ET2 Educational Gaming

ET2 Educational Gaming

We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!” 

― Benjamin Franklin

Computer games are one of the ways children now engage with play, and just as the importance of play for learning is bing rediscovered, so too is the potential of computer games to student learning. It is useful to understand why play is so influential and the theories of play that can improve your teaching through play. Then it is important to explore how computer games can be used for play, and the huge variety and types of computer games available for teacher and students to use to support learning. Beyond the computer games themselves, the techniques used in games can be applied for non game activities - gamification, and the worlds that are created as the context and setting for computer games  can also be used to contextualise and motivate student learning even when the games themselves are not directly used in the classroom. There are several concepts to explore in this module - play, gaming, gamification, serious play, and secondary worlds, beyond the theory presented it is also helpful to engage with some of the game types described and a collection is provided for you to explore.

Dr Jason Zagami

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Play is a natural process, fundamental to learning in many animals and of course humans.

There are seven accepted types of play:

  1. Attunement, which establishes a connection, such as between newborn and mother;

  2. Body, in which an infant explores the ways in which his or her body works and interacts with the world, such as making funny sounds or discovering what happens in a fall;

  3. Object, such as playing with toys, banging pots and pans, handling physical things in ways that use curiosity;

  4. Social, play which involves others in activities such as tumbling, making faces, and building connections with another child or group of children;

  5. Imaginative (also called "pretend" or "fantasy"), in which a child invents scenarios from his or her imagination and acts within them as a form of play, such as princess or pirate play;

  6. Narrative (or storytelling), the play of learning and language that develops intellect, such as a parent reading aloud to a child, or a child retelling the story in his or her own words; and

  7. Transformative (or integrative), by which one plays with imagination to transcend what is known in the current state, to create a higher state. For example, a person might experiment to find a new way to use a musical instrument, thereby taking that form of music to a higher plane; or, as Einstein was known to do, a person might wonder about things which are not yet known and play with unproven ideas as a bridge to the discovery of new knowledge.

Play is distinguished from work along a continuum (Huizinga, 1938), with play being a progressive state of mind that we enter and can be described as:
  • Play is free, is in fact freedom;

  • Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life;

  • Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration;

  • Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme; and

  • Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

Later research (Caillois, 1961) refined this to six core characteristics of play:

  • it is free, or not obligatory; 

  • it is separate (from the routine of life) occupying its own time and space; 

  • it is uncertain, so that the results of play cannot be pre-determined and so that the player's initiative is involved; 

  • it is unproductive in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins; 

  • it is governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours and that must be followed by players; and 

  • it involves make-believe that confirms for players the existence of imagined realities that may be set against 'real life'.

Forms of Play

Caillois (1961) then placed games within four forms, and two types of play:
  • Agon, or competition. where players start equal and one player proves themselves better than the others. It emphasises effort, skill, training, patience etc. and includes most sports, chess, . Most animal play is this.

  • Alea, or chance. Players do not control the outcome and effort, skill, age, patience, training etc. are not important, however all players are equal making this type of play especially useful when children and adults play together - it levels the playing field. It includes all gambling games, and games where chance determines success e.g. Snakes and Ladders.

  • Mimicry, mimesis, or role playing. This is an entering into illusions, suspension of disbelief, or becoming fictional characters. Pleasure is derived at passing for another rather than deceiving with masks, travesty and cosplay. With spectators it becomes mimicry and does not require rules, but a process of continuous inventing. It includes rolepay, theatre, freeform, Live Action Role Play (LARP) and MMOG?

  • Ilinx (Greek for "whirlpool"), or vertigo, in the sense of altering perception. This includes taking hallucinogens, riding roller coasters, or children spinning until they fall down, and is achieved by breaking the stability of normal action.

These forms can be combined in various ways:

Poker features both alea, the random shuffling of cards, and agon, the strategic decisions of discarding cards and betting.

Collectible card games combine alea (the random shuffling of decks and the distribution of cards in booster packs), agon (competition with rules and strategies) and mimesis (cards refer to imaginary beings the player controls in a fictional world).

Dancing is an ilinx activity, which can be combined with mimesis to portray characters, or with agon in competitive dance.

Types of play 

Types of play are expressed along a continuum between:

  • Ludus as structured activities with explicit rules (games); to

  • Paidia of unstructured and spontaneous activities (playfulness).

Categories of Play

In more recent research (Sutton-Smith, 1997) has developed Categories of Play:

  • Mind or subjective play: dreams, daydreams, fantasy, imagination, Dungeons and Dragons, playing with metaphors;

  • Solitary play: hobbies, collections, listening to music, art projects, pets, reading, yoga, collecting and building cars, Civil War reenactments, bird watching, crosswords;

  • Playful behaviors: playing tricks, playing around, playing up to someone, playing a part, putting something into play, playing fair, playing by the rules;

  • Informal social play: joking, parties, travel, leisure, dancing, getting laid, potlucks, malls, babysitting, creative anachronism, intimacy, bars and taverns, amusement parks;

  • Vicarious audience play: television, films, cartoons, spectator sports, theater, jazz, rock music, parades, comic books, Renaissance festivals, museums;

  • Performance play: playing the piano, playing music, being a play actor, playing the fishes, playing the horses, play voices, playhouses;

  • Celebrations and festivals: birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween, gifting, banquets, balls, weddings, carnivals, balls, Mardi Gras;

  • Contests (games and sports): athletics, gambling, casinos, lotteries, pool, golf, parlor games, drinking, the Olympics, cockfights, poker, chance, board games, card games; and

  • Risky or deep play: caving, hang gliding, kayaking, bungee jumping, skateboarding, windsurfing.

