Gamers: What Can These Superheroes Teach Us?

Along with my colleague, Peter Skillen,  I’m  getting ready to talk to some Ministry and Curriculum Forum folks about gaming next month in Toronto.  In doing so, we are putting together our thoughts and experiences about students and teachers who are using gaming in the classroom.   Not specifically gamification, but a discussion about what educators can learn about learning by watching and thinking about what happens through gaming.

This TED talk by game designer,  Jane McGonigal, challenges us to think of our gamers as superheroes who have accumulated hours of expertise that we could be putting to good use.  Jane suggests that these superhero qualities might actually save the planet…but I’m wondering how we could leverage these skills to transform our classrooms?

What do you think?  Is she way off base or is there something to it?



  1. Hey Brenda, as an Ontario educator who has used video games with students for several years and currently running the Mutli-School Minecraft Server with the 3 schools in the TDSB (, I’m hoping we can move beyond the Jane McGonigal “Gamers will save us!” line of thinking and look at the reasons *why* games engage people (not just kids) and why that level of engagement isn’t present (and can never truly be present) in our current school system. James Gee gets it right in this video ( when he talks about the “situated experiences” that we all need in order to learn. Video games do this. School does not. Simply bringing video games into the classroom won’t change this. I encourage you to watch the whole video (if you haven’t already) but at the very least skip to 34:28, where he fields a question from the audience. It’s the classic: “How do we fit video games into our existing school structure?” Gee’s answer might not be the one educators want to hear, but I believe it’s crucial to understanding how out of step schools are today with truly authentic learning. Hopefully, you can raise this disconnect educators like myself feel every time the discussion turns to using video games in school.


  2. I am interested in this work. I’ve been reading about this recently and one of the concepts that I think we definitely need to incorporate into the class is intentional failure in learning experiences. This was such a shocker to me.

    We talk and talk about scaffolding things to prevent students from experiencing failure and then gamer designers go and build it into every single level. I heard it discussed as part of the game’s choreography….how to make it so the “player” keep failing until they master the skill…they don’t win the incentive of winning that level until they can actually do the thing correctly!!!!
    But the failure has to be about the skill that was intended. So if someone is too worried about the “wrong” thing because they are not ready to face the challenge of that level….they will never find that success because they’re too busy worrrying about avoid “death”.

    Doesn’t that make you think about a struggling kid in math? They can’t learn how to do the algebra algorithm because they are so busy worrying about multiplication tables…they can’t see the patterns that algebra points out for the math learner. When I made this connection….it was a EUREKA moment.

    But getting that is only a glimpse. So much more to learn, discern and operationalize.


    • Hi Marsha,
      I agree – so much to learn and because I know that you focus a lot on PBL and student-directed learning, I think that you and I would probably agree that this work is fascinating because of what it lets us observe about student learning. Perhaps more importantly, it lets us have another conversation with kids about their learning, and get them involved in their understanding of how and when they learn best.

      I think you’ll like this clip from James Gee…check out especially what he says about 5 minutes in – about cognition and the kinds of thinking that leads to action versus thinking that doesn’t. To me this fits so well with Papert’s Constructionism and PBL!


  3. I hope you’ve done some research to figure out what gaming in schools is a total disaster from a critical pedagogy standpoint, and that you’re just passing on an ill though out position that is another flavour of the moment.

    There is a massive amount of good research out there on the topic you may want to avail yourself of, and that people from the ministry may have already read…. Ian Bogost would be a minimum start

    I’m working on gaming related projects with school age children, so I’m not anti-games. It is the pedagogy fail I’m talking about… and teachers thinking they can jump on a fad to fix a systemic problem is a perennial shame.


  4. Hi Jason,
    You’ve mentioned one of the chronic problems with education – that of jumping on bandwagons without an understanding of the underlying pedagogy fundamental to the approach and I absolutely agree with you!

    My background is in programming with students as young as Gr 1 to develop their own video games, so constructivism, Reggio Emilia and Papert’s work is what drives me to analyze the aspects of video games that might fit with my beliefs about choice, passion-based, and student directed learning. My current understanding does not fit well with ‘gamification’ at all, so thanks for sharing that link to more information. As I mentioned in my post I’m interested in “what educators can learn about learning by watching and thinking about what happens through gaming.” I may need to be more clear in my semantics

    I’m exploring the work of James Gee so I was glad to have a chat online with @melaniemcbride yesterday and hear that she supports his work – I have much to learn and a conversation with Melanie will be a great start!

    In your work, are the children creating the games or playing them? I’d love to hear more.


    • Hey Brenda, I’m with Jason on this one, both because I agree with his (and others’) views on why games in school are fail, but also because I’m one of the educators currently working with him using video games with school-aged children in a not-so-fail way: the Multi-School Minecraft Server Project ( at the TDSB.
      I left a comment to this post yesterday, with more details on my views, etc, but it has yet to emerge from moderation. If you’d like to speak with educators actually using video games with their students with a progressive, student-led, inquiry-based approach, you can find us at: . We’ll be happy to chat.


