June 2017 archive

Chapter: Game based learning in secondary school libraries: Getting teacher librarians on board


A school library is a communal learning space where students can read, think, study, research, inquire, discuss, use technology and socialise. Secondary school libraries provide access to physical and digital learning spaces using a variety of print, digital and multimedia resources to support the curriculum and recreational needs of students and staff (Schultz-Jones & Oberg (2015). Traditional games have been played in school libraries for a long time and are recognised as instructional media (Elkins, 2015). Digital games have not always been embraced as enthusiastically due to negative perceptions by teacher librarians, parents and school administration however this is beginning to change. Recent research on game based learning (GBL) notes the positive effects games have on learning and the promotion of twenty-first century skills (Qian & Clark, 2016).

The provision of a range of multimodal resources, including games, can promote and develop multiliteracies (O’Connell, 2012) or new literacies that are required in today’s networked world. School libraries that restrict particular technology, such as digital games are at risk of alienating students who are exposed to diverse informal learning opportunities outside of school (Gee, 2012). Teacher librarians who are willing to get on board to learn about, acknowledge the many barriers in their way and incorporate GBL into the school library have the opportunity to meet the diverse learning, social and information literacy needs of their students (Elkins, 2015).

Negative Perceptions of Digital Games

Mainstream media have a tendency to report on controversies or negative stories surrounding video games and blame them for violence, obesity, injuries, addiction, social isolation and aggressive behaviour in young people (Bourgonjon, 2011). Video games are part of popular culture, designed for leisure and entertainment, and not intentionally designed for learning (Becker, 2011). They are also commonly referred to in the education community as commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) digital games. COTS games are not designed for teaching but are increasingly utilised for game based learning (Van Eck, 2006) because they incorporate learning principles. Video games such as these attract persuasive and sometimes sensationalist commentary in the mainstream media that can influence the views of educators on the legitimacy of video games for learning. Another concern that surrounds video games is that of commercialisation, monetisation and the impact advertising may have on young people. The video game industry is a commercial industry and therefore markets its games and merchandise directly to young people for economic reasons (Ulicsak & Williamson, 2010) and this worries some educators. Excessive screen time and calls for limits to be placed on the amount of time young people spend using screen based technologies has become an issue with ubiquitous mobile devices. Balancing screen time between informal and formal learning causes some debate amongst parents and teachers. For educators that are unfamiliar with video games these negative mass media messages may be the only ones they are receiving about video games (Kirsch, 2014) and make them nervous of GBL.

The types of digital games available today are diverse. Educational games are designed to support teaching and learning with clear educational goals in mind. Educational games include edutainment games, serious games, simulations and epistemic games (Ulicsak & Williamson, 2010). Edutainment games were trailblazers in the early days of digital games but their reputation suffered when they failed to progress and engage players to the same extent as COTS games (Habgood & Ainsworth, 2011). Fun and learning were viewed by some game designers as being diametrically opposed and entertainment elements were considered necessary to make the learning palatable. The failure of many edutainment games is attributed to lack of intrinsic motivation, drill and skill learning principles, simple play, small budgets (Becker, 2010) and commercial interests taking precedence over educational theories (Squire & Patterson, 2011). These games rely on repetition and are based on behaviourist learning theory where learning is only transmitted (Ulicsak & Williamson, 2010). Sometimes these games are good learning tools but as games they are mediocre (Van Eck, 2006). Educators should be aware that a bad experience with one game should not be generalised to all games. Careful selection of games and alignment with chosen pedagogy is the key.

Positive Perceptions of Digital Games

The Digital Australia Report states that 68% of Australians play video games (Brand & Todhunter, 2015) and the Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015 reports 72% of American teenagers across the socio-economic spectrum play video games (Lenhart, 2015). The growing acceptance of game based learning by policy makers is partly due to recent research findings that games can be applied effectively for learning. Emphasis on Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and the forecast time to adoption of game based learning as two to three years according to the Horizon Report: 2011 K-12 Edition (Johnson, Adams & Haywood, 2011) have provided educators with further validation of game based learning.

