistair Owens

  2. Emma

    I know it’s not particularly current, but as a child we had a crude ‘mavis beacon’ typing game, where you drove a car and as you typed the words the car went faster, and the text got harder, teaching touch typing and literacy etc etc.

    It was not high end. Infact it was pretty basic. But we are also talking about it being in about 1992. I only had about 3 computer games (Alley cat being the only other I can remember!) So I played it incessantly, and a low end game was better than no game.

    It had massive playability, and as a result I have been able to touch type very well since the age of about 15 onwards.

    I wouldn’t have learnt this without the game. However in today’s market where even throwaway promotional games have such high production values (although usually little lasting playability) – and there is such a high volume of free games out there, it is less easy to see how this crude but effective teaching method would work today. We live in a world where computers are used for virtually everything unlike when I was growing up Adults ‘worked’ on them and children ‘played’ (even though the tape always crashed halfway through).

    There is definitely a role for the teacher to play in this instance. If we were given lessons at school where the option was to use a book to learn the subject matter for an hour or a game – I think we know which is more popular.

  3. Daniel Livingstone

    Hi Nicola,
    sorry wasnt able to get to Barcelona this year :-(
    Agree with you 100% that what is being learned is an important question. It is not enough to say that children will learn from something, we need to consider what is being learned.

    As Neil Postman wrote, *everything* is educational – from poverty we learn hopelessness, from politics we learn cynicism…

    It could be argued that many games teach us that violence is a suitable and correct response to a wide range of situation. Though I think you might be wrong on ‘Bully’ – most of the game charges the player with the defending the weak from other bigger bullies.

    Also agree the high-end production values thing is something of a red-herring. Millions of kids play Runescape and are fully immersed because of what they are doing – even though it is graphically extremely primitive compared to WoW etc.

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