Compendium chapter

Constructor, co-constructor and de-constructor: GBL defining the 21st century learner

man in suit fighting red monster




At the turn of the 21st century, Henry Jenkins predicted that video games would be the ‘art form for the digital age’ (Jenkins, 2000, In 2007, Edward Castronova (2007, p.xiv) warned of the exodus of “…people from the real world…” into video games and synthetic worlds. Six years later, Zimmerman (2013) proposed that the 21st century would be defined by video games ( In his “manifesto”, Zimmerman acknowledges that games are ancient. However, rapid technological innovations have facilitated a resurgence of game playing in digital spaces elevating games to the status of the social, cultural and educational activity of this century. Delivered via a variety of platforms and opportunities for player engagement (i.e. single-player, multiplayer or massively multi-player games), video games are developed to meet gamer preferences.

TEDxBloomington – Edward Castronova – “Be A Gamer” (9:01) Hosted on

McGonigal (2011) advocates that games in the twenty-first century will be a “…primary form for enabling the future” (McGonigal, 2011, p.13). She defines four “defining traits” of a game: goal, rules, feedback and voluntary participation (McGonigal, 2011, p.21) Each of these defining traits structure the experience of what it means to play a game but more importantly they are the traits that gamers love and which lures them to voluntarily immerse themselves for long periods of time. Quoting the philosopher Bernard Suits: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” McGonigal says this is an accurate definition of what it means to be a game player (McGonigal, 2011, p.22). She asserts that game developers know how to “…inspire extreme effort and reward hard work…” and find new ways to motivate players to engage and stay with difficult challenges for increasingly long periods of time (McGongigal, 2011, p.13). These skills she asserts are critical for citizens of the twenty-first century.

Rollings and Morris (2011) also catalog what a game is not:

“a bunch of cool features

a lot of fancy graphics

a serious of challenging puzzles

an intriguing setting and story.” Rollings & Morris, 2011, p.35)

The NMC Horizon report: 2014 K-12 edition notes that “…gamified learning environments in practice can motivate learners to engage with subjects in an emotionally stimulating way” (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada & Freeman, 2014, p.39). The report also advocates the integration of personalised learning to include a variety of approaches to “…support self-directed and group based learning that can be designed around each leaner’s goals.” (Johnson et al., 2014, p.22)

This chapter advocates the necessary convergence of video games played for leisure into educational settings to enable the empowerment of learners as active agents in their learning. Well-designed games recognise the gamer is not a tabula rasa but rather enters the game with clear intentions and preferences. Well-designed digital games invite and collaborate with players to construct, co-construct and de-construct as they play (Gee, 2004, p.17). Gee also asserts that this is “good learning” (Gee, 2004, p.17). Players’ decisions are important elements in well designed game play, shaping and transforming the game world to reflect their choices (Gee, 2004, p.18). The power of player feedback should not be underestimated when this principle is violated. Players of Mass Effect 3 started a campaign demanding developers Bioware develop new conclusions to the series that reflected the choices the players had made (

Drawing on contemporary research and game examples, this chapter documents the validity of game based learning as a teaching and learning tool to enable multi-literacies in the 21st century. It will argue that video games are a sophisticated medium for enabling lifelong learning.

Importantly the act of learning is not confined solely to formal educational settings. Great discoveries have been made by those passionate about a subject outside of these settings. For example, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin all pursued interests outside of formal education settings. Video games already bridge the gap across this artificial divide between social/informal and formal learning to allow similar pursuits and discoveries.

The intention of this chapter is not to address the definition or demarcation of what constitutes a video game. That is, is it platform (i.e. online, console or mobile) or genre specific? Does the player have to be hardcore rather than a casual player to be considered a gamer (Hjorth & Richardson, 2014, p.43-55)? Rather, this chapter will contend that the pervasive penetration of video games into households defines what it means to be a 21st century learner engaged in personalised learning pursuits as constructor, co-constructor or de-constructor of their learning experiences.

Video games as major social, cultural and economic forces in the 21st century

Video games have evolved to become a major social, cultural and economic force in the twenty-first century. From the early games of the 1970s such as Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man to the sophisticated audio-visual interactive games of this century such as World of Warcraft, Super Mario Galaxy and Social Network games like Farmville ‘…[v]ideo games are ingrained in our culture…’ (ESA, 2015).

The ubiquitous nature of video game playing documented in Entertainment Software Association statistics for 2015 which surveyed 4000 American households reported:

  • 155 million Americans play video games
  • 26% are under 18 years
  • 30% are 18-35 years old
  • 17% are 36-49 years old
  • 27% are 50+ years old (p.3)

That is an average of two gamers per household, four out of five households own a device to play video games, 42% play video games regularly (i.e. 3 hours or more a week) and the average age of a gamer is 35 years old (ESA, 2015, p.3). The statistics for the types of games most frequently played are 31% play social games, 30% play action games and 30% play puzzle or board games and card games.(ESA, 2015, p.5) Further, statistics show that 63% of parents polled say that video games play a positive role in their child’s life and 59% of parents play computer and video games with their children at least weekly (ESA, 2015, p.8).