Rhetorics of play 

The rhetoric of play as progress, poses play as a developmental arena wherein players learn and practice for adulthood. This was developed partially because of the characteristic imitation of adults by children. This is challenged by Sutton-Smith (1997):

  • The rhetoric of play as fate. This rhetoric is older than the rest, going back to mythologies in which human lives are controlled by destiny, gods, or luck;

  • The rhetoric of play as power. Power is at the heart of competitions, and this poses that play is the expression of conflict. It emphasises that those who control the play are its heroes. This rhetoric is strongly opposed to modern theories around leisure and progress;

  • The rhetoric of play as identity. Sutton-Smith’s use of identity is tricky in this space. What is meant here is cultural identity. This emphasises social and cultural roles and structures. There is a focus on communal identity rather than individual. The individually focused complement to this is the rhetoric of the self;

  • The rhetoric of play as the imaginary. The imaginary ties into creativity and flexibility. “This rhetoric is sustained by modern positive attitudes toward creativity and innovation.”;

  • The rhetoric of the self. The rhetoric of the self is usually applied toward solitary activities, but can be characterized by other ideas such as fun, relaxation, and escape. The central focus is in the experience of the player. This rhetoric is arguably the most modern because of its appeal to individuality and consumerism; and

  • The rhetoric of play as frivolous. Frivolity is difficult to characterise: it applies to absurdity and the historical roles of tricksters and fools.


Gee (2007) has identified 36 principles to consider when examining learning and play:

  1. Active, Critical Learning Principle

    All aspects of the the learning environment (including ways in which the semiotic domain is designed and presented) are set up to encourage active and critical, not passive, learning;

  2. Design Principle

    Learning about and coming to appreciate design and design principles is core to the leaning experience;

  3. Semiotic Principle

Learning about and coming to appreciate interrelations within and across multiple sign systems (images, words, actions, symbols, artefacts, etc.) as a complex system is core to the learning experience;

  4. Semiotic Domains Principle

    Leaning involves mastering, at some level, semiotic domains, and being able to participate, at some level, in the affinity group or groups connected to them;

  5. Meta-level thinking about Semiotic Domain Principle

Learning involves active and critical thinking about the relationships of the semiotic domain being learned to other semiotic domains;

  6. “Psychosocial Moratorium” Principle

Learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences are lowered;

  7. Committed Learning Principle

Learners participate in an extended engagement (lots of effort and practice) as an extension of their real-world identities in relation to a virtual identity to which they feel some commitment and a virtual world that they find compelling;

  8. Identity Principle

Learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones. There is a tripartite play of identities as learners relate, and reflect on, their multiple real-world identities, a virtual identity, and a projective identity;

  9. Self-Knowledge Principle

The virtual world is constructed in such a way that learners learn not only about the domain but also about themselves and their current and potential capacities;

  10. Amplification of Input Principle

    For a little input, learners get a lot of output;

  11. Achievement Principle

    For learners of all levels of skill there are intrinsic rewards from the beginning, customised to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery and signalling the learner’s ongoing achievements;

  12. Practice Principle

    Learners get lots and lots of practice in a context where the practice is not boring (i.e. in a virtual world that is compelling to learners on their own terms and where the learners experience ongoing success). They spend lots of time on task;

  13. Ongoing Learning Principle

    The distinction between the learner and the master is vague, since learners, thanks to the operation of the “regime of competency” principle listed next, must, at higher and higher levels, undo their routinized mastery to adapt to new or changed conditions. There are cycles of new learning, automatisation, undoing automatization, and new re-organized automatisation;

  14. “Regime of Competence” Principle

    The learner gets ample opportunity to operate within, but at the outer edge of, his or her resources, so that at those points things are felt as challenging but not “Undoable”;

  15. Probing Principle

    Learning is a cycle of probing the world (doing something); reflecting in and on this action and, on this basis, forming a hypothesis; re-probing the world to test this hypothesis; and then accepting or rethinking the hypothesis;

  16. Multiple Routes Principle

There are multiple ways to make progress or move ahead. This allows learners to make choices, rely on their own strengths and styles of learning and problem-solving, while also exploring alternative styles;

  17. Situated Meaning Principle

    The meanings of signs (words, actions, objects, artefacts  symbols, texts, etc.) are situated in embodied experience. Meanings are not general or de-contextualised. Whatever generality meanings come to have is discovered bottom up cia embodied experience;

  18. Text Principle

Texts are not understood purely verbally (i.e. only in terms of the definitions of the words in the text and their text-internal relationships to each other) but are understood in terms of embodied experience. Learners move back and forth between texts and embodied experiences. More purely verbal understanding (reading texts apart from embodied action) comes only when learners have enough embodied experience in the domain and ample experiences with similar texts;

  19. Intertextual Principle

The learner understands texts as a family (“genre”) of related texts and understands any one text in relation to others in the family, but only after having achieved embodied understandings of some texts. Understanding a group of texts as a family (“genre”) of texts is a large part of what helps the learner to make sense of texts;

