BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Work and Play: London Educational Games Meetup

Last week I went along to the London Educational Games Meetup, and the event proved engaging, enlightening and thoroughly worth the train fare, so thanks must first go to organiser Kirsten Campbell-Howes. Props are also due to the good people at My Note Games who sponsored the event, and oiled its proverbial wheels, by supplying wine and beer.

There were around 50 people at the get-together, primarily computer game makers and educationalists — although I am not sure that those terms really do justice to the breadth of skills and backgrounds in the room — and Kirsten had found some great speakers to entertain us.

First up was Phil Stuart from the game studio Preloaded, who gave a presentation based on his post on the studio’s blog: Games that are ‘about’ something. If you want a primer on the studio’s work, their approach to game creation and the meat of his talk, go check out the blog post! Phil spoke about some of the studio’s work in term of four game ‘shapes’ — abstraction, metaphor, simulation and narrative — and gave examples of each. He also introduced their latest game, a commission for Channel 4 called The End, which is a game aimed at 14–19-year-olds designed to engage with some of the moral and philosophical aspects of death and mortality. Quite a heady mixture, and hardly obvious territory for self-identified ‘casual’ game makers.

Preloaded: The End - Death Dial

Phil’s talk was excellent and debate-worthy and it was great to see examples of the studio’s work explained in terms of their pedagogical intent. Phil’s blog post begins by stating that Preloaded “make fun games, with a purpose” and in his talk Phil spoke about how getting the balance right between the two — between fun and purpose — is (not surprisingly) a tricky business. The studio begins by interrogating and understanding the education goals and content of each commission, and then works out from that point to create a learning experience that can be delivered in the form of a game.

The (open) question — and I sincerely hope that I am neither misrepresenting the tenet of Phil’s presentation nor the reaction of the audience — is how overt those educational goals can be before you start to lose the fun, and commensurately how effective they are if their purpose is too well hidden? When does play become work? When does a game become a test? 

I shall leave those questions as open as I found them for now, because next up was primary school teacher, mother, gamer, geek and all-round educational evangelist Dawn Hallybone, who spoke with enough enthusiasm to fill a very large assembly hall about her experience of using computer games in the classroom. What I thought was striking about Dawn’s presentation was her seemingly heretical (in the circumstances) rejection of so-called ‘educational games’, or at least her observation that her own students often rejected games that were too obvious or preachy about their educational content.

Dawn, in contrast, makes creative and inspiring use of computer games as diverse as Mario Cart and Myst as a launchpad for all sorts of curriculum-driven outcomes that her (very lucky) primary students clearly have a great time engaging with.

Computer Games: Mario Cart, Myst

To hear Phil and Dawn speak, one after the other, was fascinating. They stand at different points on exactly the same path. You might say that Phil (to borrow his own phrase) makes games with a purpose, and that Dawn (to paraphrase) uses games for a purpose. That shared purpose is indeed education, but I am left wondering whether the games in either case should really be called ‘educational games’ — and (importantly) I don’t think that either Phil or Dawn did so!

Are we not learning something every time we play? Are not all games inherently educational?

I’m not saying don’t make ‘educational’ games, nor that games can’t encapsulate and deliver deliberately ‘educational’ goals; I’m just wondering aloud whether labelling any such experience as as ‘educational game’ might be counter-productive. The language seems to carve off some games at the expense of others, instantly valuing (or devaluing) one apparent class of game against another.

Both Phil and Dawn spoke eloquently about the value of games within education — and more power to their collective elbows! But it seemed to me that there was a palpable tension between their approaches that the evening left unresolved. If all games teach, then how and why do some games designed to teach succeed and others fail, either as games or as educational tools? How similar or distinct are the essential natures of learning and play? And is an ‘educational game’ a tautology, or a contradiction in terms?

I don’t know. I’m still learning.

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