Optimistic about Games

There has always been resistance to introducing innovative forms of communication into learning. Whether it’s an early  printing press, the introduction of schools radio in the 1920’s, schools television in the 1950’s or Personal Computers in the 1980’s, the ‘newcomer’ invariably meets with resistance. Such resistance is entirely predictable and a barrier to improving learning experiences for students.

This resistance is often framed as part of a concern for the well-being of the end users. It may be apocryphal, but I remember reading of 1970’s morals ‘guardian’ Mary Whitehouse’s complaints about Pinky and Perky arriving on children’s television in the 1960’s. Today we have Baroness Susan Greenfield voicing concerns about the amount of time children spend in front of computer and television screens. Inevitably there is a period of time where resistance leads to dialogue which in turn leads to adaptation and finally integration.

I believe we are delaying an opportunity to use everyday communications technologies such as tablets or smartphones to extend learning beyond the school gates and to engage students more in the classroom.

Technology constantly moves on to the next level. Those who remain traditionally fixed on desktop PCs and TVs on trolleys may be stifling the development of the next generation of innovation. Cheaper alternatives may be immediately available.

The natural curiosity of a young learner when combined with ability to research and find information at the touch of a button on a smartphone or similar device is powerfully motivational. Curiosity powers learning – opportunity engages it!

By having access to communications technology outside the classroom, students are able to develop real world skills and become less teacher dependent.


Real World Authenticity

I work with a number of schools in the North East of England. As part of one school’s commitment to personalised learning, tablet devices were purchased for all Year 7 students, which are used continually throughout the day in the classroom and at home. You will see students undertake their own searches, add to the class blog, give others in their class rewards and incentives and review their own progress across lessons.

As part of a science lesson focusing on the natural habitats around famers’ fields, students were taken out into the countryside and were able to take photos of the wildlife with their mobile devices. Back in the classroom the children used the images to do research on different species, with both an index book and their tablets – similar to the type of research that is required in higher education.

The result was that the children were completely engaged with their work, as they were able to use technology that was familiar to them and interested them. The role of the teacher involved nudging the learners in the right direction and stepping in to advise only where needed, allowing the children to take more responsibility for their progress.

Schools can be better at appreciating the underpinning principles of learning. When well considered principles of learning are embedded into how the school designs, delivers, evaluates and improves all learning experiences, then questions disappear around the appropriateness of technology.


The games industry knows this and teachers and schools have learned from this. A large amount of education technology is now developed incorporating the principles of learning used in gaming. This is exciting territory for genuine educators.

Urgent Optimism

A principle such as urgent optimism, which can also be described as extreme self-motivation. The idea of urgent optimism is that a person is eager to act immediately to try and overcome a problem, believing that there is a solution and positive outcome. Urgent optimism occurs in games because players know that there must be a way to prevail over any obstacle in order for the game to continue. Completing a task or defeating an enemy also usually unlocks further levels or gives the player something new.

Urgent optimism is an ideal driver for a classroom – with children keen to undertake tasks because they trust that they will be able to complete them, and that the results will be beneficial for them.

This can then lead to ‘blissful productivity’, another gaming term, which when translated into education, means a child’s learning task matches the level of their ability, with achievable and desirable outcomes available for overcoming the challenge, so the work becomes enjoyable.  Sometime this as referred to as ‘flow’.


Collaborative Quest

Gamification theory also encourages community collaboration. I once worked with a school who used to do something called ‘The Quest’, where teams of students from different year groups used to work together to answer a big question, for example ‘why is the sky blue?’

The teams would break down into smaller groups, or individuals and they would go off and do their own research, regroup and discuss findings, and then move on with the next stage of the task. This is similar to the kind of activity that happens on popular games such as Call of Duty, where individuals work separately in order to achieve a unified goal, constantly regrouping and then moving on to complete independent tasks.

It is not true to say that these theories are not in some way already present in the classroom, as there are natural parallels between gaming and learning, however it is acknowledging that there are actionable principles that teachers can think about and put into practice that will help drive learning forward.

Cascading Information

In games, information is fed to the player in small bite-sized parts. It is also cascaded so that it arrives with the player as and when he or she needs it and in amounts the system judges can be managed. This way they are easily able to understand and process the information, then act accordingly. For example a player might be given a task to complete on a game – they will be given instructions and information on how to complete the task, and it is only once this action has been concluded, that the player will be given the details for the next step.  To give all the information needed at once would be overwhelming and lead to potential confusion as to what to focus on and what action to take.

