Digital Playgrounds

by Simon Keily

Digital Playgrounds

Topic: How can teaching and learning be informed by a playful immersion in virtual spaces?

Educators have been challenged to develop an understanding of gaming environments so as to make use of them in education (Van Eck, 2007). Not just as tools to gloss over traditional education but for establishing substantially new paradigms (De Freitas & Maharg, 2011). This report therefore reflects on observations gained via direct immersion in three different virtual spaces with the aim of discovering their potential for engagement and as spaces for learning. These explorations will be framed by current academic perceptions of Game Based Learning.

As is illustrated by the above image, the ways in which learners and educators of today can interact with their world is undergoing radical upheaval, influenced heavily by changes in technology. The expectations of these learners and their behaviours are therefore not surprisingly changing. Thus, in education there is a desperate need to better cater for these 21st century learners. Within the higher education sector Universities are reportedly moving away from traditional lecture based programming towards more hands on scenarios (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada & Freeman, 2015). K-12 education is also being heavily influenced by changing technology ecosystems as greater accessibility to the internet continues to spark profound changes in traditional paradigms (Johnson, Adams, Becker, Estrada & Freeman, 2014). Certainly a walk through many a K-12 classroom of today will show a casual observer that technology is prevalent and in some learning spaces even ubiquitous.

However, more than a cursory glance will show that little has changed with regard to the dominant pedagogies that exist within these technology rich classrooms. As a tool, technology is neutral and thus pedagogical wisdom is needed to guide its use (Chee, 2002). So, how do educators put into practise the need to create a new type of schooling that engages learner agency and addresses new learner diversity (Kalantzis & Cope, 2010) along with the development of new literacies with new pedagogies?

Certainly, the intersection of new technologies and literacies promises to inform and transform classroom practice (Clary, Kigotho & Barros-Torning, 2013). A possible new technology (or media) that may lubricate such change in formal education are digital games via the integration of Game Based Learning (GBL). The use of digital games to support learning is comparatively new; however these tools which are designed around a unique combination of game mechanics, competition, narrative, missions, quests and simulations, have the potential to improve not just learning but society in general (De Freitis & Maharg, 2014). The game designer Jane McGonigal declares with great enthusiasm that not only can games inspire us to collaborate and co-operate but gaming can make a better world. Indeed education and its core stakeholders, the youth of today, deserve to experience the epic win that McGonigal so eloquently describes – an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea it was even possible (TedTalks, 2010).

What is a Game?

This discourse holds onto the view of digital games as firstly, a “medium of communication and expression that requires participation of the players.” (Becker, 2010, p.77). Games are also systems that can be considered as a) rules, 2) play, and 3) culture and as a distinct educational technology (Becker, 2010). Serious games have not been explored by this discourse but instead commercially available virtual spaces have been studied via immersion, each for their unique affordances and the messages that emerge from these games when juxtaposed against each other.

Playing in a MUVE

Digital games occur in virtual spaces. Therefore this exploration of these worlds begins with the following video observations (Keily, 2015a) collected in-world from Second Life (Linden Labs, 2003). These recordings serve to introduce initial reflections on the spaces being explored.

Second Life (SL) is a virtual world launched in 2003 which in 2014 had approximately 1 million regular users.(Second Life, 2015). SL is a Multi-User-Virtual-Environment – multiple users can inhabit a simulation at anyone one time. Identified as a social virtual world (De Freitas, 2008) this digital space is rich with artistic expression and participation. SL shares some of the affordances of digital games but extended exploration shows that this space lacks predefined goals and challenges. This therefore brings into debate whether SL can be classified as a game platform (Livingston, 2007 in Troconis & Mellstrom, 2010). Troconis & Mellstrom view SL as a non-ludic, multi-user virtual environment but curiously assert that virtual worlds, games and even social networking sites offer similar capabilities for which boundaries are difficult to draw. Certainly for participants exploring these virtual environments, at times the differences are difficult to see. However, as discussed below, frameworks can be adopted to assist with an understanding of digital games and their typical characteristics.

SL is popular in education for its flexibility and yet immersion here shows that this space lacks effective built-in learning support (Livingstone, Kemp & Edgar, 2008). Regardless of this lack of built in structure, SL is home to many gaming communities in the form of virtual world role-playing groups; such as the Order of Avalon and a very popular role-playing community that is composed of Lycans and Vampires. These role-play games have an active presence on web based leaderboards, for example at: Bloodlines. The Ultimate Second Life Vampire a Lycan System. (Liquid Designs, 2015). Activities and discussions are supported by a wiki posts and member activities flow out to Flickr. These community sites that facilitate the playing of a game, are referred to as the meta-game. Many popular online games are now surrounded by these online communities and activities and to fully understand these learning spaces one must develop an awareness of this meta-game activity (Woodford, 2012). The social space of SL is surrounded by richly creative and social interactions such as photography and machinima.

