Young boy playing arcade machines in the Games Lab at ACMI - Gareth Sobey
Stories & Ideas

Tue 27 Jun 2023

Beyond engagement: playing and studying games at school

Education Videogames
Alex B

Alexander Bacalja

Senior Lecturer in Language & Literacy, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Both inside and outside of schools, digital games have become ubiquitous learning devices. Visually stimulating, highly interactive, and increasingly designed to encourage immersion in conceptually rich virtual worlds, we should not be surprised that these forms of digital culture have become so effective at holding the attention of young and old alike.

Research tells us that digital games are being deployed across all of the years of schooling (Martinez, Gimenes, & Lambert, 2022), with increasing motivation and engagement foremost amongst the reasons that teachers identify to justify their use of these digital technologies. But what can teachers achieve through a digital game classroom after engagement? How can motivation be leveraged for other educational goals? What are the benefits of planning for the games’ classroom by privileging subject specific knowledge?

Civilization 6

Games like Civilization 6 have long been lauded for their potential to increase classroom engagements. But linking gameplay to specific curriculum goals provides a unique set of challenges.

To help us pivot our practice beyond engagement, we are well served by educational philosopher Gert Biesta’s thinking on what constitutes ‘good education’. Biesta (2009) argues that a number of movements over the past two decades have led education to be discussed almost exclusively in terms of measurement and comparison of educational outcomes. He argues that we need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education, and that discussions about purpose are always informed by values about the aims and purposes of education. In other words, we need to rethink the ‘ends’ and ‘means’.

If we apply this thinking to the games-based classroom, we are forced to consider how games support the purpose of learning in any given context. If our ends are our educational goals, and these are limited to engagement, then selecting games that are fun to play, and giving students sufficient time to play, will likely assist us to achieve our goals. However, if our ends are more complex, perhaps more specific to curriculum knowledge or skills, then the ‘means’ are likely to be tailored towards these goals. Put another way, the more complex, specific, and carefully considered our ends, the more targeted and intentional our teaching with digital games will need to be. Looking at several examples from different subject areas (English, History and ICT) can help to illustrate this point.

English classroom

The English classroom is a place of learning that privileges the close analysis of characterisation. When a novelist, a film maker or a poet uses words, images and sound to develop characters, they engage in characterisation. The challenge for the English teacher is to support students to identify and explain the authorial choices of writers and directors. Digital games offer a textual medium ideal for such activity. Multiple genres of games are heavily invested in using a range of meaning systems to construct protagonists and antagonists. While initial engagement with a game’s avatar is an important way to switch students on for learning, the ‘what’ of the learning matters greatly. English teachers have a pathway here for a wide range of foci, from colour, representation, sound, movement, size, tools/weapons, etc.

Never Alone

Never Alone’s protagonist Nuna is an example of a complex character to be deconstructed with students.

History classroom

A core concept in the discipline of History is an understanding that historical representation is only ever partial. This means that statues, paintings, newspapers and other historical artifacts are always seen as a part of the past, but not a ‘true’ reflection of history. Digital games have become media texts that embrace the recreation of well-known historical events. It is common for games to locate the player in game worlds that focus on historical examples, such as: war and conflict (the God of War, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed series), colonisation (the Sid Meier Civilization and Europa Universalis series), and historical lawlessness (the Plague Tale and Far Cry series).

God Of War

The God of War series uses extensive links to Norse mythology to construct its story.

The use of digital games to achieve history curriculum goals is not new (see the work of Kurt Squire for several examples). Games that are situated within historical contexts are particularly useful for asking questions about historical representation. Centring questions of representation requires first allowing students to be immersed in these highly realistic worlds, but then moving them towards challenging the ways these worlds attempt to recreate the past. Asking questions, such as ‘whose history is being told? Is it told positively? Whose version of events is missing?’, can assist students to move from initial engagement to critical evaluation of games as secondary sources that both reveal and misrepresent the past.

Far Cry 5

The Far Cry series incorporates references to multiple historical movements, such as totalitarianism, Christian religious extremism and civil wars, usually in exaggerated forms.

ICT classroom

Computational thinking is a core requirement of any Information and Communication Technology curriculum (see the Australian Curriculum general capability of ICT for an example). It is not a stretch to say that our entire contemporary digital world is a product of different kinds of computational thinking, digital games included. Teachers of ICT have long dedicated their teaching towards helping students understand and ‘play’ with the kinds of thinking that underpin the design and operation of digital technologies. This is especially important in the context of digital games given the thinking that underpins the coding of such games is hidden below the surface of well-designed game interfaces that encourage play.

Minecraft camera setup

Minecraft’s interface and gameplay requires players to engage in computational thinking as they design their own gameworlds

Using games in classrooms to make features of design and coding overt provides an opening for focussing on the ICT curriculum. Minecraft is the most popular version of such a game. It allows gamers to create and break apart various kinds of blocks in three-dimensional worlds. The design of Minecraft allows students to engage in an iterative process of design and analysis, where the worlds they create are catalysts for classroom learning that asks students to think about how games and other digital texts are intertwined with computational thinking.

What emerges from these three examples is the value of making connections between subject-specific knowledge and ways of working with digital games in classrooms. These examples demonstrate how initial engagement can be put to more useful work when it is tied to specific learning objectives. If our ‘ends’ are specific to the kinds of learning we want students to achieve, then our ‘means’ will take a form that includes play, but also goes beyond this. This approach helps us resist the temptation to fall prey to techno-idealist mindsets that see technologies as solutions to educational problems that ignore local contexts.

Resource links

The author has handpicked the following relevant resources and lesson plans developed by the ACMI Education team and others.

With ‘Teaching character with silent protagonists’, students are guided into understanding how silent protagonists are created through multiple modes.

History curriculum goals can be supported using the ACMI Game Lesson ‘Ancient Civilisations and ‘Assassin’s Creed’.

Resources to support computational thinking in ICT related classrooms can be found in ACMI’s Scratch Coder resources, and on the Minecraft Education Resources site.


Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), 33-46.

Martinez, L., Gimenes, M., & Lambert, E. (2022). Entertainment video games for academic learning: A systematic review. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 60(5), 1083-1109.