I survived my first game jam weekend!

Have you ever taken part in a game jam weekend? I have! This past weekend marked the inaugural Game Jam for Learning, organised by Game designer/ Learning designer Richard Durham and hosted at the University of Auckland.

What’s a game jam? It’s a time and place (often a weekend) where game designers get together to (try to) make games in a fun intensive community over a short space of time. This particular jam
happened to be on the same weekend as the global game jam, but the Game Jam for Learning was a separate event designed for educators who wanted to try making a game for a specific educational purpose.

So, did we succeed in making some cool learning games? Read on….

Day 1 (Friday) – Getting started

Andrew Savage uses games in social sciences:
– To develop empathy and critical thinking
– To provoke discussion
-To check his own bias
-To develop understandings of causes and consequences
– To engage with humans

Friday afternoon kicked off with a welcome from our host Richard, and two inspiring talks. First, history teacher Andrew Savage, (whom you may recall from this post). talked about why he uses games in his teaching, and described some of the game experiences he curates for his students, using simple games like Jenga through to more complex Matrix Games. As usual, heaps of great stuff in Andrew’s talk about purpose as well as process, and some good discussion followed.

Next, Toby Falconer, game designer and director of play at The Open Fort,  got us started with some quick activities designed to help with “ideation”. My favourite activity was Gorilla Spurs, a technique for generating unlikely word pairings and then turning them into an idea for a product that we could pitch in 30 seconds.

Gorilla Spurs – a way of generating unexpected word combinations

Sparking off the phrase “Elephant Symphony”, the product that sprang to mind was a pair of headphones that humans could wear, enabling us to hear the infrasound elephants use to communicate over long distances – normally outside the range of human hearing. What if there were a whole range of products that humans could use to experience the world through non-human senses? Bee goggles? Dog nose masks? Oh, the possibilities…

We also played with Rory’s Story Cubes, coming up with game ideas and quickly testing our concepts for feedback with 2 or 3 other people in quick succession. “Tequila Bees” got marginally better each time I explained it to a peer, but I think I’ll let this one disappear into the mists of time…

“Tequila Bees”, a hilariously terrible game idea generated with Rory’s Story Cubes

At the end of the evening Richard unveiled the three “themes” for the game jam – that is, ideas to try to weave into our games:

Trees + Betrayal + Pushing your luck

It was time to start thinking about our games, with sage advice from Richard: Don’t get too invested in your ideas since we you’ll likely throw most of them away after the first day!

Day 2 (Saturday) – The designing begins!

Breakfast of Champions!

After fuelling up on the essential coffee and date scone, I was ready for our morning check-in.

Most of the other jammers were teachers and had specific courses or classes they intended to design for – ranging from high school technology, to university courses in science education and business. One jammer, an occupational therapist, was thinking of designing games to help the children she worked with to use their bodies in particular ways.

I’d been weighing up what to do with my time, narrowing it down to two possibilities. Option one, I could use the weekend to hack my original game, Curriculum for the Future, and make it work better as a table top game. This option felt like “work”, and frankly after five years I’m a bit tired of thinking about that game.

My second option was to use the weekend to make any game I wanted to make, just for fun. I decided to go with this option!

Think of the trees

I was still playing with the idea of a game where you experience the world through non-human senses. The tree theme reminded me of one of my favourite podcasts, Radiolab, specifically this episode about the mycelial (fungal) networks that connect with tree roots and enable all kinds of chemical communication between trees in a forest… what some researchers have playfully dubbed “the Wood Wide Web”. This appealed to my inner biological science nerd and my love of a good pun.

I quickly tested my initial game idea with some online friends who were, fortuitously, a mix of gamers and scientists. Everyone seemed excited!

Testing ideas with my more knowledgeable friends

Saturday was a mix of designing time, and when our brains were hurting too much, time to play games. I found the game playing breaks to be super helpful and interesting. Not only did I learn some new games, it was also useful to notice and observe the different kinds of players we all were – all good stuff for the designing mind. I’ve come to realise I’m not cut out for very complex strategy games, nor games that take more than about 30-40 minutes to play, or instructions that require a lot of reading. Simple but elegant mechanics, puzzles, intriguing narratives and complex emotional engagements are my jam. Competition doesn’t motivate me much, but collaboration does.

Richard (right) leading some jammers in a game-play break

Day 3 (Sunday) – Crunch time

By Sunday morning I had the basic concept for my game in place, using prompts supplied by Richard: What is the main learning objective? What is the in-game objective? Who are they players? Why is reaching the game objective difficult?

All that was left to do was design it!

This is where it got hard. I put in some solid hours researching tree science, biochemistry, and tinkering with mechanics, but I also started to get bogged down in managing the complexities in the forest ecosystem my game hoped to model. Did I hit a wall? Yes I did, metaphorically of course. Did I feel like giving up? A little. Did I wander off to another room, find a couch, and take a power nap? You betcha.

