Games, Play & Porous Membranes

Game scholars often distinguish between two modes of play, ludic and paidiaic. Ludic from the Latin ludos, describes structured, rule-driven, competitive games relating to play or playfulness, while paidiaic describes unstructured play in open-ended metaverses that are often co-created by their inhabitants – or as Celia Pearce describes them in Communities of Play, “Paidiaic environments are designed for spontaneous play and creative contribution.” 

The two modes of play can be thought of on a spectrum – too much toward one end the game risks becoming a grind whilst too much in the other direction the game can often feel pointless (if a game at all), and indeed this game/not game binary distinction is often discussed when exploring the differences between games and virtual worlds.

Fixed Synthetic worlds such as World of Warcraft & Skyrim are characterized as ludic environments as they are primarily defined by Blizzard & Bethesda, who have complete control over narrative, world rules, mechanics and design. On the other end of the spectrum we have co-created worlds like Minecraft that include affordances for the customization of the environment that allows players to engage in content creation within the parameters of the world’s design. These paidiaic environments typically have no set storyline and are open for interpretation by the player, allowing players to build their own spaces and express their creativity.

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Regardless of where the world falls on this spectrum we see evidence of emergence as play ecosystems or communities of play that transcend the original game space.

The term magic circle was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) in his work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Huizinga basically states that the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins. The magic circle was often thought of as a circle where belief could be suspended, sacrosanct, one which bounds play in time and space from ‘reality.’ This definition is starting to blur as evidenced by our work with students from around Victoria in Quantum Victoria @ Massively Minecraft.

Quantum Victoria @ Massively Minecraft is for kids aged 4-16 in Victoria exploring digital citizenship, creativity and imagination using the video-game Minecraft. Hosted by Jokaydia as a pervasive online game environment, our current game has over 65 Achievements that children can undertake and each can be mapped to the ISTE NETs Standards for students using technology in learning.

Whilst originally developed as an innovative model for outreach in the STEM disciplines, we are seeing students mature and develop skills like self-efficacy, sharing, negotiation, conflict resolution, thinking skills, empathy and most importantly leadership.

Students are engaged in artefact creation, collaborative building, Machinima, Fan Fiction, thematic Journal writing together with learning about aspects of Computer Science. The Achievement System that has been built augments the game – students can complete the Achievements if they want but they are not required to. The Achievements are not sequential, meaning that students can jump in and out as they see fit. What we are finding is that students want to complete these Achievements in their own time – as Celia Pearce states,

“Especially in co-created worlds, productive play becomes a major engine for emergence, the prolific player-producers can play a significant role in emergent cultures. The creation of artefacts is identified as an expression of social agency, promoted by feedback that encourages player-producers to produce more.”

Students as young as 12 years old are taking ownership of the space and exhibiting leadership well beyond their years. This feature of emergence was intended – having students teaching and mentoring each other so that the space becomes a self-sustaining learning/play community.

The magic circle coined by Huizinga can be better described as a porous membrane with culture invading the game world, and the game invading culture. (eg. Students designing and creating Creeper’s on our 3D printer similar to this one).

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Western culture demands that play be productive – many say that to be seen in a positive light it requires a metamorphosis from play to creative output. The irony here is that whilst much of students work in a paidiaic environment like Minecraft would be seen as unproductive by those who don’t ‘game’, the reality is that at all times students are engaged in community building, identity building and social construction of knowledge whilst under the guise of ‘unproductive’ or free play. This is in stark contrast to those who try to emulate the power/control climate of the classroom – whilst genuinely trying to engage students using GBL in the classroom, they are in fact just replicating a 100 year old paradigm and not seeing these spaces for what they allow – radically different types of learning. (in relation to a previous post: Play Ecosystems.)

Einstein said that,

“Play is the highest form of research.”

Most adults above a certain age will struggle to ever make it back to a place where they will permit themselves the freedom to play. But they should at least give the time for students to engage in the pursuit of this form of research – summarized succinctly by Celia Pearce,

“Play has a life of it’s own. It can be guided, but never controlled.”

