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Post date: Thursday, 9 March 2017

Games for learning: Opening all the black boxes

A few months ago I found three small boxes in the NZCER staff room.

They'd been quietly abandoned on the “free to a good home” pile. Their dazzling holographic surfaces caught my eye; the cryptic labels A, B, C caught my imagination.

What were these boxes for? What was inside? Was this some kind of game?

Picking them up, I could tell they were empty. Whatever secrets the boxes might have once held, they weren’t ready to give them up.

My thoughts turned from puzzling over their past, to envisioning their future. If I was to provide them with the "good home” that their previous owner felt they deserved, what might they become?  I never had time to fully answer that question, but they’ve been sitting patiently on my shelf waiting for some kind of game to be designed around them. (I am quite open to crowdsourcing ideas on this matter. You can share your suggestions in the comments!)

I’m sharing this story because it hints at the key themes for today’s post. I want to talk about boxes, curiosity, mystery, research, and the intriguing journey down the rabbit-hole of games for learning. A caveat:  I’ve been trying to get my thoughts in order, writing and rewriting for this post for months. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but perhaps you are willing to stick with me and see where it goes?

Let’s start with boxes.

Not shiny holographic boxes, but black boxes. Not the kind that records flight data on an aircraft[1] .  I’m talking about the black box as a metaphor for “any complex system or device whose internal workings are hidden or not readily understood”, or “a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs... without any knowledge of its internal workings”.

You might have heard the term “black box” used in discussions about technology and its opacity to most people. For example, think about your smartphone (if you have one). Do you know how it works? Yes, in the sense that you know how to use it to make calls, browse the internet, take photos, and so on. But unless you’re a programmer or an expert in cellular networks, the inner workings of how your phone actually works - let alone how the networks that your phone is connecting into work  - may well be “black boxed” to you.  

Does blackboxing matter?

In the case of your smartphone, perhaps not, but lots of things get black-boxed in our day to day lives. It’s not just technologies - “almost anything might be referred to as a black box: [for example] a transistor, an algorithm, or the human brain”.  We don’t even notice how many things we routinely black-box. It happens unconsciously, and for practical reasons. We simply can’t afford to spend our time trying to puzzle out the inner workings of every single piece of technology, system, or human mind we encounter each day. (Imagine if we did - we might be like perpetual 3 and 4 year olds, constantly asking “why?” and “what is...?” for everything we encounter).   

As we grow up we get used to putting things into black boxes with labels that reassure us that we more or less understand them.  However some  people, including me, have a curious cat-like attraction to black boxes. We hunt them out, and when we find them, have an irresistible urge to jump in and nose around inside. Some of the different black boxes I’ve nosed around in during my research career include ones with familiar labels we use all the time in education: “curriculum”, “learning”, “teaching”, “education”, “the future”.  Paying attention to the things we put into black boxes is a very useful way to notice which kinds of questions we’re asking - and which questions we’re not asking -  when we look at any kind of system and try to better understand it. 

What kind of black-boxing happens in research about games for learning?

The kinds of studies discussed in my last post  illustrate one particular kind of black boxing that is quite common in education research. “Game-based learning” is the input, “learning outcomes” is the output, and most everything else is largely black-boxed. The bits "inside in the black box" may include:

  • the design particulars of the games/game-based learning

  • the context of the learning environment

  • the teacher’s curriculum and pedagogical goals

  • learner’s internal experiences, including their prior knowledge, motivations, interests, capabilities

  • the interactions between teachers and learners, and between learners and their environments, and so on.

Managing all of these complex variables in research is hard, especially when it’s not yet clear which ones we should be paying particular attention to. That’s why “effectiveness” studies often do things like compare groups who are doing game-based learning, with similar groups minus the game-based learning. If an effect is detected, then researchers might go looking for specific details inside the black box to understand why it made a difference.

This kind of black box is a bit different from the smartphone example above (as my colleague Sue pointed out to me after reviewing this post), and it has to do with the difference between complicated systems and complex systems. Smartphones are complicated. We could in theory, open up the phone and, with a bit of reading and research, come to understand how the systems inside it - the hardware and software - work.

However, everything I have read and seen about games-based learning so far tells me that it is not simply complicated - it is complex. In any real instance of game-based learning, each of the different variables that I listed above - and others - interact with each other in ways that can lead to  outcomes and opportunities that can’t necessarily be predicted just by reducing them down to their component parts. (No wonder every meta-analysis of game-based learning  ends up commenting so extensively on the limitations of their studies and the need for more research to address the questions they can't answer).