Returning to the jam, I played some more games and made a mental note that for my next game jam I am definitely going to work in a team, because game design is hard.

Terra – a Game about saving the world. I like this game A LOT!

By the end of the day, we’d lost a few jammers, but the “stayers” were ready to showcase their games over some well-deserved pizza. We each test-played each other’s games, which was great! I was really impressed by the work the other jammers had done. Their games ranged from a card game about science commercialisation, a physical “fishing” game designed for widely varying physical capabilities (SO fun to playtest), and science knowledge-building and nature-of-science game.

Planet Ferrum – a science learning game designed during the jam

I didn’t think I’d got very far with the Wood Wide Web game, but even having my jammer friends test-play it for one quasi-round and give feedback and suggestions was enormously helpful and very satisfying – because of course it was!

The Wood Wide Web game – still a work in progress!

In spite of fatigue, we were still playing games when the security guard arrived to indicate that it was well past time to vacate the building.

To sum it all up…

  • My game still needs HEAPS more iteration (psst, wanna hack it and help me make it better?) but even getting this far in a weekend felt like an accomplishment.
  • Meeting and working alongside the other educators was great, and I was truly impressed with the effort and commitment they put in.
  • It was hard work! Designing a game over a weekend is a tiring experience, but I really enjoyed it, and would definitely do it again.
  • Next time I definitely want to work in a team.
  • We need to get more educators and game designers involved in collaborative game jams!

I’m grateful to Richard for organising the inaugural NZ Game Jam for Learning – let’s hope it’s the first of many!

Do you want to be notified about future Game Jams for Learning, and hear about other resources, research, and meetups? We recommend you subscribe to NZCER’s Games for Learning mailing list and website.

Build a Wall’o’Games!

The Wall O’ Games was created after Dan Milward (Gamefroot CEO) and I were trying to find a quick and engaging way to generate ideas by any group. After some investigation, we found nothing that was both suitable and entertaining so we invented our own resource – The Wall O’ Games

We often kick off our “fast-track to game design” workshops by getting groups to create their own Wall’o’Games. Here’s how:

  • Grab a stack of post-it notes
  • Everyone takes a few minutes to think of all the games they already know. Each game goes onto a post-it note and up onto the wall.
  • Try using categories that prompt people to think of different kinds of games. E.g. (Digital games, Tabletop game, Physical games), or set a fun challenge (e.g. think of at least one game for every letter of the alphabet).

Don’t  have any post-its? No problem. You can use a whiteboard, or a big sheet of paper.

Within a few minutes, you’ll have a wall full of games, and your group will be marvelling over how many games they already know!

Here are a few things we love about the Wall’o’Games:

It warms the room and builds bonds

It’s a fun, fast process that often elicits lively conversation: “oh, I play that game too!” “Oh yes, I remember that one!” “I used to play that with my nana” “I love that game!” “Ugh I hate that game” “I played that heaps as a kid”. “Ooo have you ever heard of this game?” “That reminds me of another game…”. Etc.

It draws out the people’s existing game knowledge and turns it into a shared resource.

People (especially adults) often don’t realise how much they already know about games, until they step back and see the wall they’ve created. Pooling together the collective knowledge of the group and making it visible, turns it into a shared resource that belongs to the whole group.

It’s fast way to start analysing different game mechanics

Used in conjunction with our Gameful Praxis “What’s in a Game?” cards, novice designers can start grabbing games off the wall, identifying and discuss different kinds of game genres, and the mechanics of how different kinds of games work.

It’s perfect for game design ideation – try “hacks” and “mashups”

The initial phase of a game design process is all about generating ideas. Coming up with a completely novel game idea isn’t  just hard, it’s not even necessary! Most games are variations on other games that already exist, so why not take inspiration from a game you already know and try “hacking” it to give it a different twist! We also like to use “mashups”. Simply grab two post-its off the wall and start designing a game that mashes together aspects of each game:

  • What if you crossed Scrabble with Pac Man?
  • What if you crossed Jenga with Duck Duck Goose?
  • What if you crossed Minecraft with Chess?

Read how Leanne has used this technique with her primary students  here.

It can be used to build  empathy for different players’ preferences

The Wall’o’Games provides a way to step back and appreciate the diversity of game genres and mechanics that exist. It is only a short step to reflect empathetically on the types of games enjoyed by different people, and to start considering the extent to which the games that we play or know reflect diverse interests, experiences, play preferences, cultures, and identities.

I hope you’re convinced! If you use the Wall’o’Games in your classroom or game design workshops, leave us a comment below – we’d love to hear from you.

Learning how to use Matrix Games

“If we have to use force to crush the student protestors, we will!”

I heard words like this coming out of my mouth (with disturbing conviction!)  at our most recent Meetup.

