DGBL as a creative use of technology

that can help transform primary school education

into an innovative learning space


We are living in a time of rapid change, in a society reliant on innovation.   Educational institutions, long thought of as society’s way of preparing children for the future, are largely the products of technology infrastructure and social circumstances of the past (Davies, Fidler & Gorber, 2011, p. 13) and the learning that takes place in them can seem disconnected from the real world.  Our schools need to recreate themselves as innovative cultures that engage, motivate and equip students for a productive life in the 21st century.

Sir Ken Robinson is one of a great number of authors who are calling on the education sector to allow more room for creativity and innovation, so that children can become entrepreneurial learners who learn in contexts by developing skill sets and meaning, rather than memorising content (Zhao, 2009; Haste, 2009; Gee (in Shaffer, 2006); Brown, 2012).  In his book Out of our minds: Learning to be creative (2011), Robinson presents a set of non-linear principles of practice of innovative cultures within three domains – personal, group and cultural, and suggests that these could be applied to the education sector.

This chapter will make use of Robinson’s set of principles of innovative cultures (2011, pp. 225-243) to advocate that making use of digital video games as a tool for learning is a valid pedagogical approach to re-creating a formal primary school setting as an innovative learning space.  The opportunities and challenges of digital game-based learning (DGBL) as presented in research and other media will be explored in terms of pedagogy, implementation and assessment, along with suggestions of how a DGBL pedagogy might be constructively aligned to the Australian Curriculum.

Robinson (2011) argues that to create a culture of innovation in an organisation, it is necessary to facilitate the creative potential of every person within that organisation, which is best supported by an environment that values play, where people are free to take risks and develop their own innate intelligence.    There is a wealth of research illustrating the link between play and learning (Bruner (1983) in Turkay, Hoffman, Kinzer, Chantes & Vicari, 2015; Powell, 2013; Fitzgerald (1991) in Rosas, Nussbaum, Cumsille, Marianov, Corre, Flores…Salinas, 2003), that consistently shows that play has important implications for a child’s development of cognitive, emotional and social skills.  Psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1979, in Rosas et al., 2003) recognises how play helps to develop higher order thinking skills by offering a child more complex activities than they might experience in everyday life.  Young children come to school as creative, playful experts, with a playful frame of mind, and our role as educators is to channel this innate talent, not squash it.    Rapp Beisser (2012, p. 33) maintains that we are denying children an essential form of learning by crowding play out of the school day.

Katie Salen talks about play as transformational, a way of “engaging your soul in the world”:

Connected Learning: Playing, Creating, Making from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

Digital games can bring play through involvement in complex activities into the classroom.    Rosas et al. (2003) suggest that using a game-based learning pedagogy in a formal education setting has the advantage of following the natural course of children’s learning through play.  Children themselves see this too: “Grownups…say work comes before play, but I think work should involve play.” (Interviewee in Rapp Beisser, 2012, p.29).    Klopfer, Osterwiel & Salen (2009) and Markey & Leeder (2011) see games as a “cognitive playground” that require a “stance of playfulness” where ideas and skills can be safely explored, without fear of failure.  Playing games often results in players experiencing a phenomenon described by Csikszentmihalyi as “flow” – a state of intense concentration or absolute absorption in an activity, which has been shown to promote and enhance learning (Admiraal, Huizenga, Akkerman & ten Dam, 2011).  When Salen Tekanbis (in Shapiro et al, 2014, p.4) writes about games as “…complex problems waiting to be solved by players in a way that is both fun and challenging”, she recognises the importance of the balance needed between interest and challenge, to experience flow.  Well-designed digital games allow a player to interact in the game at their own pace, at a level of challenge that motivates them.  In-built game mechanics help ensure that the player is in their flow zone, offering help and instruction when required so that the player does not become anxious, (eg. the pointing finger, and dialogue boxes in Argubot Academy) and increasing complexity as the game progresses so that the player does not become bored (eg. Puzzles in Flow starting with a 5×5 grid, then building up to a 14×14 grid).