  20. Multimodal Principle

Meaning and knowledge ate built up through various modalities (images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound, etc.), not just words;

  21. “Material Intelligence” Principle

Thinking, problem-solving and knowledge are “stored” in material objects and the environment. This frees learners to engage their minds with other things while combining the results of their own thinking with the knowledge stored in material objects and the environment to achieve yet more powerful effects;

  22. Intuitive Knowledge Principle

Intuitive or tacit knowledge built up in repeated practice and experience, often in association with an affinity group, counts a good deal and is honoured. Not just verbal and conscious knowledge is rewarded;

  23. Subset Principle

Learning even at its start takes place in a (simplified) subset of the real domain;

  24. Incremental Principle

Learning situations are ordered in the early stages so that earlier cases lead to generalisations that are fruitful for later cases. When learners face more complex cases later, the learning space (the number and type of guess the learner can make) is constrained by the sorts of fruitful patterns or generalisations the learned has founded earlier;

  25. Concentrated Sample Principle

The learner sees, especially early on, many more instances of the fundamental signs and actions than should be the case in a less controlled sample. fundamental signs and actions are concentrated in the early stages so that learners get to practice them often and learn them well;

  26. Bottom-up Basic Skills Principle

Basic skills are not learned in isolation or out of context; rather, what counts as a basic skill is discovered bottom up by engaging in more and more of the game/domain or games/domains like it. Basic skills are genre elements of a given type of game/domain;

  27. Explicit Information On-Demand & Just-in-Time Principle

    The learner is given explicit information both on-demand and just-in-time, when the learner needs it or just at the point where the information can best be understood and used in practice;

  28. Discovery Principle

    Overt telling is kept to a well-thought-out minimum, allowing ample opportunities for the learner to experiment and make discoveries;

  29. Transfer Principle

Learners are given ample opportunity to practice, and support for, transferring what they have learned earlier to later problems, including problems that require adapting and transforming that earlier learning;

  30. Cultural Models about the World Principle

    Learning is set up in such a way that learners come to think consciously and reflectively about some of their cultural models regarding the world, without denigration of their identities, abilities or social affiliations, and juxtapose them to new models that may conflict with or otherwise relate to them in various ways;

  31. Cultural Models about Learning Principle

    Learning is set up in such a way that learners come to think consciously and reflectively about their cultural models about learning and themselves as learners, without denigration of their identities, abilities, or social affiliations, and juxtapose them to new models of learning and themselves as learners;

  32. Cultural Models about Semiotic Domains Principle

    Cultural models about a particular semiotic domain are learning, without denigration of their identities, abilities, or social affiliations, and juxtapose them to new models about this domain;

  33. Distributed Principle

Meaning/knowledge is distributed across the learner, objects, tools, symbols, technologies, and the environment;

  34. Dispersed Principle

Meaning/knowledge is dispersed in the sense that the learner shares it with others outside the domain/game, some of whom the learner may rarely or never see face-to-face;

  35. Affinity Group Principle

    Learners constitute an “affinity group,” that is, a group that is bonded primarily through shared en devours, goals, and practices and not shared race, gender, nation, ethnicity, or culture; and

  36. Insider Principle

    The learner is an “insider,” “teacher,” and “producer” (not just a consumer) able to customise the learning experience and the domain/game from the beginning and throughout the experience.

(Gee, 2007)


Gamification is the use of game mechanics that are so engaging for other purposes, including problem solving, advertising, social change, and of course education.

Gamification techniques leverage people's natural desires for competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, and closure. A core strategy for gamifying is to provide rewards for players for accomplishing desired tasks. Types of rewards include points, achievement badges or levels, the filling of a progress bar, and providing the user with virtual currency. 

Competition is another element of games that can be used in gamification. Making the rewards for accomplishing tasks visible to other players or providing leader boards are ways of encouraging players to compete.Another approach to gamification is to make existing tasks feel more like games. Some techniques used in this approach include adding meaningful choice, onboarding with a tutorial, increasing challenge, and adding narrative.

Serious Play

Serious Play is a term used when games are used for a non-recreational purpose.

Serious games are simulations of real-world events or processes designed for the purpose of solving a problem. Although serious games can be entertaining, their main purpose is to train or educate users, though it may have other purposes, such as marketing or advertisement. Serious game will sometimes deliberately sacrifice fun and entertainment in order to achieve a desired progress by the player. Serious games are not a game genre but a category of games with different purposes. This category includes some educational games and advergames, political games, or evangelical games. Serious games are primarily focused on an audience outside of primary or secondary education.

The classification of serious games is something that is yet to solidify, there are however a number of terms in reasonably common use for inclusion here.