To explain, I was role-playing the actions of an ambitious and ruthless young police chief during an unfolding conflict in a fictional former Russian state, KAZHDYY GOROD. A charismatic protest leader had just convinced school students in the working-class neighbourhood to abandon school to join the workers’ protest movement. As police chief, I had just ordered my police to form a barricade to contain these feckless young protestors.  We weren’t going to use aggressive force, at least not if we didn’t have to, but if these rabble rousers decided to try anything, they would soon regret their actions…

The Police Chief and an action template

Thankfully, the purpose of the meetup was not to crush student protestors, but to learn about Matrix Games – of which KAZHDYY GOROD (designed by Tom Mouat) is an example.

Our guest facilitators for the meetup were Andrew Savage and Michael Harcourt. Both are history educators who have collaborated in the use of  non-digital games as a method to engage students with history’s complexity. They have a particular interest in how games can generate debate, hone students’ argumentation skills and develop critical thinking when applied to historical contexts and contemporary conflicts. You can read more about their approaches in this case study, Playing for Peace, undertaken at Wellington High School in 2016.

Getting into it in the Wellington High Library

Andrew kicked off the meetup with a brief explanation of what Matrix Games are, and where they came from. As he explained, Matrix Games were invented by Chris Engle, an American psychiatric social worker. They were originally used as a technique for helping people work through personal relationship conflicts. The system was later turned towards the idea of simulating larger social and political conflicts.

The game “system” is itself relatively simple, though it took all of us at least a full introductory round of gameplay to see how it works in action. While I was playing the role of the police chief of KAZHDYY GOROD, other meetup participants took on the identities of other people in the city: a charismatic protest leader (the person who had inspired school students to walk out of school in solidarity), a journalist with sympathies for the cause, the city’s Mayor, an armed Militia, and the leader of a rebel faction.

Kazhdyy Gorod Map/game board

Each player’s “turn” involved declaring an action they would take next, along with arguments for and against why that action would be successful. The rest of the group debated the merits and plausibility of the proposed action (would that person actually do that? Is that in line with the beliefs or motives of that character? Is that something that we’ve seen happen in other similar real-world situations? ) After debating how many valid arguments were made to support the character’s action, a dice roll decides whether that action “happens” (i.e. Becomes a new fact in the scenario) and the question returns to “so what happens next?”

As we played, Andrew and Michael modelled how they use the game approach in the classroom, frequently questioning our ideas or challenging our suggested actions to provoke discussion. As each action “happened”, Michael added that information to the unfolding narrative (on a shared slide). They talked about the way the choices of wording used to describe “what happened” can be  controversial, and how they had these kinds of conversations with students, building their understanding of the role of media, and how historical accounts may vary depending on whose perspectives those accounts were written from.

Andrew questioning a player about their thinking

The narrative record of actions played…but according to whom?

Before we knew it, it was almost time to wrap up the meetup. We had some interesting conversations about how other teachers might use Matrix Games like these with their students, and debated different ways the game could be set up, the ethical dilemmas that teachers and students grappled with when it came to using a game or simulator approach in the context of sensitive or controversial issues, whether students could run the game themselves, and the flexibility in the Matrix Game system – i.e. there are really no fixed rules, so you can make whatever rules or ways of playing you want.

By the end of the meetup we were talking about what we could do if we had a whole day – or more – not only to learn about this system but to start hacking or designing our own versions of this approach for all sorts of different contexts, including primary classrooms, workplaces, or anywhere else that we might want to support critical thinking, the development of empathy and comfort with real-world complexity.

At least one primary teacher (Leanne, one of our Gameful Praxis co-founders) said she intends to hack this approach for her classroom, here’s hoping we can share more about that in a future blog post!

Are you interested in an extended session to learn about Matrix Games, even try designing and playtesting your own versions?

We’re currently looking at options for setting up another session, possibly a full day, in Wellington later in the year. If you are keen to be involved please let us know by joining our Meetup group and sending us a message!



Tabletop and card games in the classroom

The theme for our first meetup for 2018 was “tabletop and card games in the classroom”. Our mission was to share (and play!) a whole range of different games, and talk about how we could play and hack these in the classroom.

A few of us brought some games to show and tell, but the true hero of the event was experienced game-using teacher Chris, who brought two bags chock full of games that we were itching to grab and play.

All the games we had in the room!

A pile of games waiting to be played

We had a wonderful mix of enthusiatic meet-uppers. This included primary, intermediate and secondary teachers, some game designers, a researcher, someone who works in cyber securities, and a visitor from the San Francisco Bay Area who has worked a bit in educational policy and tech sector reporting. We also had one other crucial ingredient: coffee! (Thanks to Jessie and Hīnātore|Learning Lab at Te Papa for hosting us in such a wonderful space).

After a brief introduction round we jumped right into play mode.

I showed a few people how to play Gut Check, the microbiome game. It’s a really fun card/board game where players try to build a healthy gut microbiome (to gain health) while trying to make other players sick by swapping pathogens or playing wisely or recklessly with antibiotics, etc. The game is a little complex (though not as complex as a real gut microbiome) but our players could quickly see  relevant learning leaping out of the game, including understanding the problems of antibiotic resistance, and how some pathogens could turn from “beneficial” to “harmful” or vice versa depending on other conditions, infections, dietary factors, etc. They also had some great ideas about how you might “hack” or simplify the game to help beginners grasp some of the ideas they might need to explore first before tackling the whole game.

