Recently during a webcast, someone asked me “if games are so great, why doesn’t everyone use them?”. It was a good question that raises an interesting point – why don’t we see more games used in university education? It’s true, the take up of video games has been remarkably slow which is surprising. Back in the days of the BBC micro (and the jaw-dropping Acorn Archimedes) through to the mid-’90s thousands of schools were integrating games into their teaching and learning strategies. I was in primary school during this period, and I remember the excitement around learning games, with superb titles like Arcventure, The Crystal Rainforest, and Badger Trails available for schools.

However, this boom in educational video games was driven by a very unique market environment. Specifically, the main market for computers were schools (driven by the BBC Computer Literacy Project), and very few people owned a “home PC”. That led to a very specific market; if you wanted to build computer games you had the best chance of success by targeting schools. As such, loads of game developers rushed to capitalise on this space and released some amazing titles.

However, this excitement died down, and by the time I reached secondary school and 6th form games were “no more”. Certainly, nobody was taking games seriously during my undergraduate degree. Things have changed, and we are starting to see more people look at the opportunities presented by games (and there are some brilliant innovators in this area) but still, applications are relatively few and far between. So why is that? In my experience, there are generally four barriers to using video games in higher education.

Availablity of Appropriate Games

In the introduction to this article, I mentioned what I consider to be the “golden era” of education games (1988 to 1995). During this period, a large number of games companies were focused on the lucrative education market, as the home PC market was minimal. However, as the home market quickly developed there was less incentive for games development companies to focus on the education market. While there are a number of companies that still operate in this sector, the most popular education titles of recent years have been home titles adapted to the education market (such as Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program).

However, the educational games market is still largely focused on the early years of teaching. The broad curriculum is attractive to commercial developers because you can be ensured of a large market to sell your game to. By comparison, the lack of a unified curriculum, specialism, and modular focus of Higher Education can limit the potential audience for a new game.

That being said, there is a potentially huge (and largely untapped) market for using games to develop transferable skills. For example, there are many games which require players to develop communication and leadership skills. Sea of Thieves (a pirate simulator) for example requires players to coordinate on complex activities. There are also loads of opportunities for using games in a pastoral setting which I will cover in a future post.

Resistance to Change and an Image Problem

A couple of years ago, I was at a conference when I found myself involved in a bizarre conversation. I was chatting to two senior academics from another institution who were grumbling because their estate’s management had just gotten rid of the last chalkboard on campus “whiteboards are useless!”, “What am I expected to do with all my chalk?”. What ensued was a long nostalgic conversation about how if something isn’t broke then you shouldn’t fix it – followed by “show me the paper that says whiteboards are any better”. Given that some people felt this way in 2018, is it any surprise that people have been indifferent about adopting interactive whiteboards? If some people feel this strongly about moving away from chalk, you can imagine how keen some people are to embrace video games.

In addition, games have an image problem. Many see them as a frivolous activity suitable only for children. Ignoring the fact that 36% of “gamers” are 18 to 34 years old, and 41% who are over 34 years old. Put simply, adults make up a much larger portion of the game-playing community than children who only make up 21% of all gamers. Even so, many see games as only having recreational value, artefacts that have no place in the “serious” world of academia. At an invited talk I delivered last year, someone mentioned that they were concerned that they would be taken less seriously by their peers if they used games in their teaching.

However, I like to think that the same conversations happened when the first educators started using videos and VHS in their lectures. As more people start using games the practice will quickly become normalised. We need to be better at communicating the benefits to highlight the opportunities that games present.

Authoring and Games Development Expertise

Developing video games require design, graphics, audio, and programming skills. Creating video games that are engaging (and fun to play) requires the experience of skilled designers. This kind of expertise exists in very few teaching teams. Even when it does exist (for example, games development departments) developing games requires a significant time commitment – put simply, developing games is an expensive pursuit and education budgets are often tight. It is unlikely that most departments would be able to develop their own in-house game.

Here we have some good news. There are several low-code solutions that can allow anyone to develop video games without programming expertise. For example, Game Maker Studio has a drag and drop interface which is very intuitive. With some practice, you can develop working games rapidly. Construct is another option which doesn’t require any code to build a game. However, just because you can make a game, doesn’t mean it will be fun! Bringing in some Games Design expertise can be really helpful!

Also – although this post is about video games. There are loads of great examples of academics building excellent tabletop and board games to support learners. These have a lower barrier to entry as they don’t require the same technical engagement.

Teaching Methods

Using video games requires you to adapt your teaching and learning approaches. However, we have a long way to go before these methods are broadly taught. I’m not aware of many teacher training programmes that cover the use of games, and most popular teaching and learning books don’t cover games in much (or any) detail. However, in the past three years we have seen an increase in the number of talks at pedagogy conferences covering game-based-learning. So, we are starting to see moves in a positive direction.

This is an area that will largely improve with time. Those of us involved in games-based teaching and learning scholarship need to continue sharing and disseminating practice.

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