  • Advergames: The use of games for advertising. The approach can include numerous different ways of advertising more or less well-known from other media. You can have product placement, banners in-game or just traffic triggers;

  • Edutainment: A combination of education and entertainment;

  • Games-Based Learning or "Game Learning"- These games have defined learning outcomes. Generally they are designed in order to balance the subject matter with the gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world;

  • Edumarket Games - When a serious game combines several aspects (such as advergaming and edutainment aspects or persuasive and news aspects), the application is an Edumarket game. For example, Food Force combines news, persuasive and edutainment goals;

  • Newsgames - Journalistic games that report on recent events or deliver an editorial comment. Examples include September 12th;

  • Simulations or Simulation Games - games used for the acquisition or exercise of different skills, to teach effective behavior in the context of simulated conditions or situations. In practice, are widely used simulation driving different vehicles (cars, trains, airplanes; e.g. FlightGear), simulation of management of specific industries (e.g. Transport Tycoon), and universal business simulation, developing strategic thinking and teaching users the basics of macro-and microeconomics, the basics of business administration (e.g. Virtonomics);

  • Persuasive Games - games used as persuasion technology;

  • Organisational-dynamic games;

  • Games for Health, such as games for psychological therapy, cognitive training, emotional training[14] or physical rehabilitation uses. Technology and mental health issues can use Serious Games to make therapy accessible to adolescents who would otherwise would not find a psychotherapist approachable;

  • Exergaming - games that are used as a form of exercise;

  • Art Games - games used to express artistic ideas or art produced through the medium of video games;

  • Productivity game - games which reward points for accomplished real-world tasks using to-do lists;

  • Training and Simulations; and

  • Games with a purpose try to solve various tasks that require common sense or human experience in an entertaining setting.

Secondary Worlds

Games can be used for storytelling and other purposes not directly related to the gameplay itself, but by using a game and the game world associated with the game as a context in which many other learning activities can take place.

The following presents a perspective on the use of game worlds in an educational context:

Secondary Worlds

Courage is found in unlikely places

There lies a space between the world of the mundane, of muggles, the ordinary, and of fantasy, of Middle Earth, Star Wars, Hogwarts, of Faërie. It is in this space that the magic of each can intermingle and interact in the minds of learners. Our world is full of technological marvels, grand social and political dramas, and epic tales writ large in movie theatres and TV screens, such we may seem poor actors with few opportunities to contribute to the play.

We are however imbued with the power of creation, to shape worlds apart from our own in which to explore and participate, through our minds, all aspects of life we deny ourselves or are denied us. Where we lack the inclination or capacity to create such worlds ourselves, writers and producers craft for us worlds to explore.

Tolkien first described the literary subcreation of Secondary Worlds (Tolkien, 1938), as created, consistent, fictional worlds or settings, more recently also called conworlds or fictional universes, in contrast to reality, the Primary World.  

Not every fiction however provides sufficient depth to sustain our fanciful explorations. What distinguishes a Secondary World from a simple setting is the level of detail, complexity and consistency that makes this world believable. Not as a replacement for the Primary World, but as a plausible possibility with sufficient internal strength that such a world could exist, if only in our minds (Tolkien, 1938).

The detail and complexity of Secondary Worlds must be sufficient to facilitate our mental exploration. When constrained to a single location, set of characters, or isolated event, we may reinterpret such settings in our minds but they lack the depth required to sustain our exploration of the world itself, going beyond constructed narratives to create our own stories within this world.

However we must believe that these stories could exist in the Secondary World. Belief is not required that monsters, magic or aliens exist in the Primary World, but that in the subcreation, the Secondary World, they can exist, and are consistent with the laws and nature of this World. It is when this belief breaks down and fails, where we disbelieve in the essential nature of the Secondary World, that a “suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge, 1817)  is necessary to remain engaged in the fantasy of the Secondary World, but at a poor substitute for true belief (Tolkien, 1956, 60-61).

In setting forth on a journey to analyse the relationship of Secondary World to learning, we will draw strongly upon Konzack’s (2006) interpretation of T. S. Eliot’s (1923) Mythic Method, in which he details three levels of subcreation: The Philosophical, the Epic, and the Naïve (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Philosophic, Epic and Naïve levels of the Mythic Method

The Philosophical level is of myths, religions and philosophies that influence the cultures of the Secondary World but for which we may only ever be peripherally aware. Described by Lewis (1962) as experiencing a transposition of something bigger, that which we can’t fully comprehend but are nevertheless able to grasp the whole in fragments. By giving us the sense of exploring a world bigger than what is immediately present, we have even more impetus to explore.

Next comes an Epic level, with geography, inhabitants and locations based on these cultures, mythologies, religions, and philosophies. Shaping the world historically through grand narratives of epic proportions, recorded in legends of heroic acts and set upon geographically plausible maps of global or intergalactic scope. Each of these epic narratives in turn inspires new epic narratives, subcreating a history that includes layers of moral choices in order for the heroes and heroines of each age to develop depth by succeeding on some moral issues and failing at others.

Finally there is the Naïve level, comprising relatively simple narratives composed of Jungian archetypes (Tews, 2001) that are easy to grasp and imagine in the Secondary World. Nevertheless, they relate to those narratives of epic proportions and in turn, to the cultures, mythologies, religions, and philosophies of the Secondary World. This level is directly presented in narrative texts describing the Secondary World and forms a starting point for imaginative exploration of the world. Through these simple narratives we can heroically embark on our own epic narratives, the achievement of which may even contribute to the worlds mythology.  

The popularity of meta or grand narratives in Secondary Worlds may reflect a societal counter to modernity and postmodern positions (Lyotard, 1979) with their grand narrative against grand narratives (Habermas, 1981; Callinicos, 1991). Grand, universal, meta or epic narratives however form an essential component of Tolkien’s fantasy literature and the subsequent fantasy fiction genre he established, many forms of Science Fiction (de Kam, 2011), and are the foundational component of Secondary Worlds.