Gut Check: The Microbiome Game

Science teacher and game fan Tony was really excited about how the game could be used with his senior bio students, and also made the best exclamation of the meetup “It’s just that I have leprosy!”

Tony showing his leprosy (mycobacterium leprae) card

Meanwhile Diana-Grace had a precious copy of kuputupu, a prototype word game where players use word tiles to spell words in te reo Māori. The game was devised locally at Taita Library and it was neat to see players consulting the Māori dictionary to discover new words as well as using kupu they already knew.

Kuputupu in play

At another table, players were diving into the tabletop version of Space Team. This was a revelation to some of us who only knew about the digital version of the game! Both versions are great for learning how to communicate under pressure and are also pretty hilarious.

Space Team in play

A dynamic moment playing Space Team!

A few people had a lovely time playing Möbi, a game that was described as “like bananagrams but with equations”. This was another game I’d not seen before but is apparently fairly easy to find in shops. (Just look for the cute whale pouch!)

Möbi in play

After playing these and other games in a fast and furious hour or so, we wrapped up with a discussion about what people were excited about or had learned through the games, and how they might use (or hack) them with students or people in any learning situation (including adults learning in the workplace). It was great to hear the range of ideas, and especially to hear from the game-using teachers who have already done a lot of gaming and game design in their own schools and classrooms.

One big topic that came up was how to get past the steep learning curve that some games require to get started. What do you do when “you hate to read game instructions” or “the instructions are terrible”. People suggested several ways around this, including:

  • hacking games down to a few elements that you could “play with” first, to scaffold you into the full game. (E.g just explore a few cards and see what they can do)
  • looking for youtube video tutorials – there are tonnes out there!
  • throwing out the rules and instead “figuring out” by playing, or making up your own way to play
  • finding the person in your group/class who LOVES reading the rules (or already knows them), and having them teach you or walk you through the game play.

We also talked about how to support students to go from game players to game designers, and how tools like our Gameful Praxis Cards can be used to extend student’s critical thinking about games and game mechanics, and aid them in thinking about designing their own games.

Gameful Praxis cards

Before we knew it we’d reached midday and the end of our meetup. My big takeaway for the day was: we need more time to play more games! (A few people mentioned some of Wellington’s board game cafes and the wonderful Wellycon gaming weekend.

Some of us were keen to try getting together again in cafes to play some of these games again, or to try ones we missed out on. Dan and I did exactly that, catching lunch at a nearby cafe where we played my favourite game Concept, and brainstormed heaps of ideas for continuing to bring more games and game design into schools and classrooms all over Aotearoa.

Did you miss out on this Meetup? 

Oh dear, how sad for you! Make sure to join the Gameful Praxis meetup group to be notified about our next events. We are planning to do at least one meetup per school term this year, and maybe more if there is interest! If you are keen to host or facilitate a session that fits into our Gameful Praxis “ethos”, please get in touch.


“What’s in a game?”: The first Gameful Praxis card deck

Almost a year ago the Gameful Praxis crew created our first prototype card deck called “What’s in a game?”. We’ve been using this deck in lots of our game design workshops, and we are happy to share it. Here’s the link to the downloadable pdf if you want to print out your own set!

Here’s how they look printed in colour, cut up, and laminated. (Mmm… laminated….)

Here are some notes on what you can do with them. These are just a few suggestions to get you started and you may find lots of other creative ways to use them to stimulate thinking, discussion, and design relating to games.

Our dream is for these cards to evolve and grow through use, experimentation, and iteration, which is why gave them a Creative Commons license. (Who knows – we may even add further expansion packs to the original deck…watch this space!)

The backstory to the cards

The deck was invented in my living room one weekend in 2016 as Leanne, Diana-Grace, Dan, and I were planning for a half-day workshop we were going to be running with teachers at the ULearn conference. The workshop was an iteration on a process that Dan and I had developed and run  for the first time in 2015. The workshop was (and still is) designed to inspire teachers to dip their toes into thinking like a game designer, and seeing how game design thinking and processes can be relevant for the  classroom curriculum.

It seemed to have gone pretty well the first time around in 2015. We were especially excited that we’d inspired Leanne, one of the workshop participants, to take the game design process back into her classroom the following week with exciting results. Even better, Leanne was now part of our Gameful Praxis team and, along with Diana-Grace, would be co-facilitating the workshop with us. With new facilitators in the mix, it was time to update and refresh the workshop and think about how to make it even better.

