Posted in Games

A Dark Room – elegant game design

A Dark Room began life as a game for web browsers.  You can still play it that way.  You know what?  You should.  Remarkably – it is free to play via your web browser.

I didn’t encounter the game online though.  Someone recommended the app version to me and I bought it.

It cost me £1.99.

I’m playing it for a second time right now.  Trying not to build any huts this time… Once you complete the game some lovely features unlock, including the developers’ commentaries.  These are incredibly beautiful insights to what is an incredibly beautiful game.

All of this for £1.99.


Continue reading “A Dark Room – elegant game design”

Posted in Games, Writing

The Psychology of Choice

I have just published my third twine.

For anyone unfamiliar with twine, it is a rather wonderful way of making choose-your-own-adventure stories/games online.

I am exploring the possibilities of twine.

This particular game – Squirrel Evades Dogface – is a foray into the psychology of choice.

What, I hear you ask, am I going on about?

Let me tell you…

Continue reading “The Psychology of Choice”

Posted in education, Games

Go with the Flow…

I’ve written a lot about using game theory in education recently.  And I am sure that I will continue to do so, since games have so much to teach us.

As part of this process I’ve tried to break down some examples from my work as an educator.

I’ve looked at some Alternate Reality Games, an essay quest and increasing the work we ask students to do.

One of the reasons that these things work, though, is flow.

‘What is flow?’

I’m glad you asked…

Continue reading “Go with the Flow…”

Posted in education, Games

On why students need to work harder

I know that young people appear to be facing an unprecedented level of challenge today, and to suggest that they should ‘work harder’ may seem… well… idiotic.

But I believe that one of the most significant challenges that students face, is not being challenged enough.

I’ll return to the game analogy that I’m using in this blog series:

Games are not fun because they are easy.  Games are fun because they are hard.

We are only engaged fully, deeply, meaningfully, if we are challenged.

Easy games are boring games.

That’s why the featured image for this post is from ‘This War of Mine’ – a hard game.

I have recently completed a full play-through.  It was my fourth attempt.  My characters kept dying.  ‘This War of Mine’ is not easy.  The fact that it took me four attempts to approximate a ‘successful’ game did not put me off – it made me determined, interested and engaged.

Sometimes we get so caught up in managerial concerns about: retaining our student numbers, getting good student feedback for high scores and a better position in the leaderboard, and getting the students to pass the exams… that we forget the far more important thing of whether or not we have actually educated anyone well.

This is the fault of a broken system – not of the educators who are forced to work with it.

And the thing is, when our eyes are fixed towards metrics like these we end up asking the wrong questions.

We worry over student feedback to such an extent that we begin to believe asking students to work hard is asking for poor feedback.  We worry that if we fail a student who is, well… failing – then we’ll have to fail so many students that our retention will be too low.  We worry that if we teach for a love of learning, we won’t have taught them how to pass an exam.

Metrics like these are killing education.

And prioritising these things leads us to remove those elements that will actually instill a love of learning: challenge and value.

If we don’t expect much from the students – if things are too easy – then there is no challenge.  A lack of challenge is boring.

And if there is no challenge and it is also possible to pass despite low attendance, and poor performance – then why should anyone value the course?

I teach a class about genre writing.  It is an elective class – meaning that students from a variety of degrees might opt to take it.  Because of this – I cannot expect the same level  of commitment to my class as these same students will be giving to their core degree classes.

At least that’s what I was told.  And for a while I actually believed it.  The class reading for this module used to be one chapter from four texts – four chapters in total.  This is nothing.

Without fail, about 20% of the class would do the reading.  The other 80% would not.

This was infuriating.  And because I could not count on them to complete the reading, whether they had done so or not gradually became less and less important.

I had so many things for them to do in the event that the reading had not been completed, that the material they were meant to be learning from became irrelevant.

And then I read Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken:


When I read about the idea of fun arising from challenge – I felt that familiar feeling you get when something makes complete sense to you.

And I decided to put it to the test with my genre writing class.

I increased the reading.  The students four chapters in total to one chapter from twelve texts and four short stories.

They also had to make notes on their reading.  I made it so that the following class was entirely dependent upon whether they had completed the reading.  They would talk about it in small groups and feedback their key points to everyone.  I would draw from these to generate writing exercises, enabling them to have a go at the techniques they’d been discussing.  I really love this aspect because it essentially rewards students for their hard work by giving them some more hard work.  And they do see it as a reward.

