What is Serious Play?

For some years now I’ve been interested in the potential of digital games to engage students in learning and was thrilled to sign up for the “Serious Play” Research project (see poster) conducted by researchers from Griffith University, Queensland University of Technology, Deakin University and the National Institute of Education in Singapore). You can read some preliminary research in this paper by Dr Jason Zagami. There is also a brief summary of some initial findings here on Classroom Aid.

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Link to the Serious Play Google Site, created by Dr Jason Zagami to support participating schools

Serious Play has seen up to five of our teachers at a time implementing learning with games projects in their classrooms over the last couple of years. Experiences have generally been positive and it seems those who venture further from their comfort zones as teachers, reap the richest rewards in terms of student learning and achievement. The focus in our school has been on USING games, although in other participating Serious Play schools (there are six Queensland schools in all), classroom projects may also involve ANALYSING or MAKING games. These areas of the research are especially relevant in secondary schools which run dedicated “Technology” and “Computer Programming” subjects.

Using Ratchet & Clank* (on Playstation) in Year 2

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Ratchet and Clank” [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] by Robert Ball on Flickr

One of my school’s most successful Serious Play projects incorporated this 2003 platform game. Year 2 teacher, Jessica Lourigan, set up a Playstation 2 console in her room and had her students play Ratchet & Clank (Version 2: Locked and Loaded) during class time. This version of the game is rated G in Australia, recommended for children aged 8+. Parent permission is routinely sought for all participants in the Serious Play project so all students had consent to participate before the project was launched.

The learning area focus was English and Jessica reported a high level of engagement in the associated tasks, even from students who had been extremely reluctant writers to date. She also found that the quality and length of students’ written pieces showed significant improvement. The following excerpts (included here with permission) were recorded on the Serious Play (private) blog. Hopefully, they’ll give you a better picture of what using a digital game could look like in your classroom (for better or for worse):

posted 13 Sep 2012 19:18 by J Lourigan

The kids are really enjoying the Ratchet and Clank game.  It’s funny to watch how engrossed they become, physically moving themselves closer to the screen as they get caught up in the action, the noise in the room is amazing but it’s a positive buzz of excitement, encouragement and strategy. So far we have used this alternative text to help us…
1. Write descriptions of characters
2. Write narratives based on our game play
3. Write a procedural text on how to play the game, the kids typed out the instructions and used the i-pods to take photos to match their writing.
4. Created our own missions for the game by drawing a new setting, enemy and a weapon to defeat the enemy. We then wrote a narrative plan to show how this mission would go.
5. Written a reflection on what we did, what strategies we think we need to use and what we want to still work out..
Some of my less enthusiastic writers (boys particularly) are writing great volumes of work and are finding it much easier to write when they have the story running in their mind.
It’s been a great experience and has given me a new tool to use in writing which I would definitely use again.

In case you’re assuming Jessica must have been an avid and experienced gamer herself before embarking on the project, this earlier post of hers should set you straight:

posted 30 Apr 2012 03:51 by J Lourigan

I have absolutely no past experience with gaming other than playing PONG on my parents’ tv when I was little!!  I have only ever used skill and drill games with my class for practice of number and language facts.  Which they love doing.
I have always had doubts about the value of gaming – as a mum of two I have as a result not allowed my kids to own a Wii, DS or anything similar!!  I am willing however to change my mind!!
My hope is to use an adventure game like “Ratchet and Clank” on playstation as an interactive “big book” for language activites.  We usually use a storybook a week to practise our grammar skills and as a writing inspiration and springboard.  I hope to replace the book with a game.  Use the characters and settings for descriptive writing, use the game skills to write proceedural texts and use the game play to attempt narratives.  I can also use the game part to study verbs (what the character does), nouns, adjectives etc.
I’m inspired by that youtube clip of that man who used ‘Myst’ with his older kids – I have year 2 so I am hoping for a watered down effect!!