While engagement and motivation might be good enough reasons for some parents and teachers to consider DGBL, it will only be accepted and sustained as a genuine pedagogical approach for the long term if it is seen to deliver on educational goals (Becker, 2011) and is evaluated in the context of pedagogy rather than only for its entertainment or novelty value (de Freitas & Oliver, 2006).  Playing games can be disruptive, and Barzilai & Blau (2014) argue that there is a fine line between fun that stimulates learning and fun that may distract from learning.  DGBL faces a number of obstacles:  game-playing is not easily managed into time frames, it can be difficult to match games to curriculum or current models of assessment, the mechanics of a game may distract from the educational goals of the game, and schools may not have adequate technical support or resources (Brom, Šisler & Slavik, 2010; Hanghøj, 2013; Shapiro, Salen Tekinbas, Schwartz & Davarsi, 2014).  There are also attitudinal obstacles to DGBL such as teachers who don’t understand or appreciate what their role is when implementing games in the classroom, or parents, colleagues and administrators who see games as a leisure activity rather than a learning opportunity, or are concerned about what they’ve seen or heard about the “danger” of playing video games (eg. Minecraft turned my child into a monster).  (Bourgonjon, Valcke, Soetaert, de Wever & Schellens, 2011; St-Pierre, 2011; Klopfer et. al, 2009; Brom et. al, 2010; Hanghøj, 2013).

Obstacles such as these need to be acknowledged when implementing DGBL, so that all stakeholders can become better informed of this approach to learning.   Adapting ideas to your own context that have been successfully trialled in similar contexts may be a good way for someone new to DGBL to start (eg.  visiting schools identified in Appendix A in  Innovating with Technology Games-based Learning Research Trials: Findings to inform school practice report, 2011; finding games and teaching ideas on educade or graphite, or lesson plans for a game of interest eg. Bee-bot lessons and ideas).  Encouraging  parent involvement in classrooms where digital games are being used for learning,  or providing platforms for teachers to share with their colleagues how and why they are using particular games in their classrooms are other possible solutions to these obstacles.   Websites such as ABC Splash,  or a local school-system initiative called Lighthouse Learning,  which map games to the Australian Curriculum demonstrate that games can be integrated into classrooms as valid learning tools.  There are a large number of these kinds of websites that come out of the US (such as Edutopia, Glasslabs and Educade), and the UK (such as nrich maths) that map to their own learning outcomes, however they can be adapted to align with the Australian Curriculum.  Sharing clips with colleagues such as the How Games Can Improve Schools (Extra Credits, 2013) might encourage questions or new thinking about the possibility of using DGBL to incorporate more opportunities for play in classrooms:

Forming and facilitating collaborative spaces for groups is the second of Robinson’s principles of practice of innovative cultures.   Digital games have the potential to bring together people from diverse backgrounds to work together in a game, allowing opportunities for different world views, perspectives, expertise and voices to be shared, as they work as a team towards a common purpose (Robinson, 2011).  This is the philosophy behind Games For Change, an organisation that aims to bring together multiple stakeholders to help create games and projects for social good   (eg.  their game Parable of the Polygons has been designed to show how individual choice, if shared by enough people, can have harmful consequences).

Lacovides, McAndrew, Scanlon & Aczel (2014) write about how people learn with and from each other as they play a game in real or virtual spaces through guilds (groups of players that play together, particularly in MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) and forums created by the game’s players.   John Seely Brown (2010) also talks about how complex games need guilds to help process and organise the multitude of ideas and knowledge generated by the game, in addition to providing support to each other through tutorials, cheat sheets etc. (eg. post by World of Warcraft’s 690 MM/SV hunter looking for guild or @WOW_news; Minecraft Guild for Kids & Parents at Massively @jokaydia).  Without a guild structure, individual players would be overwhelmed.  Schools can use these guild models, and adapt some of these ideas to existing practise to help create dynamic and innovative learning communities that can support and enhance many kinds of learning experiences, including DGBL.  There are a number of blogging platforms (eg. Kidblog) or school-friendly social networking tools (eg. edmodo)  that are easy for younger students and teachers to use for this purpose.

Seeking to form and facilitate diverse, collaborative learning communities within a primary school is supported in the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2014), through General Capabilities.  A teacher wishing to make use of DGBL to create a learning community in the classroom may need to refer to the general capabilities from the Australian Curriculum, in addition to specific learning outcomes, to justify his/her choice to use a particular game.  The general capabilities are expected to be embedded in curriculum content as the knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that will assist a student in becoming a successful learner, confident and creative individual, and active and informed citizen:

General capabilities in the Australian Curriculum. Retrieved from

General capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.
Retrieved from

Van Eck (2006) believes that the content of a game is secondary to the critical reasoning, problem solving, information processing and negotiating capabilities that learners are developing as they interact with the content in the game.  Focusing on HOW people learn in and with games, allows for an alignment of key ideas between DGBL, Robinson’s principle about facilitating dynamic groups and the Australian Curriculum’s general capabilities.