In Australia the DA14: Digital Australia report which surveyed 1220 households and 3398 individuals living in these households reports:

  • 93% of households have a device for gaming
  • 71% have 2 or more gamers
  • 87% have three or more screens
  • 65% of Australians play video games
  • Average age of gamers is 32 years old.

(Brand, Lorentz & Mathew, 2014,

The report also found that “…nine in ten Australian households have at least one device for playing interactive games, and 86 per cent of parents who consume video games play with their children.” Further, Australians in their 40s and 50s comprise the largest group of new gamers in the last two years, and Australians aged 51 and over make up a fifth of the gaming population in the country.

Digital Australia 14 How gamers play infographic

(Used with permission under Creative Commons License 2.0 Copyright IGEA 2014)

Video games to support learning and identity – Intergenerational applications

Given the data that video game usage is pervasive in American and Australian households, it is important to document the impact that video games can have to support learning and identity across all age groups in the twenty-first century. While researchers have noted the hesitation by educators to implement video games into classrooms ( Arnab, Berta, Earp, de Freitas, Popescu, Romero, Stanescu & Usart, 2012; Bourgonjon et al., 2013; Beavis et al., 2014) gamers have not been so reluctant to adopt game based play and learning into their private lives. Online games such as World of Warcraft, FarmVille, CityVille and Lord of the Rings has driven a shift in demographics from younger players to maturer players in the thirty plus age group. DA14: Digital Australia captured responses in the section Why gamers play of the report. Older adult players chose to play games for a variety of reasons including learning and keeping an active mind (Brand et al., 2014, p.15) and see video games as ‘…something for kids to do with dad… and can be creative and fun…’ (Brand et al., 2014, 19). Gamers are aware of the impact on their learning afforded by opportunities to play video games commenting “… I have learnt about other people and cultures by playing MMOs and interacting with others.” (Brand et al., 2014, p.14).

Gee (2003) discusses the capacity of games to empower learners in active learning. He identifies the three elements of active learning “…experiencing the world in new ways, forming new affiliations, and preparation for future learning” (Gee, 2003, p.23) which online video games such as World of Warcraft, FarmVille or CityVille clearly fulfill. He also documents the capacity of digital games to “… recruit identities and encourage identity work and reflection on identities in clear and powerful ways” (Gee, 2003, p.51). For example, the adoption of a character and the impact of the player’s/character’s behaviour choices to impact the game play and the responses of other characters (real or fantasy) in the game. Gee also asserts that when gamers engage with games they are learning new literacies:

“First, in the modern world, language is not the only important communicational system. Today images, symbols, graphs, diagrams, artifacts, and many other visual symbols are particularly significant” (Gee, 2003, p.13).

Chase and Laufenberg also note the development of digital literacy skills means students have to learn to “…read beyond the page…” as they interact with different platforms in the classroom to create content (Chase & Laufenberg, 2011, p.536). There are new literacies required to navigate the digital platforms of the twenty-first century.

Video games, challenges and the development of skill sets

Games such as Minecraft, Tetris, SuperMario Galaxy and Angry Birds also present opportunities for players to solve challenges which involve navigating spatial environments of lands, buildings and unfamiliar worlds. With advances in technology enabling the development of complex 3D game worlds, success for players is as much contingent on navigating and manipulating these spatial settings as using weapons or other artifacts.

McGonigal notes the important feature of video games and game design to motivate players to persist in solving challenges. As gamers engage in missions or quests they develop skills in perseverance, teamwork and problem solving. Citing World of Warcraft as an example, she examines the quest of improving yourself and the various activities gamers are required to manage ranging from quests, to battles and professional training (McGonigal, 2011, p.53) to improve their avatar. Work ranges from “high-stakes” activities such as battles, to exploratory and busywork such as working in their profession and trading.

Multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft engage players in several scenarios in one game:

  • Player versus the environment (overcoming challenges in the environment)
  • Player versus player (players in teams battling other players/teams)
  • Role play (player adopting a persona in the synthetic world)
  • Community play and socializing
  • Trading (within the game and in other online environments in the real world i.e. eBay) (Wolf, 2012, p. 560).

The design of the game uses quests and raids to stimulate discovery, authentic problem based learning and communities of practice (guilds). Wolf (2012) notes that although there are “… no classrooms, no formal curricula, no lectures, no teachers and no report cards …” (Wolf, 2012, p.566) and the success of WoW is that learning is largely self-organised with support from guilds, other players and gaming guided. The loyalty that comes with part of being a community member means that quitting or giving up also means leaving the online community.