Since Tolkien’s exposition on Secondary Worlds in 1938, they now commonly transcend (Klastrup & Tosca, 2004) literary works (List of fictional universes in literature, n.d.) to include a range and combination of media. TV series, movies (List of fictional universes in film and television, n.d.), comics (List of fictional universes in animation and comics, n.d.) and games (List of fictional universes in games, n.d), all contribute to a wide range of literary Secondary Worlds (Figure 2). While initially criticism existed of their contribution to the imaginative mental exploration of Secondary Worlds because of their explicit visualisations (Tolkien, 1966, 80), some Secondary Worlds now emerge first in other media. The Star Wars, Batman, and Stargate universe's are as rich as any literary world, and various game based Secondary Worlds greatly exceed the complexity of literary, film or TV subcreations.  

Figure 2. Fictional Worlds


If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world

Drawing richly upon Tolkien’s world of Arda, the Secondary Worlds of the Dungeons and Dragons Role Playing Game (RPG), known as campaign worlds, began with the world of Greyhawk and now encompass a dozen distinct worlds. Likewise the Traveller RPG defines an entire galaxy of worlds, their histories, inhabitants and technologies. Board Games such as Star Fleet Battles, Trading Card Games such as Pokemon, and War Games such as Warhammer, each have complex Secondary Worlds with derivative literary works, movies and TV series. Computer games, while initially replicating other game formats, now create their own Secondary Worlds, such as World of Warcraft, Halo, and Final Fantasy, each of which has with their own literary and film spin offs.

Games in their various formats however can bring something new to Secondary Worlds (Wolf, 2002). Something that literature, TV and film based works cannot contribute. Interaction. Game Play. The ability for the player to engage with and shape the Secondary World, not just in their imagination, but of the media that describes the Secondary World itself. It is as if the player can contribute and rewrite paragraphs and chapters of literary texts, or modify and make additional scenes to film and TV series.

Not all games permit this, most follow a traditional literary trajectory in which players are bound by the authors vision of the world and the narrative they are permitted to experience. Gameplay in such games cannot shape this narrative beyond having to redo events until the correct activity to progress the narrative is achieved, victory is always certain with sufficient tenacity, and exploration constrained to that necessary for the predetermined narrative to unfold. The settings created in these cases often fall short of becoming Secondary Worlds, just as can occur with other media. Games in which we can imagine ourselves beyond the narratives woven by authors, exploring that which is detailed but not described in specific narratives, can create Secondary Worlds of great depth and complexity. Computer game based Secondary Worlds have the added advantage of allowing immediate contributions by players, interactively shaping the world in which they are playing, and in this reshaping, make changes persistent, existing when a player next enters the world, and for multiplayer games, changes that affect other players in a shared Secondary World.

Player contribution

Even the wise cannot see all ends

As yet however, no computer game dynamically incorporates player completed epics into the mythology and culture of a games Secondary World. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) go partway for the individual player, but not to where the players actions can influence the Secondary World in any substantial way for other players. Guilds, factions, races and sides can simulate an epic narrative but to date they have been largely constrained by predetermined narratives created by game developers and focused more on facilitating gameplay than contributing to a deeper narrative.

Paper based role playing games however have long been able to achieved this, with players taking on creative roles at various levels from Naïve adventurers, Epic hero’s, national rulers, leaders of various races and creatures, even deities and demigods, all contributing richly to the creation of a complex Secondary World. Such games are usually played by small numbers of varying players engaging with the world at different times, where some may play as Gods creating the nature and geography of the world, as rulers shaping national and racial relationships, or adventuring heroes within a world where epic events largely occur independent of their comparatively minor contributions. Such subcreations emerge from the contribution of many players rather than a single author (Louchart, & Aylett, 2003), though some players usually set the rough framework and pull together the contributions from other players (Henry, 2003) to form a campaign setting

Without these philosophical and epic levels of myth, computer games operate almost entirely within the Naïve level. Players are presented simply with short term goals to be accomplished: conquests, quests, levels, experience points, equipment, badges, etc. Lacking internal consistency at the philosophical and epic levels, adventures have little meaning with shallow narratives presented, relying largely upon gameplay related goals of conquering, killing, power mongering, leveling and equipment gathering. These quests fit well into the understanding of fantasy world gameplay as a hero’s journey (Konzack, 2006), but often leave  players with little substance beyond a useful escape from reality.

Gamers invest substantial time into the games they play and where game developers fail to provide sufficient depth and complexity, players will not leave things at this. Players want the worlds in which they play to be as rich as the Secondary Worlds they experience in other media, and will add their own contributions if required.

Roleplaying games first provided options for players (Game Masters) to modify and add to the settings (scenarios) and worlds (campaigns) that other players explored. Some computer games (Figure 3), Neverwinter Nights (Atari, 2002) being most notable, have modelled this approach to allow players the ability to create and manage aspects of these worlds. Ryzom (Winch Gate, 2004) allows players to edit new scenarios and upload these for other players to play, and Vendetta Online (Strategy First, 2004) uses a select Player Contribution Corps (PCC) to contribute to the games narrative by creating missions and scenarios that other players can engage with. Such contribution options are however very rare and do not go so far as to modify the underlying Epic or Philosophic aspects of these worlds, only the Naïve level of individual adventures or more commonly, additional maps for multiplayer conflicts.