Education is the main goal of serious games yet they borrow design approaches from commercial games to make them more engaging such as intrinsic motivation, fantasy, control, challenge, curiosity and competition (Brom, 2009). Gee states that “good video games incorporate good learning principles supported by current research in cognitive science” (Gee, 2005, p. 34). These principles align with established learning theories such as constructivism, cognitivism, sociocultural theory of learning and flow theory. This means that good games can provide authentic learning situations, promote social interactions, increase motivation, encourage higher-order thinking and foster twenty-first century skills (Qian & Clark, 2016). The effectiveness of game based learning is however dependent on the incorporation of game design elements and mechanics that are informed by learning theories (Plass, Homer & Kinzer, 2015). There is a growing acceptance amongst educators that game based learning can promote collaboration, problem solving and communication (Johnson, Adams & Haywood, 2011).

Contemporary COTS and serious games operate within a social context. In informal settings, games are social experiences for teenagers (Plass, Homer & Kinzer, 2015). Game forums, wikis, blogs, cheat sites and Youtube videos of game walkthroughs are part of a participatory learning culture. Players share their common interest of a game with other like-minded individuals, seek information and create knowledge in these virtual affinity spaces (Turkay, Hoffman, Kinzer, Chantes & Vicari 2014). They are learning a variety of skills, probably without even realising it. It is argued that games implemented by educators who are aware of these social aspects can teach social norms, practices (Plass, Homer & Kinzer, 2015) and twenty-first century skills. The learning potential of games is enhanced when sociocultural perspectives are recognised by the educator who then encourages social interaction through pedagogy and incorporation of participatory spaces outside of the game (Beavis et al., 2014).

Teacher librarians’ perceptions of digital games and game based learning

Alongside classroom teachers, teacher librarians are likely to share diverse opinions, attitudes, concerns, excitement, enthusiasm and trepidation about game based learning. (Hovious & Van Eck, 2015). It is expected that amongst the population of teacher librarians some will be games advocates, others anti-games and some will be in the middle without a strong opinion. Unfortunately there is a lack of research about the attitudes of teacher librarians to game based learning. Hovious & Van Eck conducted a survey of 117 teacher librarians in the United States and found that 42% of teacher librarians had used a digital game in the library and 41% had used a digital game for instruction in their lessons (2015). Although this small study cannot be widely extrapolated it does indicate that game based learning has not been fully embraced by all teacher librarians.

As discussed earlier attitudes to video games are often shaped by mass media and for some teacher librarians this may be their only exposure to information about games (Kirsch, 2014).

Teacher librarians who look beyond mass media reports by using their research skills to thoroughly examine the pros and cons of GBL using scholarly literature are more likely to consider GBL a viable strategy in their library.

Perceptions of where game based learning fits into the school library’s program may hinge on traditional views of the role of the library. Some educators may think “video games are too trivial a pursuit to bring into the library” (Adams, 2009, p. 676). Some members of the school community may see video games in the library as disruptive and counter to the purpose of serious study (Curry, 2013).

Teacher librarians may shy away from GBL because they have not been exposed to a broad range of games (Adams, 2009) and therefore are not aware of the learning opportunities they can leverage from them. On the other hand many teacher librarians have recognised the links GBL can have to literature, reading, information seeking and information literacy. (Elkins, 2005). Increasingly, anecdotal stories about game based learning occurring in school libraries feature in school library literature and at conferences. Research and government policy is helping to legitimise GBL and subsequently influencing teacher librarians’ perceptions (2011 innovating with technology games-based learning research trials: Findings to inform school practice, 2011).

Barriers to game based learning

Enthusiasm for GBL is increasing however there are challenges that teacher librarians may face when implementing it into their services and programs (Hovious & Van Eck, 2015). These challenges are often referred to in the literature as barriers or hurdles. van Rosmalen & Westera have identified four categories: expertise barriers, systemic barriers, financial barriers and technical barriers (2014).

