Gaming and Literacy

Full disclosure:  I am not and never have been a gamer.  When my friends were playing PacMan and Space Invaders, I was listening to my Wham albums and writing in my journal.  I never had the patience or the hand-eye coordination. Even now, when my two teens and my husband are playing Flappy Bird, Candy Crush or Monster-Buster Solitaire (their latest obsession), I don’t get it and feel myself getting frustrated by how much time they are “wasting”.

I recognize that we often make assumptions about things based on our own experiences and values.  This is true for me and Games-based learning in the classroom.

Some educators whom I admire very much swear that using Gaming in the classroom is a game-changer (pun intended); and they’ve been saying this for years!

Last year, Denise Colby and Diane Malezsewski from Gaming Edus came to an EdTech day I helped to organize to showcase the power of Minecraft in the classroom.  I was excited about the possibilities as I had seen Zoe Branigan-Pipe experiment with Minecraft years ago, to some amazing results.  There can be no doubt that gaming in education is having an impact on teaching and learning.  I know this, I have known this.  I tweet and retweet information about this.  But I didn’t really get it.

So what has stopped me from truly embracing Game-based learning?

  • I have struggled with the idea that students would be taking class time to interact with a computer instead of their classmates and the teacher
  • I understood on a conceptual level how playing games had learning potential, but not on a practical level
  • I am not good at playing games, so there is a fear of looking stupid in front of students and/or teachers
  • I did not (as I promised myself I would) actually try playing Minecraft or any other game.  I continued to consider the concept, without playing in the space
  • I don’t have a class, so actually trying it with students to see what it looks like and reflect on the experience hasn’t been a possibility

    What does the research say?

    “Game- based learning (GBL), or the use of video games for educational purposes, has been shown to be an effective means of enhancing both learning motivation and academic performance (Kingsley & Grabner-Hagen, 2015, pg 52).

    Games-based learning can shorten this disconnect by bridging the types of activities students favor at home (gaming) with the required, standards- based curriculum—as one student put simply, “A fun way to learn, but it does not feel like learning.” (Kingsley & Grabner-Hagen, 2015).

    The kinds of learning that take place through well- designed games—and, through extension, gamification provide an environment that negotiates text and images, pulling together the principles of New Literacies theory (Kingsley & Grabner-Hagen, 2015, pg 59). 

    So what changed?

I have a new-found appreciation for Gaming and its impact on Literacy after a few of my peers, Cassidy Deleplanque, Morgan Purdy, and Rodney Robertson, presented on the topic in my Digital Literacies course at UOIT. Why?  I actually began to play a few games–they made me!  I realized how little I understood the genre and its potential for literacy and how not all games are created equally.

During the presentation, I had a chat with Shelley Merton in my class, which really helped me to think about gaming based on her lived experience.  She is referring to Forge of Empires which she uses with her grade 5 social studies class (Ontario Curriculum):

It’s about applying the big ideas from ancient civ and medieval times into something where they got to make decisions and get rewards or frustrations that come with the wielding of power  (can be connected to the Curriculum)

@ jennifer…. when playing FOE it wasn’t as much about the writing as it was the strategy and the discussions about how to move a civilization forward successfully or not.   As well as what it looks like to play a trade based strategy vs a combat based strategy (can promote oral communication, writing, creativity)

When I use games in my info tech time, we discuss the four reasons why a game would be worth using classroom time to play… kids can’t play them till they can tell me what category they fit into.   LOL  (Critical Thinking and Problem Solving)

I also tell them I expect them to hold an intelligent conversation with any parent, admin, trustee or anyone else who comes into the lab and asks why they are playing that game (Critical thinking)

And so, I went into Forge of Empires and began to play.  I also played Spent. I downloaded Minecraft and started to build.  I downloaded Monument Valley and truthfully I don’t know what I’m doing there…yet, but it’s beautiful!


What I’ve learned

We can’t make assumptions about what will help students learn best by our own ideas about learning. Games can provide opportunities to differentiate for our students, provide a rich springboard for writing and reading, as well as reinforce critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration.

We need to play in the space! I always thought that games-based learning in the classroom was extremely valuable, but now I really understand what that might look like.

I also learned I’m absolutely terrible at all of these games (not a surprise)!  But I can’t expect others to take risks, be open-minded and flexible if I am not prepared to be.  And I really can’t superficially agree (or disagree) with an idea, without really trying to understand it more deeply; after all, I would never want my students or my kids to do that.

What games have you played with your students?  What recommendations do you have for other educators thinking of embarking in Games-based learning?

Resources & Ideas

The Gaming Edus website is an incredible resource for Ontario educators who are looking at integrating gaming (especially Minecraft in the classroom).

Five ways Minecraft and other video games can boost student writing skills

Collaboration, Camaraderie: Financial Literacy with Clash of the Titans, by Brian Aspinall, is a great read!

Edutopia, not surprisingly, has a whole resource page dedicated to Games-based Learning.

Check out the EdAdvocate’s post, The positive connection between games and online learning.



Kingsley, T. & Grabner-Hagen, M. (2015). Gamification: Questing to integrate content knowledge,     literacy, and 21st century learning. JAAL, 59(1), 51-61.




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