      • Hi Liam,
        Not sure what happened to your first comment because I don’t moderate the blog, but it’s here now! Thanks for sharing your comments and inviting me to chat with you about your project. I will take you up on that! 🙂

        Jason and Melanie and you, clearly share some of the same issues that I face around technology (for you games, for me a wider use of technology) within a structure that opposes truly student-direct learning. As an eternal optimist, however, I have to disagree with Gee – I think it can be done in schools and the best examples of PBL, Reggio inspired classrooms and Papert’s Constructionism, as limited as the really good examples are, give me hope that it CAN be done.

        I agree that our school system is still far too heavy on the traditional approaches and that we still haven’t got it right – but there are many teachers who are attempting to change it from the inside out. The 10 elements of games that Gee lists in the video are present in a really good PBL classrooms or in an arts program (multi-age sometimes but not always present). I’m really excited to see what you are doing with your students, as it sounds like a great example of how technology can transform learning spaces. There are so many ways to engage students – games won’t everyone, but it’s an awesome method from what the 3 of you have shared so far. Have you folks considered presenting your work at the ECOO Conference? I’m sure that many Ontario educators would like to hear about your work!


  5. Hi Brenda,

    Thanks for your comments and also your response to Jason. I share his concerns with the absence of meaningful research that informs a lot of k-12 thinking about games-based learning. Even the Horizon Report gets it wrong in several key areas, most notably equity, diversity and critical pedagogy.
    Sadly, a lot of what is being called GBL in mainstream education is often informed by the perspectives of ed-tech consultants with little to no long term or meaningful *lived* experience with the convergence cultures that emerged largely as a response and challenge to institutional authority – including education. What has resulted is a kind of edu-tourist gamification that seeks to colonize and commodify the passion, play and motivation found in digital affinity culture for purposive, instrumentalized and rationalized ends. For one, the very conflation of play with games is a bad starting point. Particularly given the fact that most conventional ideas of play or games barely resemble the complex, voluntary and often elusive qualities that result in our engagement. Though we may be able to put our old behavioural conditioning to work on a new object, with a new and exciting interface, the experienced player will recognize it for what it is. You cannot game motivation or engagement. But learners will certainly find new ways to game the teachers who believe it.
    As James Gee has pointed out, learning exists in abundance in these spaces, but it’s not as simple as, as he puts it, ‘dumping’ it into school. Gee argues that we will need to ‘break’ school as we know it. It’s not that we can’t explore the possibility of GBL in the meantime but if we’re going to, let’s actually make use of the knowledge, perspectives and lived experience of those who actually live and participate in those cultures – as well as the abundant scholarship and critical research rather than appointing consultants from outside of those spaces who do little more than ventriloquize the dubious perspectives of corporate-friendly, populist discourse. If we’re going to do anything meaningful with GBL the point is not to rush headlong into the “how to” without exploring critical questions about what games are and are not. Games will not be a panacea for those who do not already enjoy them. It is akin to the adoption of sports rhetoric in business as a motivational framework.
    In order to buy into that and feel motivated you have to first relate to and enjoy sport. Those who are not motivated by power, competition, badges and some of the more school-friendly aspects of games will resist this use. Just as those who see games as a form of autonomous, solitary, voluntary play will not experience it as such in a contrived or coerced space – where their ‘play’ is hijacked, diluted and instrumentalized into skooly playbour.
    As our librarians have discovered with their costly gaming initiatives, when the kids arrive to find out their favourite game is not allowed in the institutional space, they are done with it. 10 kids showing up for a gaming session to find that Halo is not included becomes 3 kids the following week, and so on. Libraries have had an enormous problem with retention in gaming programs for this reason. In the classroom, where the students are forced to return to school, regardless of the selected resources, the issue will manifest itself differently – perhaps in new and surprising expressions of classroom management problems. Lots of learners LOVE Minecraft. That doesn’t translate to EVERY kid loves Minecraft. I know if I was expected to play on cue and play with people who were not my friends in a space that was not my choosing with a game I didn’t even enjoy, I’d likely want to disrupt that situation pretty quickly as I did with organized sports. To those who do not like sports, the expectation to engage, and worse, ‘enjoy’ a cultural and social activity that is infused with ideological values of competititon, mastery and aggression is nothing if not inequitable and bullying. Finaly, making games won’t solve the above problems either. Not everybody is drawn to designing a game experience. Nor should it be assumed that this will necessarily be cool or hip or cutting edge for the learner who isn’t convinced that games are very playful to begin with.


