Hacking Game-based Learning: More Than Just Passive Players

I am getting started with my latest professional development activity, participation in a micro-MOOC on Game Elements for Learning (You can follow along on Twitter using #GE4L).  One of the early discussions provides participants with a chance to reflect upon the benefits and limitations of games in learning. The following reflection builds upon one of the posts shared by another participant.

I am excited about leveraging principles of game design to empower, inspire, engage, enhance learning, and to design truly personalized and relevant learning experiences.  With that said, I am hesitant about some approaches to game-based education, namely those forms that focus exclusively upon teacher as all-powerful game designer and student as passive recipient and game player. I think this misses the opportunity to share the creative work with the students, for the teacher to join the students in creating their own high-impact learning experiences.

Game-based learning can foster creativity, problem solving and collaboration, but it seems to me that is can also cultivate compliance and conformity.  For this reason, I see promise in designing learning environments where learners (and their co-learners called teachers) don’t just play games.  Instead, they have the opportunity to design games, deconstruct games, mashup games, rebuild and hack games, as well as create entire ecosystems of creativity, cooperation and collaboration around one or more games.  Of course, they play them as well, but they don’t stay in the role of player.  They shift roles and experiment (See My Changing Educational Philosophy: Students as the Audience, Actors, or Directors for more about my thoughts on mixing up roles in education).

I remember when I first heard Jane McGonigal’s story of how she mixed Martin Seligman’s PERMA model with game design principles to create SuperBetter. This is a game that McGonigal designed as part of her own journey to work through a difficult time in her life.  In fact, when I first learned about the game, I was going through health concerns, working through some fears and anxieties connected with health issues that had yet to be diagnosed and treated (all is well now). The ideas in her game really helped me out.  What strikes me about McGonigal’s game is that it sets boundaries that guide the player toward some really positive thoughts and behaviors that can help develop resilience, but it leaves much of the creative work up to the players.  In fact, I “played the game” without even using the system that she built.  I played it on paper, in conversations with my friends, on my blog, in my classrooms, among my co-workers, and while reading some of the primary works about positive psychology. Part of what I appreciate about McGonigal’s art/work/game designs is that the she creates spaces that have certain core values, but they are not constricting or overbearing.

When I heard McGonigal’s story of creating the game as a way to work (or play) her way through the challenges of a serious concussion, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that simply creating the game must have been part of what helped her.  In fact, the game that she created largely challenges the players to create their own life experiments and to gamify parts of life, infusing important aspects of positive psychology.  This is not simply some sort of positive psychology version of Angry Birds.  Where some games invite you to withdraw from life, SuperBetter challenges you to engage more with life, but largely on your own terms.  This is the sort of game-based learning that I hope to see embraced by more learning organizations.

Several months ago, as I was thinking about the ethical side of game design in education, I reached out to Howard Rheingold online.  I’ve appreciated his work on peer-to-peer learning and I participated in his Literacy of Cooperation course earlier this year.  I posed the question about whether or or not he thought that game-based learning blended or clashed with peer-to-peer learning or peeragogy. It was a very short exchange, but he directed me to Nomic as a possible resolution. Nomic is an examle of a game where the participants can propose changes to the rules. No one player can unilaterally change the rules.  It requires a vote among the players.   As a result, the game blurs the line between player and designer, but it is built upon a set of core democratic and cooperative values. This strikes me as having some exciting possibilities for educational game design, especially among those of us who value self-directed learning and seek to cultivate learning spaces that empower individual learners to grow as creators, collaborators, and critics.

So my concern is not some much with game-based learning.  Instead, I simply want to suggest that we keep a broad and open understanding of game-based learning, one that involves not just playing games, but also designing and critiquing them; one that values game contexts that share power and creative license with the players/learners.

Posted in blog, Game-based Learning, GE4L

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

7 thoughts on “Hacking Game-based Learning: More Than Just Passive Players

  1. Dan Skinner

    Hi Bernard,

    Thanks for the post (and letting me know about it on canvas.net). SuperBetter looks really interesting and is an excellent example of how gaming can bring about real-life benefits.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      I frequent many of the services that host MOOCs and skim for new course offerings. So, once every few weeks I look at Canvas.net, Coursera, EdX, Udemy, and Udacity. I also look at http://www.moocnewsandreviews.com on occasion. Finally, I have a set of Google alerts that send me daily notifications of any news headlines about MOOCs, which helps me spot possible MOOCs of interest from other sources.

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