Figure 3. Contribution based computer games

To extend game narratives, developer or player created, beyond preset adventures,  gamers have had to go outside the constructs of the game itself. Gamers generate and incorporate external discussion forums, blogs, wiki’s, mapping systems, screenshots and video collections to record their epic narratives, badge and ranking systems to acknowledge accomplishments, even creating social, political and economic systems external to the game. In some cases, such as the Warhammer (Games Workshop, 1983) Secondary World, gamers have built Epic and Philosophic structures through fanfiction that were eventually incorporated by game developers into the Secondary World of the game series.

Sandbox games such as Minecraft (Mojang, 2009) can provide players with an opportunity to contribute constructions to a shared world, and these can be truly epic in scope, but without a strong or dynamic narrative structure, there are no epic stories to be created, shared and passed into a collective lore and develop the depth required for a Secondary World. Again though, players can make significant contributions external to the game itself to developing a Secondary World. One example is Massively Minecraft (Kay, Groom, & Stuckey, 2011) with its rich discussion forums, questing, leaderboards, leveling and badging - ranging from Naïve to Epic quests, recorded through blogs, screenshots and machinima, contributes to an Epic level of subcreation. What remains lacking is the philosophic level of myth, religions and philosophies that define the cultures of the world. These may emerge naturally overtime from the recording and sharing of epic narratives, but without them such worlds remains focused on gameplay, however engaging, falling short of creating a Secondary World in which we can playfully and imaginatively explore on the level of Middle Earth or the Star Wars Galaxy (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Middle Earth and Star Wars Secondary Worlds

Popularity of Computer Games

Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger

Despite the criticism of many computer games to build effective Secondary Worlds, they are undoubtedly phenomenally popular. One reason is that they provide a temporary escape from the constraints of the Primary World. Players can go, be and do things they cannot in the Primary World and are content to suspend their disbelief to the inconsistencies and shallowness of these worlds to do so. Unlike imaginative fictions, they do not need to build their own interpretation of the Secondary World in order to conduct flights of fantasy, game developers have provided this step, albeit at a low level, and despite these failings, players can still escape for a short while into these worlds and interact with them even when they would not otherwise be of sufficient depth to engage them imaginatively in the manner a fully developed Secondary World would enable.

Tolkien (1997) described two forms of such escapism. The deserter who wants to escape his duties, and the prisoner escaping to freedom. Tolkien criticises the first as unjustified and includes the proponents of skepticism, romanticism and postmodernism with their cynical denunciation of reality, as escaping to private fantasy worlds without responsibilities, and leaving the problems of the Primary World to others (Konzack, 2006). Such criticism can be similarly leveled at computer games that focus on gameplay and the Naïve level of subcreation, of introspection on a narrow personal world without consideration of the underlying forces and morality at play that shape the deeper and more complex aspects of such worlds.

The second is presented as justified and a critique of modernist views on escapism as an illegal act. Tolkien argues that there is nothing wrong with fantasising, delving into a secondary world of imagination, neither socially nor psychologically. “Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly  does not destroy or even insult reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make“ (Tolkien, 1997).

Entering into a complex Secondary World requires an increasing consideration of the epic and philosophical aspects of such worlds. Contrary to the postmodern view that we each construct our own reality, Secondary Worlds force engagement with the created worlds of others and this in turn can illuminate the epic and philosophic nature of the Primary World. In effect, Secondary Worlds can become a space to  hypothesise and test alternatives, explore consequences and propose changes to the Primary World.

When players participate in this creative process, the negotiation and co-construction of a Secondary World can highlight the power relationships that so concern postmodernists. Gamers however need not retreat into their own personally constructed worlds, but in facing the challenge of understanding and overcoming difficulties in collective subcreation and of the interplay of players within these worlds, better understand such forces in the Primary World.

Games that reach the level of complexity of a Secondary World provide their players with a rich means of exploring complex moral, philosophical and religious issues. They challenge players at the level of historic myth, of epic heroes facing complex moral dilemmas, of the corrupting influence of power, and machiavellian strategies to obtain and retain such power. Computer games at this level do not reject such power plays, they democratise them, with opportunities for anyone to participate.

Unlike other media however, gamers do not need to await further works to expand the corpus of such Secondary Worlds. They can take their imaginative contributions and share them into the game environment, adding to the subcreation themselves. In this means the Secondary World transcends being the product of a single author or publisher, it becomes a community activity. Some gamers find fulfillment in making imaginative contributions, subcreating additions to  the world, others enjoy exploration of the world for its own sake, or overcoming the immediate challenges and problem solving in the game world, and some will undertake to better understand the nature of power within the rules and philosophies of the fictional universe.  

Games can empower us to explore the philosophic nature of complex Secondary Worlds and influence this nature with contributions to the epic narratives of these worlds.  In doing so, Secondary Worlds provide a lens upon which to view and understand the Primary World, or in simpler terms, to learn.

Education through Secondary Worlds

Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold

Exploration of Secondary Worlds, at various levels, has the potential to help us better understand the Primary World. It is this aspect that makes computer games particularly applicable to education.

Learning about and within a Secondary World provides a necessarily simplified and abstracted application of skills and knowledge that can be potentially transferred to the Primary World. These can range from ‘soft skills’ such as perseverance, resilience, etc. through problem solving, teamwork, creative thinking, etc. to ‘hard skills’ in studies of Geography, English, Mathematics, Physics, etc. The important facet is that within the Secondary World, knowledge and skill development can be achieved and transferred to contexts in the Primary World.