Iteration, iteration, iteration…

Like good game designers, we were reflecting on what had worked well in the first workshop, and what could be improved in our next iteration. At the core of the workshop is a group-based design challenge, where participants are supported to “gamestorm” a concept for a game for a particular “client”, and then at the end of the session pitch their game idea to the room for some rapid feedback and suggestions for improvement. In getting to the game idea and concept, we support participants to unpack what they already know (and sometimes don’t even realise they know) about games, and to pick apart how different features and attributes of games can be used to design engaging and powerful learning opportunities and experiences for their imaginary “client”.

In the early days of the workshop, we noticed some participants seemed to struggle a bit in the part of the workshop where we were starting to explore different game mechanics and think about what kind of game (or game features) they could incorporate into their own concept design. We’d tried using a very well-known game design card deck, Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design 100 lenses. This is a fantastic resource that helps game designers to consider various ways to tweak, improve, and enhance their game design. But the deck proved to be a little bit too advanced for people who might be taking their very first steps into game design.  I get it. People in our workshops often feel like they don’t really know much about games (even though we as facilitators know that they actually probably know much more about games than they realise!). I’ve asked lots of rooms full of educators to raise their hands if they consider themselves a gamer, and most of the time less than 10% raise their hand. I’ve asked those same groups if they know what it means when we talk about “game mechanics”. For many, this is an unfamiliar term.

We needed an easier way to get people started in dissecting and unpacking the features of different kinds of games. This is how the “What’s in a game?” card deck was born. We wanted a simple, plain-language card deck that could help people quickly latch onto the huge breadth of possibilities that games can offer. The card deck contains 30 words or phrases that describe different things that different sorts of games can be and do in terms of the player’s experience. (You might notice that many of them could also apply to other media too such as books, films, and television). Without getting bogged down in the complexities of game mechanics, the cards help people to think about games they may already know, and to think about all the different sorts of experiences that various games can offer. The cards can be used to play games – like “guess the game”, and they can be used to help in the design of games, as designers think about what kind of game experience they want their player to have.

Between the four of us, we’ve now run this workshop – or variations of it – dozens of times, with different groups including:

  • Practicing teachers and school leaders
  • Primary school students
  • Secondary school students
  • Pre-service teachers
  • Mixed groups

The cards are an optional part of our process, but I think they’re a really useful tool.  We’re always exploring different ways to remix the process, including experimenting with different ways to use this card deck.  A few months ago I even had participants play with integrating these cards with NZCER’s new Key Competencies curriculum design deck. 

We’ve heard rumours that there are teachers and students out there riffing off the original deck and creating their own cards and ways to use them. We’d love to hear your ideas about how to continue to expand the usefulness of the “What’s In A Game” Cards!

NZCER Games for Learning Conference Aug 31-1st Sept

Come hang with the Gameful Praxis OG’s at the NZCER Games for Learning conference, at Te Papa, 31 August-1st September!

There will be some fabulous featured talks and breakout sessions.

We hope to see you there!

Gameful Praxis crosses the ditch to Melbourne: Part 2

My previous post discussed some of my personal highlights from the gaming mega-event PAX Australia.  In this post, I’ll segue from PAX to the one-day Education in Games Summit that rounded off Melbourne International Games Week.

As it turned out, education was the bridge between these two events.  One of the final panel sessions at PAX was “Digital Games in the Classroom”, featuring a few faces that would pop up again the next day at the Education in Games Summit. These included Professor Kurt Squire, two young student game developers Anvitha Vijay and Benjamin Sampson, and moderator Steffen P Walz, alongside Christine Evely (ACMI), Nick Hagger (Robot Circus), Kate Cooper (Clifton Hill Primary School) and Paula Christopherson, a Curriculum Manager at the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority.


I didn’t take many notes during this session, but there was lots of vigorous nodding, and prodding Dan at key moments to say “Look! They’re saying exactly what we’ve been talking about!”.


We were especially impressed by Paula’s impassioned discussion of intentions of the Victorian Digital Technologies curriculum, and the general tone of the panel’s discussions, which underscored – from multiple perspectives –  how well game design and game culture can align with the intention for empowering young people to become confident creators, rather than simply consumers of digital technology.

There were also a few moments of interesting audience interaction. At one point, people from the audience mentioned games that had been particularly affecting for their own learning or perspective on the world. Later, a teacher asked for advice about how to approach digital games in the classroom if the games her students liked were inappropriate in the classroom due to their adult rating. Panellists and other audience members were eager to chip in, and the fact that all these discussions could have gone on much longer was a good sign. At the end of the session, there was much milling about in conversation. The PAX organisers were literally switching the lights on and off in an effort to herd us all out the door.

And so, to dinner! Our dinner group exemplifies that “small-world network” thing that happens when you’re in a slightly out-of-mainstream field. Joining Bron, Dan, me, Kurt, and Marianne was Ivan Davies from Riot Games, who’s been doing very interesting work to support the development of young people’s positive sportsmanship behaviours in competitive online gaming. We’d been talking on the phone over more than a year and finally got to meet in person at PAX, and it was his bright idea to all go out for dinner.  The six of us currently live on three different continents, and we’ve variously met through Twitter, or at other games in education conferences, or through each other.  What this shows, I guess, is that people who are interested in games in education want to find and connect with each other. Whether you’re a teacher, a researcher, a game developer, a tech developer, or a community developer, or something else,  if you’re interested in games in education, there are other people out there who will be interested in what you’re doing, and will want to help. 