Play Ecosystems & Why You Can’t ‘Teach’ Games


“I caught up with her after the lesson and she said she had a lot of trouble with them, they were not listening to her instructions when asked to not to dig tunnels into the mountain and generally being uncooperative. I must say I am a little disappointed in the students, however does the saying “kids will be kids” excuse the behaviour?

I have been very upfront with the students about how what we do in class, while being used to teach them, is also being used to help other teachers see how this can be used in classrooms to make learning more interesting, both at our school and further afield…

Now I have this class tomorrow, and I will be having a discussion with the class about what they did, and what it means for them, me and other teachers. So my question to you is, how would you approach this situation?”

Roger Caillois in Man, Play & Games (building on Huizinga [1938|1950]) describes the essential characteristics of play as being: 1) free (not obligatory) & 2) uncertain (outcomes are not determined in advance). The emergent behaviour in games and virtual worlds like Minecraft, arise out of a complex interaction between players and the affordances of the play space they inhabit – the affordance of the play space leads to a dichotomy of freedom v control. Freedom in a relative sense compared to absolute freedom (but still freedom) as opposed to the culture of control in the classroom. In this case the teacher is trying to exert control over a space where she has none – this is why as Lisa Dawley from Boise State explains,

“We don’t teach games, we game games.”

Borrowing from complexity theory, an environment such as Minecraft can be characterised as a play ecosystem. It has been designed to facilitate networked play, and has specific features and affordances (freedom & uncertainty) that differ significantly from school environments (control & certainty) – but at it’s core is the fact that it hinges on intrinsic motivators of students wanting to be there, and the fact that students’ experiences are not obligatory and certain. Many educators and indeed parents differentiate between a time for play and a time for learning without seeing the vital connection between them – play is not unproductive – saying that we need to cover ‘x’ in ‘x’ amount of time misses the forest for the trees.

The teacher in the example above, introduces a magic circle of freedom and than attempts to battle the affordance of the space – in MInecraft you can’t tell students to build a model eye for example – more likely it should be creating a space and designing the ‘activity’ in such a way that they want to create an eye. The game world is non-linear which has its own rule set – trying to overlay a rule set that doesn’t make sense to either the game or the player will not work out that well in most cases. This post doesn’t touch on the social aspects of such a space – but I echo Dean Groom’s comments.

My only suggestion would be to lose the specifics – instead introduce students to a fairly broad driving question, and then giving them sufficient time, see what they are capable of. Trust the students and maybe, just maybe, some of them will surprise you.

Design & Analysis of F1 Racing Vehicles

At Quantum Victoria students have the opportunity to design a Formula 1 racing vehicle using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, engage in mathematical modeling, analyze computational fluid dynamics by using a virtual wind tunnel, and then construct their design using a manufacturing unit. They will then race their designs to see who truly has “The Need for Speed.”

This program is multi-faceted and multidisciplinary – it is true PBL. It inspires students to learn about engineering principles such as physics, aerodynamics, design, manufacturing, leadership, teamwork, media skills and project management, and then apply them in practical, creative and exciting ways. It raises awareness of careers and pathways related to Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). Students use industry level, 3D CAD/CAM and simulation technologies to design, analyze, test, manufacture and race miniature CO2 powered balsa wood cars.

After this 5 day program, students and schools may well be inspired to compete in the F1 in Schools Challenge and work their way to a spot in the World Championships!

Using CATIA, this is an intial design based on design specifications that basically constrain the car to the size of the material being used – in this case balsa with dimensions 223x50x65.


Using the Generative Structural Analysis capabability of CATIA, this is a preliminary Finite Element Analysis to see how the design holds up under external forces.


Using this technique students engage in some sophisticated property analysis of materials including Young’s modulus, Poisson’s ratio, Density, Yield strength’s and coefficients of thermal expansion and look to optimize their design in relation to the material being used. 


As part of marketing their car and producing an exhibition display space, students have to produce photo-realistic images and put together an assembly so that their design actually looks like an F1 racing vehicle.


They then  render their car assembly to make it appear as if the car is actually real – granted this attempt is miserable (Still learning about photorendering…)


Collaborations between industry partners and actual designers and engineer’s are encouraged, as students learn about computational fluid dynamics, virtual wind tunnels and CAM processes. Put this all together with designing team shirts, public speaking, project planning, development and management, resource procurement, graphic design and manufacturing engineering, resource management and team work, make this program one with incredible depth.