  6. Hi Melanie,
    Thanks so much for your generosity in sharing what you know about GBL and the dangers of the breakdown of the pedagogy!

    We have similar issues there, although my dissappointment is around PBL and constructivism and the many ways those wonderful contructs get deflated by the use of the superficial labels rather than the deep understanding of the underlying pedagogy. I’m so grateful for my network to help me filter and think critically about lots of things, but this is a great example of the power of the network to push back and challenge you to go deeper (if you are connected to the right people!)

    I hear you about the BIG problem of consultant-types (often non-users) making decisions for users. As @peterskillen says it’s “the illiterate telling the literate what to read.” I’m checking out your website for more information that I can share with folks and look forward to chatting with you some more!



  7. Hey hey,
    Not sure where to start here. 🙂
    Some great discussion here – especially as we get to know one another and one another’s history, perspectives, pedagogical slant, and language.
    Seems to me there are many commonalities in our beliefs.
    We could separate the discussion by thinking ‘school reform’ vs ‘integrating into existing schools’. It’s always a challenge when discussing these types of issues.
    Liam says, “It’s the classic: ‘How do we fit video games into our existing school structure?'”
    That IS classic – because it’s the same question I have heard with many technologies, thoughts and practices for a LONG time now! 🙂
    Seymour Papert (known by some as the Father of Educational Computing) said, “If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.” Agreed!
    Elliot Soloway said, “I’m petrified that we’ll apply new technology to old pedagogy,”
    And I love that Seymour, in the mid to late 80s, got MIT’s Media Lab a couple of million dollars from Nintendo, to do some of the earliest research into video games. He, of course, was investigating it from a constructionist, student-centred perspective – considering he was a student of Piaget’s.

    So I acknowledge that we, who are speaking here, are not referring to using video games to reinforce multiplication tables. We are not speaking of CAI – Computer Assisted Institutionalization. LOL

    I love to ‘zoom out’ across the historical perspectives and to try to examine these phenomena. @brendasherry and I are only too aware of bandwagons – we have seen, and studied, many. In my case, that also is attributed to being on this planet a while! LOL

    My latest bugbear is ‘collaboration’. LOL It seems to be the ‘holy grail’ of education these days. I am not complaining that it is now ‘popular’ – but, it is misunderstood, misapplied, and much ‘groupwork’ is passing as ‘collaboration’. Ok, the ‘up’ side is that it affords the opportunity to delve deeply into this construct of ‘collaboration’ with teachers. There is perhaps a ‘readiness’ factor now. (Ok, in case you think I am anti-collaboration – check out the — not pushing you there – just want you to know I kind of like deep, meaningful collaboration!)

    So, if we are NOT speaking of school reform (although I think it does need MAJOR reform) — we need to help people to transform their educational practice within that framework.

    We work on both fronts – but the latter will have more traction in the short term I believe.

    Ok…that was a bit of a ramble! More coffee!!


  8. Boy…this is a terrific conversation and full of thoughtful posts. I thank and appreciate the conversation.

    I fear that I might be classified as one of those on a “bandwagon” yet what I hope to discern is what are the pieces of gaming that I can transfer to my classroom…and I fully know and appreciate that I don’t have the knowledge and/or the equipment to do anything that involves a computer most of the time.

    Most of the time I can’t even get all my kids into a computer lab where there are enough computers for everyone….I have to borrow or bring my own teacher laptop if I want all students to have a machine.

    That said, there is still much that I can design into my PBL & constructivist kinds of activities that embodies the same things that make gaming engaging and something that students want to do. I reject the notion that school can never be satisfiying or interesting or something that students look forward to simply because they have to come to my room everyday at an appointed hour. Would it be better that there were here by choice? Absolutely. Would it be better if they could chose their own learning groups? ABsoutely.

    that is not going to happen (probably within the time I have left to teach). But it doesn’t mean that I can’t use some of the same ideas instead a more traditional setting.

    Here I might argue that the levels of a game can correspond to a differentiated assignment for students….by matching abilities, interests and groupings, I am able to draw from some of the internal reasons why kids like to play video games.

    What I am most interested in learning about games is the desing process….the decisions that are made about how to create skill sets for each level, how the “prerequisitie skills” are determined and then designed into lower levels, how to incorporate planned failure as a integral part of the learning…I’ve heard it referred to as the choerography of the game.

    I’m on that bandwagon…but I’m not sure that it’s a bad wagon to be on!!!


  9. Marsha – I think you’d love what Judy Willis has to say about getting the brain lighting up, which is your goal…with or without video games!

    As others have said above we really must make sure that we aren’t just sugar coating the same old boring content but that we are always looking to be creative with what students are passionate about, be it the arts, nature, programming or music, and helping to transform schools and curriculum. Such a daunting task! I’m so grateful that teachers are sharing what they are learning and trying…it’s a step forward!


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