Games are great. Play is a uniquely unifying activity that brings the world together. Go to any nursery, and you will see children who can't speak able to communicate through the language of play. Before we even learn to walk, we can engage in frivolity. Games are woven so deep into our lived experience that they contribute significantly to our early learning. Yet, as we get older, we are often pushed away from learning through these captivating activities, and other educational methods take precedence. There is a multitude of reasons why this happens, but certainly, preconceptions are one challenge. I was recently told at a talk that "we teach adults at university, games are inappropriate?", this wasn't the first time I had encountered this position either. If this is your school of thought, you are unlikely to enjoy this blog... but I will try to win you over!
Firstly, I'd like to get past the "games are for children" argument. According to recent studies, the average age of a video gamer is 35. One of the fastest-growing markets has been over 50s. The classes we teach in Higher Education are often full of enthusiastic gamers. Secondly, consider the amount of time people spend playing games. For example, fortnight (a popular combat game) has recorded total playtime than humans has existed on Earth, with 10,417,808 years invested in the game cumulatively by players. By integrating gameplay into education, we can harness a bit of this robust engagement.
Also, attitudes towards gaming in HE are clearly starting to change. Indeed, we see more studies published about how games are being used positively, but these are usually confined to individual case studies. However, the recently lockdowns and pivots online have encouraged people to explore novel engagement methods.
You may have considered gamification strategies. These can be great in an experienced practitioner's hands, but there are potential negative qualities that need to be closely managed. Gamification can lead to unintended behaviours, and there are questions about the long-term effectiveness of these strategies. Many gamification approaches are actually relatively far removed from games and replace the nuance of a complex gameplay experience's simple reward structures. A leaderboard and a gold star may make a process "gamified", but it doesn't make it a game.
But what if you want to integrate a genuine gameplay experience in a meaningful way? What options are available to you? This blog will pose four ideas for ways to incorporate games into your teaching and learning strategy. My list is by no means exhaustive and only intended to help spark some ideas. However, I am confident that each of these ideas is accessible regardless of your background/technical experience with games.
Games as Assessments
You can integrate games into your practice by getting students to build them as part of an assessment. Consider asking students to design and build a card or tabletop game based on the module's learning outcomes. Could a student create a board game based on the content learnt in a Medieval Literature module? Could a chemist create a card game that helps people to understand elementary particles? Beyond demonstrating their own understanding of the concepts, they would also learn transferable skills in communication. As a bonus, games like this could be shared with subsequent module cohorts or used as part of an outreach engagement.
Escape rooms are a specific type of game in which a player needs to escape from a locked room by solving a set of puzzles. Over the past year, I have seen many escape rooms implemented in a range of activities, everything from staff development to student transition. In my school, we implemented an escape room to teach new students how to use the institutional VLE and learn some of the university regulations. As escape rooms have become popular, there are loads of great examples online. I would especially recommend building these with your students, as they will come with a unique perspective. For example, our transitional escape rooms were built with our student reps. Another great thing about escape rooms is that they transition online really well. Students can work through puzzles to access codes that can unlock the next clue. For example, in our VLE module, the students had to solve a puzzle, the answer of which was the room number of an academic leading an example module.
I have been using games as part of my pastoral engagements for a few years. Play is an inherently humanising quality; it puts people at ease and helps create an informal atmosphere. To capitalise on this quality, I have been live-streaming gameplay sessions as a regular pastoral Q&A with my students. Myself, colleagues, and some students will go online, play a video game, and live-broadcast our session publicly. Students tune in, watch our gameplay experience and ask any questions they may have about the programme or their university experience. This may sound a little unusual, and it is a "unique" engagement, but it has been a very successful one. Each of our broadcasts have a high turnout, and we have improved our communication strategies this way. The play helps to create an atmosphere where we can all just chat, a digital equivalent of an informal mixer. The game also provides a visual quality that helps to maintain engagement between questions. Video games (by their nature) are visually captivating, and these added elements help to keep students engaged. Indeed, video games live-streaming (as a broadcast genre) is one of the fastest-growing forms of entertainment media and accounts for a huge amount of global internet bandwidth. We will often do a stream as an optional engagement where a considerable number of our students will tune in for almost 3 hours. We answer hundreds of questions while helping to create a strong sense of community. Lego Serious Play (for which there is loads of information published online) is another way that you could build interesting pastoral engagements.
You would be amazed by how many excellent educational video games available online. One of my favourite examples is Kerbal Space Programme (which has been embraced by NASA), which could be added to an educational strategy teaching physics, maths, and engineering. A quick search through various games repositories (Microsoft, Xbox, and Steam) found games covering various academic disciplines. However, it is worth remembering that games that are built for entertainment may not be "academically robust". This may not always be an issue, depending on how you use those games. One of the best examples I have seen of using gameplay in education was a history educator who asked students to go away and play various historical simulation games (such as the Civilisation series) and critique them in the subsequent seminar.
As mentioned, these four ideas are only the tip of the iceberg. I have picked these because they provide a snapshot of the variety of ways that we can use games in higher education. I really hope they help anyone considering exploring the exciting pedagogies that games can open up.
About the Author
Dr Chris Headleand is an Associate Professor and the Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of Computer Science, at the University of Lincoln. He has taught in a variety of roles and sectors for over 20 years and has specialised in using innovative digital platforms to engage students in learning opportunities. He got his PhD from Bangor University in 2016 and researches Virtual Reality, Student Engagement, and Serious Games. He is currently writing a practical guide to student engagement with SAGE.
If you enjoyed this blog you might enjoy another one of our blogs about whether gamification belongs in universities.