Here’s that video Jessica mentions, in case you’re looking to be inspired in the same way:

Developing “Gameplay Etiquette”


posted 13 Aug 2012 23:21 by J Lourigan

I had my first lesson this afternoon and it was great!

After much fiddling trying to get the PS working we started this afternoon by just ‘playing’. Luckily only one or two kids have actually played this game (Ratchet and Clank) before so they were all enthralled and very excited. We sat as a class around the tv and took turns passing the controls around after about 3 minutes of playtime each.  We shared our discoveries (what buttons did what) as we went, children encouraged others (1 got sent  to his desk for negative talk) and I encouraged as much talking as possible.
In the end, after about 30 minutes we
* We identified the characters, setting and the problem in our part of the game. Through the game we identified two obstacles we had to face before we could end our ‘story’ (Narrative structure).
* DESCRIBED a strange dog/frog creature. Tomorrow we will write a class description focussing on our adjective use.
* DESCRIBED the setting – didn’t get far with this…
* We incidentally looked at 4 digit numbers as we read our scores!!
* We did lots of encouragement and clapping for each other which is great for this class who can be very nasty to each other at times!
All in all, really happy with our first lesson –
Obstacles –
* Have to do whole class lessons because it is too distracting to expect the other to do something else when some are on the PS!
* Time management – we get carried away and it chews up time!!

Obviously Jessica’s initial steps taken to set expectations of a positive and supportive environment paid off in spades. A couple of weeks after this launch, I sat with her class during a Ratchet and Clank session. I was most impressed (and actually quite surprised!) at the level of support and encouragement from the observing students when others were playing. There was only one controller available so the students had to wait their turn. As expected, many students were already avid gamers (all boys). Even when the most hesitant players (all girls) took a turn with the controller, the encouragement from ALL students was incredibly positive.

The most vocal leaders were particularly supportive of non-competent players. Whenever these players lost all their lives quickly, in which event the controller normally passed to the next in line, the (self-appointed) leaders encouraged the player to have a second or third turn. This was with no prompting at all from me. All students were expected to take a turn and no one opted out, no matter how limited their skills. On one occasion, at a particularly difficult point in play, a student handed the controller to one of the more competent players and asked him to get her past the tricky point, then accepted the controller back for her turn. This kind of mutual support spoke highly to me of the great value of the gaming activity in developing social and team skills. Not to mention the teacher’s diligence and skill in establishing a positive environment from the outset.

In fact, many of the unanticipated benefits of using digital games in the classroom go beyond specific learning areas. Student learning and skill development during the Ratchet and Clank project can be easily linked to the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, such as LiteracyNumeracyCritical and Creative Thinking and Personal and Social Capability. Apart from anything else, those students had a fun and engaging classroom learning experience that they are not likely to forget.

Using Myst (for iOS) in Year 7

"MystCover" included here under fair use provision of non-free content. Source: Wikipedia

“MystCover” included here under fair use provision of non-free content. Source: Wikipedia

Using Myst on the iPads in a Year 7 class was another highly successful Serious Play experience. I don’t need to say another word about this project as it’s been comprehensively covered by the class teacher herself, Kathy Peasey, in a resource page on her blog “Gaming in Education“. Click to enjoy!

In other Serious Play projects at my school over the last two years, teachers have used:

Game NOT over…

I’ve yet to find a digital game with more potential for open-ended and engaging cross-curricular learning than the one and only Minecraft. Visit my Tumblr site on Learning with Minecraft for a collection of Minecraft-related resources. And please standby for a soon-to-spawn resource page on this blog, devoted entirely to our Serious Play Minecraft project, which was an absolutely amazing experience! I cannot wait to tell you all about it and I’m eagerly looking forward to my very next opportunity to support the use of Minecraft in ANY classroom at my school… BRING IT ON!

Have you had a successful (or otherwise) experience using digital games in the classroom?


Featured image: “Do you play?” [CC BY-SA 2.0] by Fabrizio Sciami on Flickr

* Ratchet & Clank 2: Locked and Loaded was developed by Insomniac Games and published in 2003 by Sony Computer Entertainment. This game was released in North America as “Ratchet & Clank 2: Going Commando”.