A photo of a half-machined car. (In the background is our MRC40 CNC Router)


Why Children Need Make-Believe Violence

Children play – its how they make sense of the world.

In societies where guns are part and parcel of media and culture, children inevitably at an early age play toy guns and ‘shootouts’. In other cultures, where guns are not part of the local symbology, children play instead with toy spears or bow and arrows.

The act of imaginary weapon play and violence in itself provides children a sense of power as they struggle to make sense of the world around them. In all of popular culture, from Harry Potters magic wand, to the ‘One Ring’ in Lord of the Rings, Excaliber from Arthurian Legend to destructive spells emanating from a child’s seemingly normal open hand, a single object becomes a vehicle for story and a symbol for power – this act of ‘violent’ play is important for the development of a child.

From when they are born to the time they are independent, all children feel powerless to a certain extent. They struggle to learn how to walk, they are dependent on their parents for meals, and what seems easy for adults can be frustratingly difficult for children. This feeling of powerlessness can be especially amplified if the child grows up in an environment of abuse, neglect or poverty.

A Grade 4 student in the school yard who is reenacting a scene from Call of Duty where he’s avatar has snuck up behind an enemy player and slit their throat with his knife, knows that what he is doing is play. The same child who with his friends pretends that he is a Wrestler from the WWE knows that he is not actually a Wrestler from the WWE. Children are using this reenactment to develop emotionally – they are reenacting a story and using it’s emotional power to aid in their development of character. Games enable children to play with certain realities and to take power over them to an extent. Gangsta Rap and movies about seriel killers are similar tools – in engaging in this culture children feel that they understand things better, and feel stronger in the face of such realities.

Most adults are anxious about this type of behaviour. The cybersafety consultants who do the rounds in schools would most likely say to be vigilant in the look out for this type of behaviour. Won’t children who play guns or video games like Call of Duty become desensitised to violence and grow up thinking it’s ok to shoot people? Won’t this act of play, turn out kids who enjoy violence? These anxieties are natural. From years of experience, we know that in reality guns are bad and do lead to violence – but adults mistake play with reality – kids don’t. They have an innate sense of what is play and what is real. 

Children need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. It’s how they learn. Most anxieties and fears about make-believe violence and violent video games come from ignorance, media ‘beatups’ and hyperbole or perpetrated soceitel ‘myths’ – Henry Jenkins debunks these myths about video games in his article Eight Myths About Video Games.

Gerard Jones in his book Killing Monsters states,

“Nearly all the violent stories that kids play with deal with lessons about courage, resiliency and development. It is the action itself – the process of identifying with a character who is faced with a physical threat and fights back with every resource he can find – that transmits some basic life lessons:

Achievement feels good.

Goals are achieved through complete commitment.

Clear Choices must be made.

Sometimes conflict is useful.

Sometimes shattering old ways is necessary.

Loss and defeat are survivable.

Risk has it’s rewards.

We can feel fear – but do it anyway.

Monsters can be destroyed.

Self-assertion is powerful.

Simply being me is heroic.”

Cloak of Darkness: Using IF for systems thinking

Having first written about using Text-Based Adventures in education back in 2009, my interest in them as a tool for teaching programming concepts, game design, literacy and systems thinking has been renewed. Exploring Interactive Fiction (IF) design systems such as Inform7 and Adrift, I have found Quest to be probably the best for small projects ideally suited to K12 education. The desktop client is currently for PC only, but a beta Chrome Store Quest app is now available for use on any platform.

Following the tutorials available to familiarise with the tool, I decided to attempt to write my own small game based on Roger Firths “Cloak of Darkness” specification. This is the programming equivalent of ‘hello world’ in the IF space. Firths specification for this game are as follows:

There are just three rooms and three objects.

The Foyer of the Opera House is where the game begins. This empty room has doors to the south and west, also an unusable exit to the north. There is nobody else around.

The Bar lies south of the Foyer, and is initially unlit. Trying to do anything other than return northwards results in a warning message about disturbing things in the dark.