The same can be said for children. Overloading them with information without giving them focus and sufficient time to process runs the risk of hindering progress. Students must be given a manageable size of detail and instruction, and care must be taken to ensure each child has understood the information before moving on to a new topic or task.

Some principles of gamification which apply to classrooms

  1. Quantify granular Progression – small progress steps
  2. Create a climate of Blissful Productivity and Urgent Optimism through authentic challenges and tasks
  3. Create strong Ownership Values – build in student choice
  4. Motivate through different sorts of Levels – flat, exponential and wave function – and Scheduled Rewards – contingency, response and reinforcer.
  5. Unlock successive Achievements and Bonuses – so recognise progress over time and identify cusps or key learning points which attract more valuable bonuses
  6. Create a Community of Collaboration – learn together and collaborate in groups based on interest, aptitude and willingness
  7. Space and Cascade Information – release information as and when its appropriate
  8. Unlock meaning through Discovery moments – rebrand lessons as challenges
  9. Reinforce worth through Epic Meaning
  10. Use Quests as open-ended problem solving opportunities in mixed groups


  1. Granular Progression – In games every small step is accredited and acknowledged. In classrooms, teachers could usefully break down and highlight each % point needed for improvement. Alternatively they could invite learners to work in groups to identify the 1% at a time improvements needed to make progress.
  1. Ownership Values – In games such as Farmville and The Sims, players choose how they build their own world and how the game progresses. Responsibility through ownership is an obvious motivator. We see it when students make choices about the level of difficulty they wish to work, when they are asked to support the learning of others or in extended challenges such as those encountered in project based learning. 
  1. Levels and rewards– In games, players are rewarded in a variety of ways and for different purposes. Sometimes it’s contingent on a behaviour or on persisting with a task or achieving a breakthrough. Often the reward is a higher level of challenge or in other words an invite to work harder! Classroom teachers and schools generally could be more imaginative in how and when rewards are given.
  1. Bonuses – In gaming, a reward is often something that the player receives after overcoming a compulsory task. A bonus is something extra than can be achieved by performing particularly well or collating good results over time. This can be a good incentive in the classroom, with rewards given when children complete a necessary task, and then a bonus, for example being able to work autonomously, if they show flexibility of thought or apply discretionary effort. The best bonuses are given by fellow students!
  1. Discovery moments – A key interests for gamers is ‘the journey’ of the game, where something needs to be achieved before reaching a certain point, or information is provided which changes the player’s perspective. This can be transitioned into a classroom journey where key moments of understanding or ‘hinge questions’ are unlocked at certain points, and learning becomes more of an adventure known in gaming as the ‘epic quest’.

Games based learning is also growing in classrooms, and the figures behind this seem clear. In 2010, 63 million console and PC games were sold in the UK, and according to recent data provided by GameVision, researchers of video games, consumer behaviour and attitudes, over 90 per cent of British children aged 6-14 play games on one or more platform, including smart phones, portable devices, PCs, consoles, social networks and web browser games.

Engaged to Learning

In modern society, teachers and parents have a lot to contend with for their children’s attention, be it mobile phones, games consoles or 24 hour TV channels. New and innovative ways to connect and engage with children are needed. However, this does not have to mean a sacrifice in the quality of education.

There is some great technology out there, which not only provides children with fun and exciting games that focus on educational outcomes, but also offers teachers clear and meaningful results, which enables them to see a detailed view of learner progress. This can take place in class and through homework assignments. Some game apps can even generate instant reports on results. This means that a teacher could set their students a game to complete in class on a topic they have just covered, and when the game has been finished, teachers will immediately receive feedback on how well the children have understood the subject. This then means they can repeat or explain further any areas the children have had difficulty with. Having the opportunity to be more creative in alternative learning methods can be also very inspiring for teachers.

Linking games-based learning with mobile technology also encourages learning to continue outside the classroom. For example, on a school trip children could be playing educational games on the bus on their mobile devices. Even better, as these games are enjoyable, as well as educational, children will feel more enthusiastic when it comes to completing games for homework, perhaps even choosing to play in their free time – although perhaps that is my own urgent optimism kicking in!

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