Virtual Worlds such as Second Life are an important part of game based learning and immersion is necessary so as to understand their complexities, including the online social activities that surround these worlds. These social virtual worlds are powerful sites of learning where students and educators can certainly learn the digital literacies required to move and communicate in these virtual worlds, and to develop an understanding of meta game activities.

Playing in a MMORPG

The following video (Keily, 2015b) introduces the massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-game (MMORPG) titled Eve Online (CCP, 2015; Eve Online, 2015). This virtual world is composed of a vast universe that can be traversed and explored using available technology. The game is notoriously difficult to play. It is interesting to know that Eve Online does not employ sharding or instancing in its design. This means that during play the possibility exists of interacting with any other player in the game, no matter where they are playing from. When playing there can be anywhere between 15,000 to 30,000 other players online at the same time.

Immersion in this space shows an entirely different game infrastructure than Second Life. Eve Online is more than a multi-user-virtual space for wondering or viewing but, as shown in the above video, is a complicated skill based game that demands attention from the player. Eve Online provides training missions to support learning in this complex system and a player must develop specific in-world skills so as to survive in the game, as such this game encompasses strategies of situated learning. As is stated by Van Eck (2006) “Learning that occurs in meaningful and relevant contexts is more effective than learning that occurs outside of those contexts (p. 18)”. This situated understanding is a vital aspect of all well designed digital games that educators should attempt to experience first hand and reflect on deeply as it points to the strong potential of digital games for learning (Turkay, Hoffman, Kinzer, Chantes, & Vicari, 2014).

In our comparison of digital games it is important to take note of the following components of video games as described by Whitton (2009, p.23)

  • Competition – The goal is to achieve an outcome that is superior to others.
  • Challenge – Tasks require effort and are non-trivial.
  • Exploration – There is a context-sensitive environment that can be investigated.
  • Fantasy – Existence of a make-believe environment, characters or narrative.
  • Goals – There are explicit aims and objectives.
  • Interaction – An action will change the state of play and generate feedback.
  • Outcomes – There are measurable results from game play such as scoring.
  • People – Other individuals take part.
  • Rules – Provide a set of instructions. The activity is bounded by these artificial constraints.
  • Safety – The activity has no consequences in the real world.

Whitton (2009) does declare that it is unhelpful, if indeed impossible to define an absolute division of what a game is; however, a helpful approach is to define games by the above ten characteristics. Immersion in open worlds such as 2L, while referencing the above framework, reveals that these virtual spaces have many game like qualities, such as fantasy and exploration. Nevertheless, the above framework helps to clarify that a significant difference between more ludic spaces such Eve Online and the open-world design of Second Life, is one of established competition, goals and perhaps outcomes.

However, even a brief immersion into a game environment will tell you that these digital games are so much more. As is very well illustrated by Eve Online, they are an increasingly complex and varied medium (Olson, 2010). Games, such as Eve Online, are increasingly viewed as multi-modal texts or interactive challenges (Habgood & Ainsworth, 2011) that demand new kinds of literacy skills from the learner (Connolly, Stansfield & Boyle, 2009). Importantly, they are a designed experience (Squire, 2006) where, as mentioned above, situated cognition is supported (Turkay, Hoffman, Kinzer, Chantes, & Vicari, 2014). A full appreciation of this aspect of digital games is developed through immersion and is assisted by initial play in the open world structure of SL as compared to the ludic space of Eve Online.

Playing with Alternate Reality Games

The third gaming experience to draw lessons from was Ingress (Niantic Labs, 2015). Ingress is an augmented-reality-massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing GPS dependent game played by downloading the game app onto a mobile device, such as a mobile phone.  The game utilises the GPS system of the mobile device and requires the player to move through physical space to play the game (Mobilephone2003, 2013). The mobile device then acts as a scanner for the player, making visible a virtual world of portals and exotic matter.

Not only does Ingress fit into the realm of gaming, but quite uniquely the game uses the affordances of virtual reality to overlay digital information over the real world. The affordances of this immersive approach has the potential to profoundly transform education as we know it (Bower, Howe, McCredie, Robinson, Grover, 2014). The user is thus presented with a game scenario where, rather than being immersed in a virtual world via a static screen, the player is required to physically move through a local geographic area.