When you start opening black boxes in a complex system, you’re likely to discover more boxes inside. You might even find surprising tunnels and portals to other black boxes. You may soon find yourself deep down the rabbithole, opening all the boxes. (If this extended metaphor is already starting to sound like some kind of videogame, perhaps I’m further down the rabbithole than I thought!). Anyway, our research on games for learning has felt a bit like this in the last few months. And, as Pandora discovered when she curiously opened a jar and all the spirits locked within it flew out into the world, or the person who opened that proverbial can of worms realised as the worms went wriggling off towards freedom, sometimes un-black-boxing things in a complex system can lead to short term feelings of regret or confusion, as in oh-dear-what-have-I-done and why-did-I-think-I-needed-to-know-this or how-do-I-put-it-back-like-it-was?.  Right now we have so many ideas, theories, literature, and pieces of data flying around outside of their boxes that it can be hard to take a step back and see how they all connect. Some of them are the old black boxes we’ve come across before - “learning”, “curriculum”, “teaching”, and some are new ones to do with games, play, and the process of game design.

Which boxes should be opened if one wants to understand the role and potential of games for learning?

There are many, but here is one box worth opening: “Games”. Are “games” a black box? Let’s find out.  Think of a game that you know. Can you explain that game to someone who has never played it before? If so,  clearly you know how that game “works”.  But do you really know how, or why, it works?  Do you truly understand the internal workings of that specific game, or of games in general? Do you truly understand how, or why, a game “works” on us, the players? Why it makes us think, feel, and do the things it does? Have you thought about how or why a game might be expected to facilitate some kind of learning?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, or not sure, then perhaps at least some part of “games” is still black-boxed to you.  If this is the case - don’t worry, because there is already a great deal of fantastic research and theory that can help us to look deep inside this black box called “games”. The research and theory comes from all sorts of different disciplines and sectors. For example:

  • Game designers know a lot about how games work. They call it game mechanics.[2] 

  • Some psychologists and sociologists know a lot about why people like to play, why they like to play certain kinds of game, how they play certain kinds of games, and what happens when they play games.[3]

  • Some historians know a lot about where different kinds of games came from, and how games have evolved, and what purpose they have played in different human cultures.[4]

  • Most importantly for us, there are some excellent educational researchers who have looked at these things through an education and learning lense. People like James Paul Gee, Kurt Squire, Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman, Yasmin Kafai, to name just a few. Their work helps to elucidate how we, as educators, might draw on a better understanding of the inner workings of games in order to reconsider, and redesign, certain kinds of educational practices.[5]

Who else has valuable insights into the black box of games? If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed a lot of our posts discuss what game-using New Zealand teachers and students have to say about the games they play and make. Over the coming months we’ll be drawing on the data we have gathered in their schools and classrooms to see how their practices and experiences connect back with all the other rich ideas and research swirling around in the literature. In particular, we'll look at how opening that  box labelled "games"has led some teachers, students, and ourselves towards new insights about learning, teaching, and curriculum that resist being forced back into tidy boxes.

So what do you say - are you ready to open all the boxes, liberate the can of worms, and fall down the rabbit-hole with us?

Top Image: Copyright: amasterpics123 / 123RF Stock Photo


1. Did you know the black boxes on aircraft are actually orange?

2. This is a really huge field with lots of interesting stuff to read. Personally, I think all game-curious educators should give themselves the opportunity to explore game design , including talking to game designers, and reading stuff that game designers read about game design. (Or, coming to one of my game design workshops!). One of my favourite go-to books is Tracy Fullerton's fantastic Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. It's written for game designers at every level of experience, including beginners, and it rocks.

3. I touched on some of this a little bit in this post about games and play, ludus and paideia, but there is lots more interesting stuff to discuss in future blogs!

4. Again...more to come in future posts...

5. Recommended reading includes:

Bonsignore, E., Hansen, D., Kraus, K., & Ruppel, M. (2013). Alternative reality games as platforms for practicing 21st century literacies. International Journal of Learning and Media (4), 25-54. 

Gee, J.P. (2003) What videogames have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Kafai, Y. & Burke, Q. (2016). Connected gaming: What making video games can teach us about learning and literacy. Cambridge:MA, MIT Press.

Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S. & Salen, K. (2009). Moving learning games forward: Obstacles, opportunities, and openness. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Education Arcade.

Squire, K. (2006). "From content to context: Videogames as designed experience." Educational Researcher 35(8): 19-29.


Games for learning


I really enjoyed this post Rachel. The difference between complex and complicated systems is an important one for us to keep in mind in all our conversations about learning. The brain/body system is a massive black box in itself?

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