7 thoughts on “Gaming in School: Serious Play

  1. Maria, the project you are talking about is run by Jason Z who used to be a science teacher at my school, St Aidan’s! Three teachers at school are involved in the project in various ways. One class has been using Minecraft with great interest, team work, collaboration and reflective learning.
    I recall many years ago introducing Pieces of Eight to a Year 7 class and they LOVED it. This was in the days before internet connections so lacked the online team player experience but…. the learning, team work, literacy and collaboration that emerged was truly impressive.
    I have always believed in the potential of computer games to develop learning skills. I also recall developing units of work around the game Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego? That was a brilliant game my students just loved. Although at the time we were limited by the number of computers in the room it was highly successful and engaging.
    I have just done a quick search and find Carmen is online!!! AND she has a Facebook page and a Twitter account!!!

    Must away…off to check out the new online Carmen!!

  2. Cathy thanks for your comment. I didn’t realise you knew JZ – must have been fabulous to have him on staff! What he doesn’t know about educational gaming isn’t worth knowing. Great to know your school is also involved in Serious Play.

    Ahhh the memories… Pieces of Eight etc. Dear Carmen feels like an old friend – I must catch up with her online too (had no idea she was still around, thanks for the tip!). Do you remember ‘Crossing the Blue Mountains’ as well? Many of the gaming sources from the US that I read refer to ‘Oregon Trail’ in the same nostalgic tones. I think ‘Blue Mountains’ must be the Aussie ‘Oregon Trail’!

    Amazing how far the technology has brought us, but using games for learning has always been a positive experience for me too.

  3. Maria I found this link to a gaming blog on edutopia..thought you might find it interesting

    I DO remember Crossing the Blue Mountains and I also remember Raft Away River about the Gold Rushes!! Will have to look them up. My very first game was in 1987 on an Apple Classic (green screen) in a Year 2 class in Warwick. As I was the new young teacher I got to test out the new “machine”. All 20 Year 2 students and I sitting around a very small screen playing Reader Rabbit!!

  4. Great link Cathy, thanks very much. SO much interesting reading material. Think I need a couple of weeks off!
    I feel I’ve met a kindred spirit, our careers seem to mirror each others in so many ways. YES I remember the dear old Apple Classic AND Reader Rabbit. But we had Apple IIe’s by the time I started teaching (Year 2!) in 1988. I remember Explore Australia on 5.25 inch floppy disc.
    By the time I moved to Year 7 two years later we had two state-of-the-art Mac LCs on a wheelie table to share among the 3 classes – heaven! Ahhh, the joy of nostalgia over quaint old technologies!
    There was just something about computers that made learning with them so enticing… The kids used to shoulder barge each other to get at the First Fleet database and Parliament of Australia… I mean *Parliament*!?!? No wonder we teachers fought over the machines too!

  5. Pingback: Mad About Minecraft | The Grapevine

  6. I think this is great. As gaming is a big part of some childrens lives and all children learn differently. Through games are a great way of kids to learn especially if they have learning problems.

  7. Wow! This is also such an inspiring post. To read the experience of a teacher describing the process of introducing gaming into their own classroom has such great value to beginning teachers. Using a game as inspiration for writing is a great way to get students engaged in their learning. As part of my practicum at one of my mentor schools we would have a creative writing session. The students were in class 1 and often we would provide them with a blank space for them to draw their ideas before getting started on their writing. Two young boys in particular would engage in drawing amazing episodes that could only be an extension of the games that they were playing at home. They were obviously highly engaged in the story but had very little time to write about it. I can only imagine their excitement at being allowed to spend so much time discussing characters, settings and story lines of a game in class.

    I have been researching the educational value of gaming as well and came across this website that may give more ideas for future games to use in schools. Each game is reviewed with a list of thinking skills that it encourages. Helping students to recognise that the skills they use in gaming can also be used in their learning and everyday lives is a must these days 🙂

    Learning works for kids

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