A problem exists however, it is the engagement players have with games that drives their personal learning of game world concepts, students wishing to better succeed in a game will seek to learn concepts in the Primary World to take into the Secondary for application in a game. Teachers however look at games in terms of how students can learn concepts in a games Secondary World and apply this learning to the Primary World.

What is lacking is an understanding of the processes and mechanisms, from both student and teacher perspectives, to efficiently and reliably transfer learning between Worlds.

Mental Models

The burned hand teaches best

In our journey so far we have seen that Secondary Worlds can exist in our minds as macroscopic constructs, integrating many different concepts and processes to form  coherent and consistent worlds. Craik (1943) however proposed approaching this in another way, the idea that small scale constructs, mental models, can build to give us an explanation of the world, allowing us to reason and anticipate events. In this way we can see Secondary Worlds as being the sum of many parts, many concepts, and many opportunities to learn through experiencing these part in clearer ways than in the Primary World because they are necessarily simplified and codified with explicit rules, particularly when embodied as a computer game.

Exploration of such Secondary Worlds provides us with many opportunities to compare and contrast our experiences with those in the Primary World (Figure 5). It is when these experiences differ that we have cognitive dissonance, our experiences of the Primary World do not sync with our experiences in the Secondary. Even when such differences are part of the fantasy nature of the Secondary World, we still have opportunities for learning. In attempting to reconcile Secondary and Primary world concepts, ideas, beliefs, and values, we are driven to minimise and resolve such conflicts (Festinger, 1957). This process of modifying our mental models forms the basis of cognitive conflict pedagogy (Stavy & Berkovitz, 1980).

Figure 5. Mental models spanning Primary and Secondary Worlds

We can also learn through the use of Secondary Worlds without necessarily relying upon conflicts between concepts held in each world. Transferring learning from one context to another (Thorndike & Woodworth, 1901) has long been the subject of educational research and when applied to the transfer of learning between worlds, primary to secondary or secondary to primary, there exists opportunities to support learning. Ideally there should be no need to transfer learning, with all learning in Secondary or Primary Worlds contributing to the same mental model developed by the learner for a particular concept. It is only when different mental models are constructed for the same concept that transfer is required, or in terms of neuroscience, that the two models are either integrated by making sufficient connections between the two networks in the brain to make them one, or one model is neglected to the point that it is no longer used when applying the concept, with all triggering thoughts and related concepts connecting most strongly to the dominant mental model structure. Computer games can be used to facilitate these processes at multiple levels and we will continue with the Mythic Method of subcreation and apply these categories to mental model development.

At the Naive level, learners face relatively simple problems to solve with clearly defined boundaries, contributing to fundamental mental models with clear and specific connections to related concepts. Remembering a name and associating this with a location, and various other properties such as its reliability as a source of subsistence, probability of danger, or opportunities for adventure; of the processes of buying, selling, negotiating, barter, saving and interest; driving a racing car on different surfaces and weather conditions; understanding the weakest points in a structure and firing a catapult to optimally reduce it to rubble; or a spaceship in a slingshot trajectory to avoid orbit. Each concept can be identified and modelled in a computer game with immediate feedback provided to its successful or unsuccessful application.

At the Epic level, learners face much more complex concepts spanning multiple mental models to solve more involved problems. Managing a city with competing demands from the poor and wealthy, industry and environment, progress and heritage; prosecuting wars between nations, managing espionage networks, and delicate diplomatic negotiations; or addressing economic, political and moral choices of when it is acceptable or not to lie, steal, fight, murder, or genocide. Such complexities can be modelled and have been individually contextualised in computer games, but the interplay between concepts for successful application is much more complex than at the Naïve level. They do however generate greater intrinsic reward and potentially greater benefit and acknowledgment to the learner.  

Finally, at the Philosophical level, learners require the use of brain structures that develop slowly with age and experience, and are substantially different in youth. The learners sense of self and identity, their place in the world, their contribution to  and meaning they make of life, and their moral and religious belief systems, all contribute to their world view. Contrasting this view with those in Secondary Worlds can prompt self reflection and examination. While few computer games tackle this level of Secondary World development, the constructs created by players to support these worlds, the personas gamers create of themselves, their gaming reputations and nature can all be explored. Contributing to the subcreation of Secondary Worlds can provide new perspectives on how we see the Primary World, and our place within it; Gamers adopting the role of guiding new gamers in their explorations generates other opportunities for reflection; while those undertaking destructive or megalomaniacal approaches have their own opportunities to reflect on their contribution and legacy in the Secondary and Primary World.

Gamer Taxonomy

Understanding the motivation for gamers through taxonomies of gamer types, provides further opportunities for reflection by learners and teachers. Playnomics (2012) defined eight gamer types and the percentage of UK population associated with each: Scientist (Try new things and apply learnings. 6%), Politicians (Getting ahead by adapting to people. 22%), Socialite (Connecting to others at all costs. 7%), Habitualists (Seeking repetitive pleasure feedback. 5%), Strategists (Control environment to suit skills. 32%), Competitors (Gaining respect. Beating everybody. 11%), Collectivists (Follow social norms with badges. 11%), and Soloist (Security & controlled environments. 5%). These player types are arranged (Figure 6) on three axes, horizontally of Pursuing Pleasure (planning for pleasure vs. pleasure just happens), vertically of Problem Solving (strategy & thinking vs. reflex & intuition) and with a lens of Social Tendencies (learning through self vs. learning through others).  