The synthetic worlds created by MMORPGS are no longer limited to the online gamespace. Mobile devices and apps have opened the door for location based games where the boundaries between actual and virtual spaces are blurred. Locative games such as Google’s Ingress require players to travel and capture “portals” in the real world to upload to a database in a virtual environment. When players first enlist they are told “This is not a game.” Player mobility and place are become intertwined in unexpected relationships (Hjorth & Richardson, 2014, p.43). Locative mobile device based games are an extension of geotagging and Google maps which are a part of every day life for most mobile device owners and GPS users.

Video games and simulations for authentic learning

Video game based applications are no longer confined to synthetic/virtual game worlds penetrated by gamers. The twenty-first century demands highly skilled professionals in a range of specialist fields. The use of games by the army and medical fields to simulate work environments legitimises the adoption of a medium beyond entertainment applications. Militainment games and simulations are training the twenty-first century soldier who must know more than his weapon. Simulations train army personnel to integrate with all the systems they must work with. Games such as Americas Army Special Forces and Full Spectrum Warrior simulate squad based tactics and teach strategic decision making under simulated battle conditions (Discovery Channel, 2012, ).

Video games as enablers of change

CHM Revolutionaries: Reality is Broken – Jane McGonigal with NPR’s Laura Sydell (53:13) Hosted on

Simulations are also training professionals in other fields to solve important problem which impact our environment. McGongigal (2011) talks about making the planet better through the use of gaming technologies. Startup developer Bondi Labs in Australia are developing simulation training and serious games to help deal with global challenges like food security, protection of biodiversity and eye health in developing countries. Bondi Labs games currently deployed include Quarantine Hero and Plantwise – Plant Doctor Program (Marshall, 2015). Like Americas Army the developers at Bondi Labs collaborated with experts to build real world simulations to train employees and farmers.


Video games are the “worlds” people are choosing to inhabit, play, learn and connect with others online. The diversity of platforms and play options offer players rich opportunities for learning, playing and socialising. Games like Super Mario Galaxy, Angry Birds and Angry Birds Stella POP! are examples of games that provide players with spatial and strategic challenges. World of Warcraft provides engages learners with authentic problems to solve in a self-directed learning environment supported by communities of other players. Militainment and simulations are providing players with opportunities to engage in authentic simulated learning environments to practice specialised skills. Serious games are helping to train and skill workforces to solve real world problems.

Game based learning is providing players of all ages and cultures, across a variety of platforms and player modes with opportunities to engage with skills and literacies needed to achieve “…competence, autonomy…” and the capacity to engage in self-educated learning to navigate the twentieth-first century. Video games and game based learning is defining what it means to learn in the twenty-first century.


Arbav, S., Berta, R., Earp, J., de Freitas, S., Popsecu, M., Stanescu, I. & Usart, M. (2012). Framing the adoption of serious games in formal education. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 10(2), 159-171.

BBC. Mass Effect 3 to get extended ending at no cost to gamers. Retrieved from

Beavis, C., Rowan, L., Dezuanni, M., Macgillivray, C., O’Mara, J., Prestige, S., … Zagami, J. (2014). Teachers’ beliefs about the possibilities and limitations of digital games in classrooms. E-Learning and Digital Media, 11(6), pp.569-581.

Bourgonjon, J., De grove, F., De Smet, C., Van Looy, J., Soetaert, R. & Vlacke, M. (2013). Acceptance of game-based learning by secondary school teachers. Computers & Education, 67, 21-35.

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Gee, J.P. (2004). Learning by design: Good video games as learning machines. Interactive Educational Multimedia, 8, 15-23. Retrieved from

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

Marshall, J. (May, 2015). Learning by doing: How computer games can enhance education and training. QUT Grand Challenge Lecture. Gardens Point, Brisbane: QUT.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: The Penguin Press.

Rollings, A. & Morris, D. (2011). Game architecture and design: A new edition. Indianapolis, Indiana: New Riders.

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America’s Army. (2002). United States Army and Sega Studios San Francisco (Developers/Publishers).

Angry Birds. (2009). Rovio Entertainment (Developers/Publishers)

Angry Birds Stella POP! (2014). Rovio Entertainment. (Developers/Publishers).

CityVille. (2010). Zynga (Developer/Publisher)

FarmVille. (2009). Zynga (Developer/Publisher)

Lord of the Rings Online. (2015). Warner Entertainment (Developer/Publisher)

Minecraft. (2009). Mojang (Developers) Mojan, Sony, Microsoft (Publishers)

Pac-Man. (1980). Namco, Atari, Namco Networks, Interactive Brains (Developer/Publisher)

Pong. (1972). Atari (Developer/Publisher)

Super Mario Kart (1992). Nintendo (Developer/Publisher)

Tetris. (1984). Sega, Nintendo Research Development 1 (Developers), Nintendo, EA Mobile, Spectrum Holobyte, Tnady Corporation, Microsoft (Publishers)

World of Warcraft. (2004). Blizzard Entertainment. (Developer/Publisher)


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