The next morning the Education in Games Summit kicked off at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). My note-taking was a bit hit-and-miss and I couldn’t go to every session, but if you’re curious you can check out the full programme here.


Highlights from the morning included Kurt Squire’s keynote, which illustrated ways that games can provide a means for engaging kids in being active, productive participants in society, including learning how to understand and take action on issues of local importance. He and his colleagues have done heaps of great work in this area – you can get a sense of it from the Games, Learning, and Society website. I’ve followed their work for a while so was familiar with some of their projects and games, (for example, Citizen Science), but it was cool to learn about ARIS,  “a user-friendly, open-source platform for creating and playing mobile games, tours and interactive stories”, which Kurt said had been used already to make 10,000 games. I immediately thought of some teachers in New Zealand that I reckon would be interested in exploring the potential for this to support a deep and rich place-based education approach.

We also heard more from Anvitha and Benjamin. It was great to see young people as speakers, rather than being spoken about, which is more often the norm at education conferences. Both presented confidently and candidly about their own self-directed learning journey towards becoming exceptional young game developers, and in Ben’s case, the creator of a game-sharing platform. They also did a good job of fielding audience questions, including a slightly awkward question about how “normal” they were compared with their peers. I think everyone recognised that these two young developers were particularly confident, capable, and focussed, so perhaps what the questioner was trying to get at was whether or their opportunities and drive to follow their passion and interest/talents could were as readily available to other young people. This is a good question and an important one, especially in terms of equity: Are all young people in a position to discover and develop their interests and talents in the digital domain, or are there existing inequities of access, support, or opportunity that we need to address in order to make this possible? This question isn’t necessarily one for Anvitha or Ben to answer, but they did have some great advice for teachers on how and why to support students to learn through coding and game design.

Later in the morning Vicent Trundle from ACMI talked about their GamesNet programme , an interesting little project that gives gifted and talented students across Victoria to collaborate online and in person to produce their own videogames, working in teams and with support from industry mentors. He also discussed more generally thoughts on the importance of developing “a healthy game literate student and school community”. This was followed by another panel session on “The future of games in the curriculum”. After lunch I attended two great talks by two of the panellists. The first by Rebecca Spink, an assistant principal at Aitken Creek Primary School, and creator of a non-profit organisation called Code the Future which connects developers with educators to help students learn how to code, and the second by Narissa Leung, principal of Campbells Creek and Guildford Primary Schools. Both told rich practice stories of game design in their primary schools, with the added bonus of being thoroughly grounded in learning theory. I was madly tweeting from this session, tagging Leanne and dg back in Wellington every minute or so. (Leanne later informed me it was perhaps a little too much, but I didn’t want them to miss out on the great stuff their Australian counterparts were saying and doing).

While I was at these talks, Dan, Marianne, and Ivan were at a “Make your own Game Jam” session, first getting some advice and tips from Giselle Rosman, the executive producer of Global Game Jam, and then actually doing a rapid-fire game jam with teacher/developer Paul Taylor. Here’s the result – a playable boardgame, with a theme relate to climate change, called “I want to Bee Leave”. 


I missed some of the afternoon talks due to the need for a fresh air/mental processing break, but returned in time for another student showcase – the finalists in the Victorian Schools Apps and Games Challenge, followed by the closing keynote from Annabel Astbury, head of digital education at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), on the potential and possibilities for VR in Education.


The day finished up with some social mixing and mingling, which was a good chance to meet some of the people that I’d not met during the day, and to hear about some of the other sessions that I didn’t get to. Because  there were three parallel sessions happening during the middle part of the day, it was impossible to see and do everything, but what I got from the day was certainly useful and inspiring.  

All in all, the trip across the ditch was very worthwhile, and it was great to meet and connect with some Australian colleagues. I hope that in future years we can develop and strengthen these connections!

Gameful Praxis crosses the ditch to Melbourne: Part 1

Earlier this month a small handful of us crossed the ditch to Melbourne to check out PAX Australia and the Education in Games Summit. I learned about the Summit via a Facebook post by Bron Stuckey (our friend and recent Gameful Praxis guest speaker). I was keen to attend, as were fellow Wellington Gameful Praxies* Dan Milward and Marianne Malmstrom. So, we made plans to meet up with Bron on her side of the big ditch commonly known as the Tasman Sea, for a long weekend of game-related learning and fun.

If you’re not in the games industry, you may not know that Games are kind of a big deal in Melbourne. In fact, there is an entire 10-day “week” devoted to it: Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW), billed as “Asia Pacific’s largest digital games platform for entertainment, serious games and gamification”. MIGW includes around a dozen different events, ranging from games industry conferences, to gamer-focussed exhibitions, gaming and coding workshops, and VR showcases, attracting over 60,000 people across the week.

