"Teachers need to be empowered towards co-creating playful resources"

 Teachers need to be empowered towards  co-creating playful resources

Photo: Sylvester Arnab

Cristina Sáez
Sylvester Arnab, professor of Game Science at Coventry University's Disruptive Media Learning Lab (DMLL)


Video games have crossed the border from entertainment into the world of education, serving as a useful classroom resource that allows students to play and learn at the same time. The 4th International Symposium on Gamification and Games for Learning (GamiLearn'20), which took place as part of the 8th International Conference on Technological Ecosystems for Enhancing Multiculturality (TEEM 2020), gathered researchers, practitioners and industry experts in the application of gamification or games in learning environments. The event was organized by Barcelona's Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the University of La Laguna in Tenerife.

Sylvester Arnab, professor of Game Science at Coventry University's Disruptive Media Learning Lab (DMLL), was the keynote speaker at GamiLearn'20. His work focuses on empathic and experiential playful and gameful design practices, and in 2015 he co-founded the GameChangers initiative, which won the 2019 Gamification in Education & Learning Award.

What is GameChangers? 

The GameChangers initiative was initially developed as an open online game design course, which has since been expanded into an empathic design practice for co-creating playful and gameful experiences. The initiative focuses on the design and implementation of such experiences, promoting the emergence of a more exploratory creative culture in everyday academic contexts and exploring opportunities for creating games and game-like solutions as a medium for expression, learning and practice. We believe that the process can develop competencies and capabilities such as creative thinking, socio-emotional skills, complex problem-solving and system thinking.

Can games be used to foster empathic experiences in education?

Empathic design approaches emphasize the importance of participatory and co-creative practices, where both educators and learners are part of the design process. Game-based learning design is an iterative process, and, in our approach, educators play key roles in co-creating game-based learning resources. Promoting the sense of ownership of the design process, including agency and autonomy in creating something meaningful for education, is also part of the empathic design process.

How do you strike a balance between learning goals and playful experiences?

There is no prescribed formula for how games for learning can be designed and developed with guaranteed success and efficacy. When educators partner with their learners, they are able to iteratively co-create playful and gameful learning resources that are both engaging and contextualized to the needs and interests of the learners. Educators are able to balance curricular expectations and playful activities by putting the approach into practice in the classroom.

Is it possible to replicate the emotional engagement we feel during regular play inside a classroom? 

The pedagogical ecosystem is important, and by ecosystem I mean where the game as an enabling tool would be carried out. If it is to be used in a formal setting, debriefing and group reflections are essential, whether the game is used as a group activity or for classroom delivery or individual engagement. Social constructivism, where individuals learn from group experiences, is also relevant for play that takes place outside the classroom. 

What are the keys to creating engaging experiences? 

Engaging aspects rely on the context of use as much as on the aesthetics represented by the game. Both influence our emotional engagement, which include our role and interaction within the game experience.

Is it true that you adapted the GameChangers initiative in Malaysia for marginalized communities?

GameChangers approaches have been adapted in Malaysia through the CreativeCulture project. We are engaging with marginalized schools in rural Borneo and with educators across Malaysia. CreativeCulture has produced a blueprint for gamification for STEM education that is empathic to the indigenous context. This includes a suite of playful pedagogical tools and lessons created by teachers, for teachers. The impact of our approach is currently being expanded through large-scale teacher training in the Sarawak State, in collaboration with the local Department of Education under the CreativeCulture 4.0 project. A physical gamification centre has also been established in Malaysia. It is the first in the country.

Children learn through play, and people seem to agree that they can do so in the classroom as well, up to a certain age at least. When students become adolescents, many adults consider classroom play a waste of time. Have you ever had to face this prejudice? 

In the beginning of my involvement in this area, we often faced this misconception about the use of play in learning. However, the view on play in serious contexts is increasingly changing for the better. For instance, the use of Lego Serious Play methodology for facilitating team meetings, board meetings, and so forth. Educators are interested and they are aware of the benefits of play in learning. Teachers need to be empowered towards co-creating playful resources that can be mapped against the curricular requirements.

What does gamified learning bring to education and how can this change be measured? 

Playful and gameful learning encourages experiential and active learning that is important for developing 21st-century skills. In my book Game Science in Hybrid Learning Spaces, I highlight the importance of designing playful and gameful experiences where the context of learning, measurable objectives and expected outcomes are included in the design process. By embedding clear objectives, we can have a clear pathway for tracking and evaluating change and impact.

What can video games do for students that traditional teaching cannot? 

Video games provide a safe environment where activities that are not normally possible in a classroom setting can be enabled and facilitated. The autonomy and agency in exploration often promoted in video games are highly important in learning, as they help learners to develop skills and competencies such as complex problem-solving or social-emotional skills. 

Can teachers or other educators be game designers? Do they have to have any particular knowledge or resources?

I believe that anyone can be a game designer. It's important to encourage individuals to learn from the games or playful activities they are familiar with and tap into the emotional connections they had or have with these activities. We believe in the power of a frugal approach, where we can use any existing resources to create our games. We also need to remove the misconception that educational games are all digital and will require some level of digital fluency. That is not the case. One can start from creating physical analogue games and implement them in the classroom.

You've also worked with serious games applied to healthcare. Could you tell us about that?

Within the context of well-being, and specifically issues related to sexual health, I was involved in the development of a game that was aimed at nurturing positive attitudes to counter issues concerning sexual pressure and coercion. When situated within an intervention programme, learners were able to engage with the topic better. Apart from the health domain, I have also been involved in designing playful activities and tools for the farming sector under the Bond project, which is funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 programme.