Once again we have a participatory style of media that involves users in a digital game play as per the defining characteristics provided by Whitton (2009). However, in this instance the game takes place in the real world. The educational future of large scale 3D worlds, such as 2L, remains unknown. Perhaps with ubiquitous use of mobile technology the future will lie with augmented and mixed realities rather than all encompassing worlds (Allen & Lawless-Reljic, 2011).

Fig 1: Ingress missions

Fig 1: Ingress missions

A screen shot from Ingress is shown in Figure 1, depicting a user generated mission that can be generated and engaged with in Ingress. The participatory nature of the game is enhanced via these missions as each activity is customised for use in the geographic location where the player is exploring. The missions are an informative experience as the player participating in the mission is encouraged to explore the physical world, for which they are awarded with digital badges. This style of virtual reality game requires the user to solve problems by accessing and manipulating digital data while interacting with peers – the game demands strong collaboration. For many reasons this style of game is recognised as a promising environment in learning as well as entertainment as it integrates the physical and digital world into an interactive and blended learning environment (Che, Hwang & Chen, 2012). As such, Ingress is an indicator that games are beginning to use technology to allow players to use their body to control the game play in new ways. Ingress also allows the user to make sense of the idea that games are an interaction between the game designer and player (Robinson, 2004 cited in Squire, 2006) as well as being a designed experience (Squire, 2006, p. 19).

Final Reflections

This discourse has travelled through the social space of Second Life into the highly ludic universe of Eve Online. Ingress was the final place of play and introduced corporeal gaming, coupled with virtual reality, with no avatar involved. All of these spaces were identified as spaces of creativity and collaboration. They are also all media of interpersonal communication and extensions of ourselves (Becker, 2010). Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991) was also experienced when playing in these spaces. Upon reflections these spaces could also be seen as 1) communication spaces 2) for simulation of space and 3) experiential spaces (Dalgarno, Gregory,  Carlson, Lee, & Tynan, 2013). These characteristics hint at the pedagogical affordances of these spaces.

Exploration of these spaces informs the learner (student or educator) that these are social spaces, and it is the social structure of these learning spaces that is thought to be one factor that explains their popularity, for example by offering opportunities for shared experience, collaboration, reward and reputation amongst group members (Mysirlaki & Paraskeva, 2012). However they are much more than that. These digital worlds offer an experience in which participants learn through a “grammar of doing and being” (Squire, 2006 p. 19). Play in these spaces exposes users to experiential learning and brings to the fore the idea that knowing is not merely the mastery of facts but rather involves participation in the complex relationships between facts, skills and values (Gee, 2005). Therefore to understand games, the meta-game and how players learn from these multi-user-virtual-environments takes more than knowing the facts but direct experience. This direct immersion may also empower the professional educator to overcome internal barriers, such as attitudes and beliefs, that effect how they integrate technology into practice (Ertmer, Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Sendurur & Sendurur, 2012).

On a final note, viewed as tools for learning, these virtual environments remind us in a very powerful way, that human beings are tool users. We use tools to interact with the world and it is through those tools that we use, we are transformed both in our experience and in our understanding of the environment (HarvardEducation, 2009).



Allen, B., & Lawless-Reljic S. (2011). In the presence of avatars: What makes virtual teachers and learners seem (un) real? pp. 61- 83. In Cheney, A., & Sanders, R. (Eds.) (2011). Teaching and learning in 3D immersive worlds: Pedagogical models and constructivist approaches. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.

Becker, K. (2010). Distinctions between games and learning: A review of current literature on games in education. In Van Eck, R. (Ed.) Gaming and cognition: Theories and practice from the learning sciences (2010): pp. 22-50.

Bower, M., Howe, C., McCredie, N., Robinson, A., & Grover, D. (2014). Augmented reality in education–cases, places and potentials. Educational Media International, 51(1), 1-15.

CCP. (2003-2015). Eve Online [Online Game].

Chee, Y.S. (2002). Refocussing learning on pedagogy in a connected world.On the Horizon 10(4) pp. 7–13.

Chen, N., Hwang W & Chen, G.(2013). The disruptive power of virtual reality (VR) and serious games for education. Interactive Learning Environments, 21(2), 101-103.