The Games in Education Summit was one of the last events of MIGW, falling on the Monday after one of the weekend events, PAX Australia, so we planned our trip so that we could catch both events. In this blog (part 1) I’ll talk about my experience of PAX Australia. My next post (part 2) will focus on the Education in Games Summit.

What’s PAX Australia?

To the disappointment of one of my gamergeek friends, I’d confessed that I didn’t entirely know what PAX Australia was before I went. Now I know it’s a huge, fun, very well-organised expo covering everything you could possibly be interested in related to games and gaming. I mostly attended a lot of very good panel discussions, and also spent a lot of time gawking at some incredibly creative Cosplay outfits, watching people inside hi-tech VR setups, and wandering the huge exhibition hall full of games and game-related activities of every genre where, on impulse, I bought an award-winningly nerdy tabletop game.  If any of this sounds vaguely fun to you, I would definitely recommend checking out PAX next year!

Here’s some highlights from some of panel sessions I went to, and what my main takeaways were in terms of gameful praxis…..

The awards ceremony for the 2016 Australian STEM Videogames Challenge winners

img_3775I’ve been following this student design challenge with interest over the last few years, so it was great to be there to see and hear from some of this year’s winning student groups.  Most of the students explained that they had worked in teams to build their games, divvying up roles including visual design, coding, img_3813sound design, and play-testing/quality control, although a few students created their games as a solo project. Most teams said making their games was pretty hard, and took 2-3 months of work. I later had a chance to play some of the games, and was impressed with how well-executed and playable they were. One of the game concepts that really grabbed my inner science nerd was Superbug:  “Playing as the last trace of a virus inside the human body, fighting to survive against the combative practices of the immune system, players must collect DNA to strengthen themselves and hold out for as long as possible against an increasing array of enemies.” This struck me as a fantastic idea for a game, and exactly the kind of thing that might get more science educators excited about the potential of student game design as a means for diving deep into rich science content.

Panels on diversity, inclusivity, and representation in games and gaming

img_3809I went to a couple of different sessions about the value and importance of diversity in games and gaming, and another one about surviving online harassment. If I could sum up the one big idea that threaded across all these sessions, it is that the games and gaming world is a microcosm where we find all of the same major social and ideological tensions we encounter in our wider social worlds. Panellists talked about the challenges of ensuring that the games industry encourages and fosters diversity of all kinds, for at least two big reasons. First, so that players will have greater opportunities to encounter games that reflect aspects of their own identities and experiences, and second, because diverse games can give players a window into the identities and experiences of other people different to them.

The value of diversity as a strength and a resource came up a lot. Panellists pointed out that the greater the diversity of people making games, the more varied, creative, and diverse games will be, telling many different kinds of stories, and so on. Game characters and stories that emerge out of diverse life experiences and worldviews create fantastic opportunities for cultivating player empathy – seeing the world through different eyes, just as films and books and television can do. I think these are all strong messages for us as educators to tap into in our work around supporting young people in games and gaming.

img_3793Equally important were ideas that img_3792came out of the panel on surviving online harassment. Essentially the question is, how do we learn, and help others to learn, how to be better people in a digitally connected world? What are our responsibilities to each other as online communities, and what can we do to address toxic online behaviour, whether we’re players, spectators, or part of the game industry? My take-home from this session was a little bit like the take-home message from the 2016 US Election: Our social worlds are increasingly becoming sub-worlds and echo-chambers where it is easier to find other like minds that reinforce our worldviews than to hear other points of view that challenge our worldviews. Here’s yet another place where educators need to lean in and engage with young people early and often around their online social experiences – including those that centre around games and gaming – and help support the development of healthy and pro-social norms and empathy that they will hopefully carry with them throughout their lives, online and offline. (Some of our Gameful Praxis teachers already do this with their students in Minecraft and other virtual/game worlds!)

“How the hell did you end up in games?”

As an educational researcher who has inexplicably gravitated into games, I was drawn to this panel session of people who came from all sorts of different careers and backgrounds and landed up in the games industry, from a nightclub bouncer, to a geneticist, to a primary school teacher. Each panellist had an interesting story, and reflected on how aspects of  their previous lives transferred into their game design lives. The take-home message I scribbled down was something one of them said: “there is no such thing as a useless skill in the game design industry”. By this they meant that game design draws on so many different kinds of knowledge, skills, and capabilities, that almost any prior learning or life experience that helps to shape you into a more interesting, creative, organised, social, reflective, hard-working, time-managing, persistent, empathetic human being is going to serve you well in the game design world. Conversely, game design work generates so many opportunities to learn so many different things that are transferable into other aspects of life and work. This is a message that we have been trying to emphasise in our Gameful Praxis work too – there is just so much learning possible through game design. That being the case, how do we as educators help to ensure the learning is relevant, useful, transferable, and meaningful?