On the wall of the Cloakroom, to the west of the Foyer, is fixed a small brass hook.

Taking an inventory of possessions reveals that the player is wearing a black velvet cloak which, upon examination, is found to be light-absorbent. The player can drop the cloak on the floor of the Cloakroom or, better, put it on the hook.

Returning to the Bar without the cloak reveals that the room is now lit. A message is scratched in the sawdust on the floor.

The message reads either “You have won” or “You have lost”, depending on how much it was disturbed by the player while the room was dark.

The act of reading the message ends the game.

You can play my attempt at Cloak of Darkness online at 

In the classroom, I would have students first play one of the Infocom Text Adventures and perhaps unpack verbs, nouns, game mechanics, space and narrative and maybe even get them to do a mapping exercise of the world in question. (A discussion could also be included about Choose Your Own Adventures and Fighting Fantasy.) This would be followed by an introduction to the Quest editor and a discussion about verbs, nouns, objects, rooms, dialogue, first, second and third person narrative perspectives, If->Then statements, attributes etc. and their first project would be to create their own version of the “Cloak of Darkness.”

This would be approached by having them map out the required rooms on A3 paper and then use brainstorming cards to map out their proposed game. Students would be routinely asked to go through the process of rapid prototyping and iterative design by having their peers playtest and provide feedback. By engaging in something like this, students are building their skills and confidence leading up to their final project, which would be a game of their own design. Assessment of their final project/game would include:

Competence – the game should handle the user interactions expected for a piece of interactive fiction.

Immersiveness – the degree to which a player loses him or herself in the game world.

Completeness – the world should have a reasonable number of room and objects.

World Design – non-linear story with several puzzles to solve.

Prose Quality – the room descriptions should draw the player into the game.

Interactivity – the player should have interesting objects and environments to manipulate.

Fun – the game should entertain the player and motivate him or her to play often.

A question that educators at all levels should ask themselves is “What would you do with a computer if their was no internet access?” Using Interactive Fiction enables students to engage with game design whilst not having to worry about skill in designing digital art – and it is a great literacy workout too.

IF resources:

Welcome to Interactive Fiction

IF Delicious Stack

Interactive Fiction Wiki

Zork Library

Brainstorming Cards

Interactive Fiction Authorship

Play IF Cheat Sheet

There is nothing wrong with this picture

Today I spent the day with Grade 3&4 students playing & designing in Little Big Planet and learnt more about them in 4 hours than some teachers would in six months – and yet, some teachers would scoff at this picture and say that it isn’t rigorous and nothing of value could possibly be going on here. Play is for home. Play is for ‘free-time.’ Play is for children and only after the ‘hard work’ has been done…

At its most basic level, play fosters creativity and imagination and connects pleasurable emotions to learning. This is what ‘back to basics’ should be all about.

Play with your students. Get down on their level. Learn with them.

It’s empowering.


Data Driven Bullshit

Yesterday I saw a Grade 3 child, who has a love for learning and life, retreat into a shell of his former self. This child has missed the entire last week of school, and since the year began, almost missed 15 days of school, due to very significant home issues.

It broke my heart.

If students are struggling at school, ask yourself why? Is it that the ‘curriculum’ is beyond it’s use by date or is it because the child is having such a difficult time outside of school and is being asked to behave in both a mature & emotional level well beyond their years? Think of the impact that a difficult home environment has on the development of a child, and then compare this with the pettiness and insignificance of data driven approaches that require a child to be tested till they bleed.

Seriously, what is the purpose of education? It’s about the kids. The emotional well-being of kids. Lets get in touch with reality…

Games & School: The Failure Argument

Failure is a concept that we are all familiar with. In school you likely passed or failed. You made the basketball or football team or you didn’t. And if you did fail, perhaps your parent or guardian was there to tell you, “don’t worry about it, we will try harder next time and you will succeed, mark my words.” Except in rare circumstances where a students intrinsic motivation, life at home and belief in oneself is in perfect harmony, the most likely result from students failing at something is that they will expect to perform similarly on similar tasks in the future. Failure engenders a feeling of incompetence or helplessness in most people.

