Hit for Six – Games with ‘Good Learning Principles’

For many around the world, early September means back to school. Back to school means cutting back on time for gaming and returning to the daily grind of study, probably accompanied by reminders from parents and teachers of how games are a waste of time and bad for the brain.

And yet, there is a growing movement that promotes the use of digital games in education. Proponents of Digital Game-based Learning (or DGBL for short) cite how modern games can be used to facilitate and enhance the learning process. That sounds like a gamer’s dream but, like anything, requires a little more in-depth analysis (before anyone tries the same trick my son does – declaring “games are good for learning” before loading up Goat Simulator…)

Before we continue, just to be clear, one thing DGBL is not is incidental learning. Some games – Assassin’s Creed for instance – have a rich historical context, and others – Football Manager is a prime example – are steeped in realism. Sure, you may learn a few facts about renaissance Europe and colonial-era America as you play, and you may improve your knowledge of obscure Malaysian football clubs, but the learning is superficial – you have as much chance of becoming an historical expert or a tactical football genius from these game as you do of becoming a skilled doctor from playing Surgeon Simulator!

The other thing to be wary of is enforced learning. If you have ever played ‘games’ as part of your classes at school, you will probably know what I mean. These are classic classroom tasks dressed up with late-90s PlayStation graphics. A series of math problems is still a series of math problems, even if the right answer has the power to win a boss battle. These games are often derided be learners simply because they are not good games.

So, what makes a good game with good learning properties? This is where the work of James Paul Gee comes in. Gee is a renowned professor of linguistics who developed an interest in digital games well into his fifties. Having never really played before he noticed his kids devoting hours to games, he tried out the likes of Deus Ex and Medal of Honor and realised that the best games demonstrate good learning principles. In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, he identifies these as embodied meaning – the context the game provides to give the player a reason to learn how to play it – and reflective practice. This is a key critical thinking skill encouraged by how the player probes the game world, hypothesises about what objects or events may do in the context of the game, tests out their hypotheses, and finally reflects on the feedback from the game while continuing to play, adapting to the game as they do so.

The kind of learning I am talking about then is not learning facts or finding answers. It is developing thinking skills to solve puzzles and advance a narrative. But enough of the theory – here are six examples of games which encourage (or can be used to encourage) Gee’s good learning principles:



On the face of it, this may seem like a classic case of incidental learning. It is, after all, a historically-themed game with plenty of references to major inventions and events from world history. However, historically accurate it is not, as anyone who has been threatened with a nuclear apocalypse by Ghandi or marvelled at the wonder of the Great Pyramids of Grimsby can testify.

Instead, the Civilization series’ turn-based gameplay and real-world setting allow for a strong context and reflective thinking as the player plans several moves ahead, favouring a diplomacy, technology, cultural soft power, or military might as they do so. Surprise moves from rival civilisations means a constant need to re-evaluate and think strategically. Going even deeper, Aleksander Husoy, a social studies teacher in Norway, used the game as part of social studies, using it as a vehicle for his students to explore and reflect on the concepts of conflict, power, globalisation, and development (you can read his blog about Using Civilization for Learning here).


The Escapists

From a ‘serious game’ to a more oddball one, The Escapists certainly tests a player’s long-term planning skills. It all looks and sounds so easy, but this is a game where brute force and dumb luck won’t work. You have to scout out your environment, learn the prison routines, find the weaknesses, hatch a plan, collect resources, and then out it all into action. Inevitably, something goes wrong, and you need to re-think and adapt quickly or risk being sent to solitary.

I have used this game with high school students, and it really does engage learners in reflective practice. Getting them to make and explain a plan and then identify what went wrong and what they can do differently next time encourages a high degree of critical analysis and problem-solving. Not bad for a game that looks like a casual retro distraction (click here to read our review of The Escapists 2).


Her Story

Sticking with the prison/police theme but going back to the realm of ‘serious games’ brings us to Her Story, a throwback to the days of FMV games. You have access to a police archive of recorded interviews with a witness/suspect in an old murder case. As you watch clips and pick up on clues, you can enter search terms into the database to unearth more clips, advancing the story as you do so. This is the ultimate interactive story – you get to choose how the story unfolds as you pursue the threads that catch your interest.

This is a game that promotes critical text analysis. Instead of passively watching as you would with a TV drama, you are forced to focus on subtle hints and inconsistencies to get closer to the truth. As new revelations arise, you are forced to rethink and form new theories in a manner your English Literature teacher would have been proud of.


Portal 2

More than just a puzzle game with a good story, Portal 2 incorporates advanced physics, math, and engineering while challenging the player to consider the role of technology in problem-solving and education. The standard single-player and multiplayer modes challenge players to think outside the box well enough on their own, but it is through the editing tool that Portal 2 really comes to the fore in a learning context.

Since its release, teachers around the world have been using Portal 2 to build puzzles to test out things like spatial awareness and 3D coordinates, often difficult to replicate in an under-resourced classroom. Add in the fact that there is usually more than one way to solve a puzzle, collaboration beats competition, and learners can move on to designing their own puzzles, and you have a recipe for great learning (see this article for a teacher’s perspective on using Portal with students).


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim may not initially seem to have any relevance to learning. It lacks the historical context of a game like Assassin’s Creed or the literature links of The Witcher, and yet it is such a richly detailed world with a strong lore and powerful narrative that you can even take a university course on it. There are also courses available based on the dragon language and music of the game. Skyrim is truly a marvel of literary multi-media.

One striking example of it in use comes from Mykhailo Noshchenko, a university lecturer in Ukraine teaching English academic writing skills. Advised against referencing the on-going political strife in the east of his country, he utilised Skyrim and its own in-game conflicts as a topic for his students’ essays (read more here). Playing the game also had the advantage of immersing them in an English language environment and giving them authentic practice that was otherwise hard to find.



You knew this one would be on the list somewhere, right? Minecraft is probably the first game that comes to the minds of most when ‘games’ and ‘education’ are mentioned together. It exhibits Gee’s idea of embodied meaning through its deceptively detailed world and basic need for the player to survive. It challenges the player to plan, reflect, and adapt to succeed. Most of all, it allows ample room for creativity. With the right resources, almost anything is possible. Being able to create something born of imagination is a powerful motive for any learner.

That is why Minecraft has been such a hit across a range of subjects. Geography teachers use it to show biomes and communities in action. ICT teachers use it to teach coding. Math teachers use it for geometry and calculating area and volume. History teachers use it to recreate cities and eras of the past. Literature and language teachers use it to provide a platform for student storytelling. The only concern for its long-term future in the classroom is the growth of Minecraft: Education Edition. Why? Because it increases the risk of all the positive aspects of the game eventually being morphed into enforced learning…

The good learning principles of games are all about exploration, experimentation, and reflection. As a player, greater awareness of the skills you are using as you play can help you apply these thinking skills to other contexts. Parents and teachers can also play a huge role in encouraging this kind of thinking. Remember that next time you are making a case for postponing work in favour of Goat Simulator!

Are there any games for learning that you would add to the list? Or any experiences of learning through games that you would like to share? Leave your comments here and on our social media channels!

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