Games, Learning and Society 8.0

Games, Learning, and Society is one of the most exciting conferences around for anyone interested in the intersection of games, game development, and educational theory and practice. Ellen Jameson and I are on the scene at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the first day has just wrapped up. This post summarizes some of the major reoccurring themes I’ve observed so far, with emphasis on those that I suspect may be of interest to readers of Motivate. Play.

Calls for an end to cheerleading. From the rec room to the White House, games have traversed the cultural terrain to become widely accepted as an important tool for the 21st century. Finally! They're studied in universities, funded by major foundations, and being employed to solve the nation's challenges. However, there's still a long way to go. Games from Warcraft to Minecraft are being adopted in classrooms to teach everything from music to science, but our critical understanding of them is still remedial. Instead of pumping out more games for learning, Colleen Macklin argued, we need to spend more time learning from games. Rather than blindly advocating the use of games for learning, we need to make careful recommendations and improvements, turning “from game cheerleaders to game snobs” (Eric Zimmerman).

Several speakers also argued for taking the first tool in the professional game designer’s toolbox, iterative design, more seriously. While Colleen argued that games-and-learning proponents can declare success in their quest to get games accepted as educational tools, others argued that a certain degree of cheerleading is still required. However, most agreed that a more critical approach informed by game design fundamentals is essential for the field.

Turning motivational theory into practice. Compared to last year, there was much more emphasis on putting theories of motivation to work. Tenets of expectancy-value theory, ARCS, and self-determination theory were applied by speakers such as Scott Nicholson and Cathy Tran, who moved the conversation beyond the simplistic dichotomy of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.

Going beyond games as vehicles for content. While best practices for content delivery remained a focus, there was more emphasis on leveraging what games do well (spatial thinking; working through problems that can be formulated as puzzles; understanding emergent properties of complex systems, etc.). Games aren’t always the best teaching tool when the goal is to get students to regurgitate facts, but they can really shine when alternative ways of articulating knowledge are treated as valid assessments.

The value of letting players create their own content—especially their own games. This topic was huge. A few quotes that summed up the dominant sentiment:

  • “Games and learning isn’t about consuming, it’s about producing.”
  • “For students to be active participants in their own learning means letting them play with the system they need to understand: in short, letting students be game designers.”
  • “We need different activities for different learners. Users must have choices. How do you do that? Let users make stuff.

Seann Dikkers argued that merely using games in the classroom isn’t what will revolutionize education; cheap and effective ways for students to produce their own content will, and games are one of the tools that provide motivation (and in some cases, a platform) to do just that. Some audience members had concerns: won’t encouraging students to produce and consume each other’s creations simply reinforce whatever biases and incorrect beliefs they already bring to the table? Panelists responded that this can be avoided by building game creation tools in such a way that students must really understand a system before they can successfully create anything interesting with it: you have to understand something about how physics works, for example, before you can build a fun level in a realistic physics-based simulation. However, extending this approach to teach a wide variety of content areas must be done on a case-by-case basis, and the path forward is not always clear.

Meaningful gamification. This year offered a refreshing change from the gamification session at last year’s GLS, which had been dominated by the point-and-badge systems that have been so roundly criticized in the game design community. Moderated by Sebastian Deterding, purveyor of several thoughtful and beautiful presentations on the topic, presenters took up the question of how educators can use game design mechanics to motivate—interesting game design mechanics that lead to feelings of meaning and autonomy, and that encourage rather than discourage intrinsic motivation. Scott Nicholson argued for the importance of letting players define their own badges, pursue their own goals (with constraints), develop and share their own achievements, and choose among multiple activities. Ultimately, mechanics that give the player information, allow choices, and are fun without extrinsic rewards were favored—a welcome change from the dominant discourse on the topic elsewhere.

Games for empathy and soft skills. Another focus was on the role of games in fostering empathy, growth mindsets, cooperation, socioemotional skills, and scientific thinking. Anecdotal reports suggested that for teachers who are comfortable using games in the classroom or in afterschool activities, popular titles such as Minecraft, Super Scribblenauts, and Portal 2 can do a great job of providing engaging contexts in which teachers can focus upon these skills. However,  games specifically focused on supporting these skills are rare, as are quantitative evaluations of how well different games do in this regard.

Many important lessons are in the details. The many case studies of successful uses of games in education--as well as “productive failures”--provided an eye-opening look at a variety of approaches and their outcomes.

Games, Learning and Society 8.0 by Gabriel Recchia, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 Responses to “Games, Learning and Society 8.0”

  1. Travis Ross says:

    Gabe & Ellen, it is really exciting that you guys are covering the conference. Please let me know if you attend anything that deals more with games for empathy and soft skills. My recent interest from my dissertation has been in creating game communities that build meaningful relationships. Instead of playing in worlds where everyone hates on each other or at least the out groups I think it would be great to have games that build empathy and reciprocity. I'm still thinking about how to do this, but it is certainly one of the things I want to cover in my dissertation.



    • Gabriel says:

      Hi Travis,

      The short answer is that there seems to be an enormous amount of interest in this, but not a lot of people developing games with this specific focus. CASEL ( has taken the lead in setting standards in this area. A few points of interest:

      - Colleen Macklin, who in past years urged a focus on not just STEM but "STEAM" skills (with an A for arts), said that the next frontier is thinking in terms of ESTEAM--E for empathy. (She also said that she'll find a better acronym before talking about this more broadly...)
      - E-line (the Gamestar Mechanic people) apparently have a new collaboration that goes in this direction, but the details haven't been formally announced yet.
      - I met a rep of a independent nonprofit (Common Sense Media) that rates games for educational/social impact, as well as for safety; she said that although social-emotional development is one of the things that parents say is most important to them, there have been few games that focus on developing these skills specifically. She also works for CASEL, so she would know. I can introduce you if you have specific questions you think she could answer.
      - Jesse Schell has some practical details on how they tried to foster positive community and limit griefing in their design of ToonTown in The Art of Game Design. All his evidence that it worked is anecdotal, but there are some good ideas in there.
      - A lot of the talk on STEM has moved from teaching STEM content to encouraging "STEM mindsets" or "fostering scientific thinking", so even in this area the focus seems to be moving toward soft skills and attitudes.

      We should have another MMORPG meeting and talk more about this. :)


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