In Perceiving the Causes of Success or Failure, Weiner states that when one thinks of success or failure, the four factors that come to mind are effort, ability, luck and difficulty. The first two factors, effort and ability are features of the student, whilst the last two are external. 

When the emphasis is on how students are performing, like it is in most schools, the perception of static intelligence is perpetrated throughout the community, usually during conversations between parents and their children, “I was never any good at math,” which in turn becomes a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy which alienates children from the subject area that their parents were no good at. This mindset is the ability mindset, and hints at the fact that no matter how much effort one puts in, they are just not that intelligent when it comes to mathematical thinking.

Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve, states that,

“When kids are led to focus on how well they are performing in school, they tend to explain their performances not by how hard they tried but by how smart they are. Research demonstrates that when students who explain how well their doing on the basis of ability, tend to think less deeply and carefully about what they’re learning.”

As an aside, this is my main problem with gamification – the adding of an extrinsic layer is at odds with what makes a learning activity or a game good in the first place. What typically motivates a student/player to gain mastery over a game and spend a great deal of time with it is intrinsic. The reward mechanic of a game or learning activity (leveling up, unlocking an ability or item) is only a small part of what makes it successful. By adding a rewards layar to something in the classroom (badges, experience points – Lee Sheldon, The Mutiplayer Classroom), sometimes the focus then becomes the reward, to the detriment of what you were trying to achieve initially – mastery over content. In a ‘Gamified’ classroom, how many students are just brushing over content superficially in order to ‘level up’ as quickly as possible? Gamification assumes that a player/student isn’t especially motivated to begin with, and then provides incentives to ramp up that motivation – with games it is the opposite – students are motivated to begin with and it is the design of the game that provides motivation, namely that students are always within their zone of proximal development. A consequence of this is that gamification than has the potential to glamorize a poorly designed curriculum, or curriculum that may have been no good to begin with.

The argument or comparison about failure in games and schools is something I have been struggling with. At it’s most basic level it seems too simplistic.

Failure is discouraged at school – in school, typically the process is that students would hand in an essay, project etc. for the teacher to grade. This assessment is summative and depending on the circumstance, one could argue that the student learns very little about the process, irrespective of the depth of feedback obtained from their teacher. The student either fails or they pass. And then they move onto the next topic. Whereas with well-designed games, a culture of informal formative assessment is present, where failure is a form of progression rather than being a sorting mechanism, and the feedback gained in real-time allows the player to adapt and overcome any and all obstacles in front of them.

James Paul Gee often talks about video games creating a psychosocial moratorium – that is a learning space in which the learner can take risks where real-world consequences are lowered. The cost of failure in these environments is not prohibitive, as it is so often in schools. As Gee is one of the definitive scholars in using games for learning, most cite his work and say that school should then be more like a game. And this is where I have difficulty. Think of the most complicated game that has levelling mechanics, maybe World of Warcraft, maybe Skyrim, and apply this process of failure as a form of progression. A player grinds toward the next level up, often fails, but then gains mastery or unlocks a new skill such as the ability to cast a new spell. Relating this to the current state of education; the grind is the process of gaining mastery, whilst the level-up is the point in which one can fluently wield the destructive powers of say, Calculus.

I don’t think I like the comparison. Yes, the structure of the curriculum should allow repeated failures and allow students to go through a process of iteration in relation to their coursework. And yes, as educationalists, I believe that we have much to learn from games designers and can leverage much of what makes games so compelling in our design of engaging curriculum. But something doesn’t sit easy with me when making this comparison between games and school… 

What am I missing?

Medieval Re-Design

Your typical Medieval PBL unit would typically be built around a driving question like “What was life like in 14th century England?” Students would research clothing, art, music, food and perhaps have a culminating event like medieval bread baking. This is inauthentic PBL in my opinion and doesn’t do this incredible period of time justice.

Stirling Castle, standing high on a Volcanic crag, dominates the land below, and is equalled only by Edinburgh Castle in it’s age and prestige. The Castle’s strategic importance, being situated as the gateway to the highlands, saw it besieged at least 15 times during it’s history. On a recent visit, I learnt that Stirling Castle changed hands 8 times during the Scottish Wars of Independence between 1296 – 1357.