Clary, D., Kigotho, M., & Barros-Torning M. (2013). Harnessing mobile technologies to enrich adolescents’ multimodal literacy practices in middle years classrooms. Literacy Learning: the Middle Years, 21(3), 49-60.

Connolly, T., Stansfield, M., & Boyle, L. (Eds.). (2009). Games-based learning advancements for multi-sensory human computer interfaces: Techniques and effective practices. IGI Global.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.New York; Harper Collins.

Dalgarno, B., Gregory, S., Carlson, L., Lee, M., & Tynan, B. (2013). A systematic review and environmental analysis of the use of 3D immersive virtual worlds in Australian and New Zealand higher education institutions: Final Report 2013 (pp. 1–226). Armidale, Australia: DEHub: Innovation in distance education, University of New England.

De Freitas, S., & Maharg, P. (2011). Digital games and learning: modelling learning experiences in the digital age. pp. 17-41. In De Freitas, S, and Maharg, P. (Eds). Digital games and learning. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.

De Freitas S., & Maharg, P. (2014). Digital Games and Learning: Series Introduction In. Warmelink, H. (2014). Digital Games and Learning: Online Gaming and Playful Organization. Florence, KY, USA: Taylor and Francis.

DMLREsearchHUb. (2012). The global one room schoolhouse: John Seely Brown (Highlights from JSB’s Keynote at DML2012) [Videorecording]. Retrieved from

Ertmer, Ottenbreit-Leftwich, Sadi, Sendurur, & Sendurur, P. (2012). Teacher beliefs and technology integration practices: A critical relationship. Computers & Education, 59(2), 423-435.

Eve Online. (2015, May 25). Retrieved from

Gee, J. P. (2005). What would a state of the art instructional video game look like. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 1(6), 159.

Habgood, M. J., & Ainsworth, S. E. (2011). Motivating children to learn effectively: Exploring the value of intrinsic integration in educational games.The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 20(2), pp. 169-206.

Harvard Education. (2009). Technology and youth: Problem solver vs. Tool user (part 1 of 4) [Videorecording]. Retrieved from

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon report: 2014 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon report: 2015 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Keily, S. (2015a). An introduction to multi-user-virtual-environments [Videorecording]. Retrieved from

Keily, S. (2015b). Introductory tour of a MMORPG [Videorecording]. Retrieved from

Kolb, A. Y., Kolb, D., Passarelli, A., & Sharma, G. (2014). On becoming an experiential educator: The educator role profile. Simulation & Gaming, 45(2), 204-234.

Linden Labs. (2003). Second Life [Virtual World].

Liquid Designs. (2015). Bloodlines. The Ultimate Second Life Vampire and Lycan System [Web page]. Retrieved from

Livingston, D., Kemp, J. & Edgar E. (2008). From multi-user virtual environment to 3D virtual learning environment. Research in learning technology (16)3, pp. 139–150

Mobilephone. (2103). Ingress a beginners guide [Video File] Retrieved from

Mysirlaki, S., & Paraskeva, F. (2012). Leadership in MMOGs: A Field of Research on Virtual Teams. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 10(2), 223-234.

Niantic Labs. (2015). Ingress [Android software]. Retrieved from

Olson, C. (2010). Children’s motivations for video game play in the context of normal development. Review of General Psychology, 14, 180-187

Second Life. (2015, May 20). Retrieved from

Schroeder, R. (Ed.). (2002). The social life of avatars: Presence and interaction in shared virtual environments. Springer Science & Business Media.

Squire, K. (2006). From content to context. Videogames as designed experience. Educational Researcher (35)8 pp. 19-29

Turkay, S., Hoffman, D., Kinzer, C. K., Chantes, P., & Vicari, C. (2014). Toward understanding the potential of games for learning: learning theory, game design characteristics, and situating video games in classrooms.Computers in the Schools, 31(1-2), 2-22.

Van Eck, R. (2006). Digital game-based learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless. EDUCAUSE review, 41(2), 16.

Van Eck, R. (2007). Generation G and the 21st Century [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

Whitton, N. (2009). Learning with digital games : A practical guide to engaging students in higher education. London. outledge

Woodford, D. (2012) Hanging out is hard. Methodology in non-avatar environments. Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds. (4)3 pp. 275 – 288.

Part 2: Provocation

Part 2: Provocation

Case studies, environmental scans, situational analysis, or other activities that illustrate games-based learning in action.

In this section:

Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation).
Developed by the School of Information StudiesCharles Sturt University, 2015.
Contact Us.
Charles Sturt University
Skip to toolbar