Figure 6. Gamer Types (Playnomics, 2012)

We have seen that the depth provided by a games Secondary World can influence the type and degree of learning possible, but what players bring to a game also plays a factor, particularly for multiplayer games and Secondary World contribution beyond the game environment. While many gamers will adopt differing types in different games, the motivation of gamers, their type, will influence the ways and levels at which a gamer will prefer to engage with a game based Secondary World and influence how these can be used to support learning.

Learning between worlds

Little by little, one travels far

Between Secondary and Primary worlds lies a space in which teachers can assist learners transfer experiences between realms, but such as space is foreign and unmapped for both teachers and learners.

Educators faced with incorporating game based learning into their teaching face many challenges. Students have differing motivations, summarised as gamer types, for engaging with particular games, but also different preferences in the pedagogies used by their teachers, content that interests them more than other curricula, and preferences in game genres. There are a great variety of game genres (Figure 7) and each can support the development of Secondary Worlds to varying degrees. Some game genres such as arcade games, fighting games, flight simulators or sports games are focused strongly on gameplay and less likely to sustain the development of Secondary Worlds beyond the Naïve level. Other genres such as RPG, MMO, adventure and strategy games strongly benefit from detailed and complex Secondary Worlds to support gameplay.

Figure 7. Game Genres (White, 2012)

Click to enlarge

Teachers incorporating computer games into their curriculum face four main challenges in selecting games. The need for the game to suit the preferences of their students gaming types, their own pedagogical approaches to teaching, the content matter to be studied, and whether the game genre will facilitate the development of Secondary Worlds to the desired level. Modifying the TPACK model (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) developed for making appropriate technology selection, a Game, Pedagogy, And Content  Knowledge for Students (GPACKS) model (Figure 8) can be used to  assist in evaluating and applying the use of games for learning. 15 interrelated factors need to be considered in selecting games to fully optimise learning opportunities based on combinations of individual student gaming types, game genres, teaching (pedagogical) approaches, and the content under study. When each factor supports each other, an optimal game based learning environment should best support learning and the final consideration, the Mythic level of Secondary World development.

Figure 8. GPACKS model

Each of these 15 factors can be developed to varying Mythic levels - Naïve, Epic or Philosophical as best suited to the interests of students and teachers.

Many students will be entirely content to engage at the Naïve level of gameplay, focusing on immediate goals and problems solving, enthralled by the graphics, action and thematic aspects of a game. For learning outcomes relating to knowledge building and low level skills or concept development, this level of game is entirely appropriate. However it is unlikely to be sustained and as students exhaust the novelty of games at this level of engagement, the teacher will need to seek new alternatives or ways to progress students to higher levels of Secondary World engagement. Likewise many teachers will be more comfortable with pedagogical approaches that best suit games at this level, relying upon clearly defined learning outcomes and instructive processes, or supporting direct instruction and facilitating teacher control of the learning process. Finally there will be content more suitable for Naïve level game worlds, particularly of fundamental skills and knowledge, where repetition and practice are required for cognitive consolidation and mastery.

Where a game does not facilitate taking students to the world level at which their achievements and engagement in the game world can influence others through epic accomplishments, students and teachers can extend the usefulness of a game for learning purposes by supplementing the games Secondary World. Creating reward and recognition systems, recording and celebrating significant achievements through blogs, wiki’s, image and video collections, organising team structures, and competitive groupings, each builds greater complexity and consistency in the Secondary World. Even further engagement can be accomplished by incorporating student contributions into the game world itself, creating scenarios, problem solving opportunities, maps, artwork and histories to deepen the Secondary World. Many teachers will be more comfortable using pedagogies of inquiry, challenge and project based learning at this level, and content that focuses on deep understandings and complex skill development such as problem solving and teamwork will often be appropriate.

Finally, for a Secondary World to engage students at the Philosophical level, teachers can assist students in comparing it with the complex issues faced in the Primary World. Moral and ethical issues can be explored through modelling and  comparison with abstracted issues in the Secondary World; students can examine how geography, wealth and race influence issues; create Secondary World religions and consider their influence on the peoples and events of these worlds; and discuss fundamental philosophical, moral and ethical issues by examining student actions and responses in the games Secondary World in comparison to their views of such actions in the Primary World. While younger students may not have the cognitive structures to support engagement at this level, games can be selected to address the issues of greatest interest and applicability to older students. Teachers likewise can choose pedagogical approaches suited to this level, particularly student centred and service learning approaches, and content can be selected that addresses the foundational aspects of curricula.

Journeying between worlds is not for the faint hearted and examining issues at the depth suggested is difficult and not without risk. Games however provide opportunities to go well beyond the scope to which they were created, where their Secondary Worlds become far greater than their initial narrative and game play, to become subcreations with their own existence. Teachers and students can build upon these foundations, the complex Secondary Worlds that will sustain deep learning and engagement. Tolkien first envisaged a Secondary World of sufficient depth in which he could comfortably place the mythical languages that were his passion, the Secondary Worlds that teachers and students create should be no less a space for their passions and interests to grow and flourish, safe from the vicissitudes of the real world, and used in preparing students for the Primary World by teaching them the extent to which they can master, control and contribute to all worlds.

The road goes ever on

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