Geographically, the Castle is almost impregnable on three sides, so its defences were focused on the inclined approach from the south-east. As I walked the Castle’s walls and looked out towards Stirling Bridge and then the fields of Bannockburn, I wandered why, given the fortress-like nature and position of this Castle, was it susceptible to being sacked so frequently?

To me this is a more authentic approach to a Medieval PBL unit which might be derived from asking a question like, “Could the sacking of Stirling Castle have been avoided?”

This is a rich question that is open-ended enough to allow all students, after under-taking some preliminary research, scope to take this unit in the direction that interests them most. Using Sketchup or Minecraft, you could challenge your students to re-design Stirling Castle, inline with the geography and technologies of the day, to be able to better withstand an attack or invasion. This approach would allow you to investigate politics, architecture, geography, science, materials, mathematics and culture, all through the lens of the Castle. Students would investigate a Castle as a defensive structure built for strategic purposes and investigate the different architectural components like towers, defensive walls, inside buildings, etc. 

Even better, you could get them into some game-based learning using Castles 1&2. I remember first playing this castle-building sim on my Amiga 600, and it has stood the test of time surprisingly well. For only $5.99, it should be affordable for most schools.

From the website,

“Welcome to the world of Castles – a game of medieval diplomacy, treachery and power. To win you must survive. To survive you must scout the surrounding territories, defeat the local militias, subjugate the land with a Castle, feed and maintain the people, forge diplomatics alliances, appease the Church and unite the land under your iron fist.

There’s more. Now you can watch 30 minutes of BBC documentary footage which shows you how and why castles were constructed, planned, besieged and attacked prior to the age of gunpowder. Using this knowledge, you can create your own original castle designs or choose from 10 historical castles for your own personal fortress.”

In Video Games and Learning, Kurt Squires talks about the cognitive benefits of having students explore history by having it situated in context. Using games like Civilization or Castle’s to explore history, not only provides this situated context but allows an even more sophisticated form of experiential pedagogy to emerge where bias, gameplay, mechanics, inaccuracies, simplifications, generalisations and perspectives can all be explored.

Nintendo at Oakdale

Dawn Hallybone recently hosted Lynette Barr and I at Oakdale Junior School, where we got to see some games-based learning in action in a primary setting.

As the students entered the room they were instructed to collect a Nintendo DS and then sitting in pairs, use the Time Lapse activity, which is part of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training. Time Lapse displays two analog clocks and requires the students to calculate the difference in time between these clocks.


The students were given ten minutes to complete as many of the problems as possible. Students were discussing their strategies and engaging in some genuine collaborative problem solving. Too often, students are put into ‘solitary confinement’ in the classroom due to traditionalists evoking romantic, and somewhat deluded notions of nostalgia, where ‘rigorous learning’ only occurs independently, but this deprives students of one another’s ideas and disagreements.

“Thus, the source of intellectual growth is conflict.” – Alfie Kohn

There has been much research both supporting and debunking the cognitive benefits of using Brain Training, but used in this context I could see real benefit in having students verbalize their thinking. (see:

Once the DS’s were put away, the students engaged in some data collection Using Wii Sports for Averages, where the data they collected was used to explore the concepts of mean, median and mode. Students were hypothesising and conjecturing without fear of being incorrect, and some deductive and logical reasoning was evident that is unusual to see in students of that age – eg. “Well, I know that the answer isn’t…”

Repetition, reinforcement, processing, active learning and communication were all evident as students ‘oohhed’ and ‘ahhed’ there way through a game of ten-pin bowling. Something very simple that shifted the emphasis of the classroom, was the fact that each group had a small whiteboard and whiteboard marker to use – this shifted the emphasis from taking notes and filling in worksheets, to having students internalize the concepts by engaging in discussions with their peers and their teacher. Something simple, but I felt it made a real difference to engagement levels.


“Talking is not merely a way of conveying existing ideas to others; it is also a way by which we explore ideas, clarify them and make them our own.” – Michael Marland

Every minute a teacher is doing the talking is a minute this isn’t happening. Very little direct instruction was given as Dawn didn’t monopolize the classroom and gave her students a real chance to talk – and therefore to learn.

A big thanks to Dawn for her hospitality!