Salen (in Connected Learning Alliance, 2013) suggests that authentic learning results when people are given the opportunity to work together in a game, as they develop and refine skills of collaboration and communication, and social skills, as they build relationships in a context where these skills matter.  The challenge is that some of these “twenty-first century skills”/capabilities (ACARA, 2014) are difficult to assess in terms of the quantitative data that tends to be most valued by our education system, however making use of qualitative formative and summative assessment strategies throughout the learning process (eg. assessment rubrics, success criteria, critiquing groups, reflective journals, earning badges for particular skills, etc.) can provide evidence of learning in these areas.

Robinson’s third principle of practice of innovative culture is about the culture itself, and the design of flexible and inquiring spaces that allow for creativity.  For an educator, this means taking a look at the learning environment that is being created for students, and how this impacts on all learning experiences.  Salen (in Connected Learning Alliance, 2013) talks about creating learning environments as playful spaces that are systems, where students see themselves as successfully contributing to that space with the understanding that the system is not going to work without them.

Implementing DGBL pedagogy may help to create these playful spaces, resulting in changes to existing teaching practice and to a different understanding of the student/teacher relationship. (DEECD, Victoria, 2011, p.5).   Donahoo (2013) makes note of the vital role that the teacher plays in facilitating learning spaces in and with games, and  the Futurelab “Teaching with Games” project (Williamson, 2009) found that the meaningful use of games in a classroom context depended more on a teacher’s effective use of existing pedagogical skills, rather than their game-related skills.

However, Van Eck (2006) stresses the importance of teachers understanding how games themselves embed learning outcomes, assessment and other instructional elements, and how they can be used effectively for learning in the classroom, as does Shapiro (2014), who also makes mention of the types of games that teachers choose to use effecting GBL in a classroom.  (eg. immersive games such as Minecraft PE compared to “short-form” games such as Screw the Nut; role-playing games such Run That Town, or augmented reality games like Ingress, etc.).   Hanghøj (2013) writes about factors beyond sound pedagogy that have particular relevance to implementation of DGBL when he describes the shifting demands on a teacher in a DGBL environment – teacher as instructor, playmaker, guide and evaluator; and that teacher ownership of the game in terms of their own game literacy, game preferences and pedagogical approach, will ultimately determine how effectively DGBL is implemented in a classroom.  Hanghøj (2013) and Van Eck (2009) concur about the challenge of using COTS games as immersive learning experiences in formal education.  Both rightly point out that teachers who choose to use COTS games presumably accept that they have to assume a more active role in curricular re-design and engagement in order to make sense in the classroom context (Hanghøj, 2013, p.91) – which is really no different to what an innovative teacher would do when designing any effective learning experience.

Teachers who align their pedagogy with constructivist theories of learning, where students are encouraged to actively construct understanding through experiences and reflection, may feel more confident about implementing DGBL into their classrooms, as they are more likely to already be making use of strategies such as inquiry-based and student-centred learning.  Van Eck (2009) assumes a learning environment informed by a constructivist pedagogy when he proposes a helpful design process for the implementation of DGBL:

  1. Know your audience (because not all students will be game-players, or like games as a learning tool)
  2. Know your environment (eg. technical support and infrastructure)
  3. Find a game (eg. survey students, do your own research via resources such as educade, ABC Splash)
  4. Evaluate the game (read reviews and walkthroughs of game eg. Tiny Bang Story Walkthrough)
  5. Design problems, roles and projects around the game which serve learning outcomes (WOW in School wiki is an excellent example of this)
  6. Prepare for implementation by game-testing
  7. Play and learn
  8. Evaluate the learning

Van Eck rightly points out that this final step is vital not only for colleagues and administrators to see evidence of learning, but also for the students themselves, so that they recognise the value of what they learnt in and with the game, and see that learning valued at school.   One could argue that it is also vital for teachers to contribute to the learning of the DGBL “guild” by sharing their experiences of this whole process of implementing DGBL with a wider audience, as Joel Levin has done (Joan Ganz Cooney Center, 2012):


This chapter has argued that digital game-based learning is a pedagogy with the potential to help re-create primary schools as innovative cultures, as imagined by a leader in the field of creativity, Sir Ken Robinson.  Exploration of the opportunities and challenges of DGBL as presented in a range of print and digital media, and through practical examples, clearly demonstrates that DGBL is an innovative learning space that can provide a meaningful and creative context for learning in the 21st century; and that it is possible to implement DGBL in a primary school context, with constructive alignment to the Australian Curriculum.




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