The psychology of Magic The Gathering

img_3798Wow. I think this was possibly my favourite session in the whole of PAX, even though I was probably the only person in the room who wasn’t a player of this hugely popular card trading game. The panellists provided a fascinating analysis of what it is that draws players to the game, and specifically, how the game manages to appeal to different players by tapping into a whole lot of different player motivations and providing a whole bunch of different ways of creating your own game experience. My take home from this session was to ponder the genius (and possibly slightly scariness) of a game that essentially says to the player’s brain “I can be the game you want me to be”.  I took copious notes from this session…If you want to know more, come to our next Gameful Praxis meetup in Wellington on November 26th and ask me about it!

*What should we call people who are part of Gameful Praxis? Technically we are probably “gameful practitioners”, but Dan has been calling us “Praxies”, which has a more fun and pixie-like ring to it. What do you think?


Meetup 1

Our first meetup! Hazel Bradshaw from the new Te Papa Learning Lab gave us an update and our guest speaker Bron Stuckey got us thinking about games and game design. Dan and Dave from Gamefroot took over in the afternoon to show the potential of this platform for students to design their own games.

Podcast Review: Games are good for you!

Note to Self: The Secret to Making Video Games Good for you
Produced by WYNC studios

Quite often gaming is looked at in a negative way so it is refreshing to hear research that frames gaming in a more positive way.  This particular episode is an interview with Jane McGonigal a researcher at the Institute for the future. Yes this is a real place and yes I want to go there!

Jane’s research focuses on the neurochemical changes that happen when we are playing and how we can better understand how our brain works when we are playing. How can we “hack” this experience and apply it to our real lives in those moments when we need more resilience?

To quote Brian Sutton Smith, Developmental Psychologist and expert in play:

“the opposite of play isn’t work, the opposite of play is depression”

McGonigal further unpacks this quote to state that when we are playing games the positive emotions that we experience such as;  joy, wonder, excitement and success, are the opposite of the clinical diagnosis for depression. Woah! Well okay, that’s a bold statement! But to give it even more credit, this is research based on which areas of the brain area stimulated/under-stimulated in both states!! Maybe video games really are the new self help! I’ll be reaching for the iPad next time I’m feeling a little down… (my wondering here is if anyone has done research that measures shift in emotion when going from sad to playing games???)

Candy crush saga, Bejewelled, Solitaire… you know those games that you just play that don’t seem to be of any value yet you spend hours playing while you take a break from reality? Are they actually valuable then?


Well, when we are able to stop thinking about things that are bothering us and take a break from reality we are incorporating techniques from both cognitive behavioural therapy and meditation. I interpret that as gaming as meditation, gaming as a healthy way of disassociating.

I can hear your brain right now crafting an argument against this and that’s cool because this is all sounding way too good right? McGonigal also did a metastudy of 500 pieces of research about gaming and wellness. Half  of those found negative correlations, half positive. The key to positive outcomes was the ability to relate game play to reality in a meaningful way. If you were unable to do this games became an escape from reality, a downward spiral. Life gets worse, play more games = unhealthy outcomes.

Unfortunately this is the picture of gaming that is painted in the media, and is on the mind of parents of teenagers. That is not to say that this negative image doesn’t exist, it’s just really hard to break when you are someone like me trying to use games and game design in education in a positive way.

McGonigal has found research that supports the idea that escapism games are okay for us in short bursts.  They can even help us break habits like sneaky snacking (I am actually keen to try this one and am tempted to put a post it note on the packet of biscuits saying “play a game instead”). She also points out that self-regulation is optimal, play the game to help you but know when you’ve had enough. Choose the game and see what it does for you. Jane actually designed her own game to help her through a bad case of concussion.

Her advice to parents is also very poignant. Do not shame your children about the games that they play. Do not tell them they are wasting their time or that they should be doing something else. If we frame gaming negatively like that then we stop that relationship between gaming and reality that was mentioned earlier. They will think games are for escape and they will head down the negative path.  Instead ask them:

“what have you gotten better at since you started playing this game?”

Be interested in what dispositions they can transfer into their real life.  If a child can talk about these abstract ideas then they have made that link, if they are referring only to things that exist within the game then they need us to help them bridge that gap.

The last question that Jane McGonigal was asked in this interview related to games and addiction. Addiction as a “thing” is currently being challenged in the science world and the latest research is saying that addiction is a goal orientated action that gets stuck on one particular thing. With gaming the person needs to transfer those things that give them that “buzz” into other activities so that they don’t get stuck with that one thing that gets them feeling like that. That makes me sense to me. Perhaps we need to be more aware of how we can shift children and teenagers especially towards other similar stimuli?

There are so many games out there that challenge people and build on skills needed in the real world. When you play online with and against your friends there are also many benefits. A good game has transferable skills. Games can be good for you but ultimately it is you, the player that needs to make decisions about what you play, why you play and how long you play for. Own your gaming and make it part of your life not an escape from it!