Expertise barriers

Lack of knowledge about games, game culture and game based learning pedagogy is an impediment to the adoption of game based learning. 78% of active video game players in Australia are over 18 and the average age of a video game player is 33 (Brand & Todhunter 2015) but playing games for entertainment does not necessarily equate to experience with GBL. This statistic also indicates that 22% of adults do not play games and some of these will be teachers and teacher librarians. Digital games come in many formats and familiarity with one may not transfer to another format. Even if a teacher librarian is familiar with certain types games they may lack expertise in others. Research has found that some teachers feel anxious about loss of control of the learning environment and therefore lack confidence with implementing GBL (Beavis et al., 2014). Improving game literacy of teacher librarians can help overcome expertise barriers and can be addressed through professional development, a personal learning network (PLN) and during pre-service training of teacher librarians (van Rosmalen & Westera, 2014).

Systemic barriers

The structure of the school curriculum, dependence on external assessment and reliance on textbooks are cited as common barriers to GBL. Teacher librarians also have to overcome the problem of limited time allocations with classes. Lack of support from colleagues and school administration is another perceived barrier (Becker, 2010). Teacher librarians have some advantages in overcoming systemic barriers by having a space where all students can gather to access print collections, digital tools and play games (Curry, 2013). One way of overcoming systemic barriers would be to initially explore digital games as a lunchtime activity.

Financial barriers

Licensing agreements can be expensive and beyond the reach of some school budgets. Free online games are an alternative but need to be selected carefully. Teacher librarians should investigate whether special funding is available from education departments or their school.

Technical barriers

The infrastructure to run games is complex and often requires support from information technology experts. The increase in online games and apps for mobile devices has alleviated some technical barriers but can still constrain the less experienced teacher librarian.

Opportunities for Game Based Learning in the School Library

School libraries must adapt to meet the needs of their community by providing access to information in a variety of formats (O’Connell, 2012). School library collections include print, digital and multimedia resources that support learning, teaching and information literacy. Digital games therefore have a place in library collections just as books do (Gee, 2012).

Including resources that feature games and gaming such as fiction and non-fiction books, and magazines into the collection could encourage some reluctant readers (Elkins, 2015). Games are often incorporated in transmedia stories where narrative, social media, video, audio and games merge. Identifying suitable transmedia stories and promoting these to students is another way of encouraging reading in a different format.

The school library is also a social place where students can gather. The school library has always supported the recreational reading needs of students (as a way of improving literacy) and could do the same with recreational gaming (Hovious & Van Eck, 2015). This could be attempted in different ways such as providing a space for a game club to meet or hosting gaming tournaments (Elkins, 2015). The introduction of digital games into the library space may attract new library patrons and engage existing ones. Digital games can also “act as doorway into other channels of games literacy such as through blogs, wikis, reviews, films and even books” (Curry, 2013, para 7).

Makerspaces within libraries can support the creation of games with coding. While some staff input is required, peer-to-peer learning is encouraged (Belbin & Newcombe, 2013) across age groups. Students are driven by their interest and self-motivated in a hands on way.

Teacher librarians can use GBL to teach information literacy. Some games may only operate as drill and skill to teach library skills such as the Dewey Classification System and citation. COTS games and serious games can be used to teach information literacy because “information literacy competencies and research behaviors are an intrinsic part of many games” (Smale, 2011, p. 48). For example the quest game, The Legend of Zelda uses the same kind of research information process, as a student is encouraged to use: search for and collect information, select relevant resources and use the information to achieve their goal.


Game based learning within the school library may be daunting and confusing for some teacher librarians but they should get on board. Providing access to a range of print and digital resources is essential to meet the information needs of today’s connected learners. Teacher librarians can get on board with game based learning by being open-minded, willing to overcome barriers, prepared to learn through play, and by critically evaluating the latest research.



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