I did all of this because I believed that McGonigal was right.  That no one values something that you have not given value to.  That a lack of challenge meant boredom and disengagement and that increasing the challenge would increase engagement.

I was right.

And now at least 80% of the class complete the reading.

This is not an exaggeration.

Two things were particularly important in this change:

  1. Increasing the challenge by increasing the workload actively engaged the students more;
  2. By making the following week’s class dependent upon their work – I gave their actions impact and value.

So – they were asked to work harder, but this work was clearly relevant and had value.

I still remember the first class that depended on whether the students had read the material.

I remember getting there early – and pacing.

I remember worrying over what I would do if they hadn’t read anything.  And I remember how my heart lifted when they had completed the work.

I remember watching them debate the texts with one another.  I remember how engaged and delighted they were.

I remember devising those writing exercises for them in class – I remember the look of concentration on their faces as they bent to their pages; I remember the quiet and my heart beating fast.

I remember feeling exhilarated.

I will never forget that class.

I will never go back to asking less from my students.

And as for feedback?  It is one of the most highly rated modules in my department.

So go on.  Be brave and challenge your students more.  It’s what they’re waiting for, and frankly it’s what they need.  It’s what we all need – to work harder.

Posted in education, Games

On creating space to fail

Last week I wrote about how we need failure to learn, and how fewer experiences of what I would deem safe failure is resulting in lower resilience and higher levels of anxiety.

It’s all very well for me to say this stuff, but there is the small issue of what we do about it…

Hence this blog – an attempt to share a few ideas about what we might do about it.

Where possible, I try to embed opportunities for my students to get things wrong.  Please understand, this is not some diabolical plan to trip them up only to then swoop in and prove my superior intelligence…

One: I do not have superior intelligence.  Ask my friends.  And if you don’t believe them, look at this picture of me:

As you can see, here I am wearing a tea cosy on my head.  Yep.  A tea cosy.  A tea cosy in the shape of a hedgehog.  Behold my MIGHTY BRAIN!

Two: Creating opportunities for failure is not about tripping your students up, it’s about letting them figure stuff out by having a go.

So… how might you embed failure into learning?  I think the best way to try and break this down, is to give a couple of examples from my practise.  All of this comes with the disclaimer that I do not hold the definitive answers… this is just the way that I’ve tried to work stuff out…

Example One: writing an essay

Look – a pen on some paper!

I had a group of students who struggled to get their heads around essay writing.  They never gave themselves enough time to think, read and plan.  They would put it off because they were afraid of not understanding the reading and of failing.

So I made a five-stage essay development ‘game’.

Participation was voluntary.  Those students that decided to play, received a weekly quest card relating to the essay title that they were working towards.

The quests started small: find two definitions of [insert here]; and got more challenging: find a theorist that disagrees with all the things you’ve previously written…

They had to write up their findings in a weekly blog, which I would read and comment upon.

This approach meant that they could explore the ideas and really unpack the essay title.  They could go off on tangents and it was fine, because this wasn’t the essay – it was the work towards the essay.  In other words, they could make mistakes without these costing them marks.  There is something about flow and levelling up in this approach too – but that might be the next blog…

I found that students following this approach did better in their essays than usual.  And this is not down to my bias – I have always been careful to moderate these assignments (meaning that one of my colleagues also reads the work to ensure objectivity and fairness).

Example Two: playing an Alternate Reality Game

(c) ZenFilms

Alternate Reality Games are great; I’ve used them a fair bit now, which you can see in this previous post.

But for this example I am thinking of a different game – one that I made for students studying the digital world.

In it, the students are tasked with developing work for a digital timeline that I built.  (The phrase ‘digital timeline’ sounds fancy but it’s really easy to make.  I use the excellent Knightlab.)

Having contributed to the timeline, an A.I character steals their work and shuts the timeline down.  The students have to engage with A.I. through:

  • researching more to satisfy A.I.’s criticisms;
  • engaging in online debate;
  • preparing further materials to supplement the earlier work.

In essence, they end up having done more work than entailed in the average essay, but it’s spread over a few weeks and presented as a series of conversations.  Taking on the A.I. character allows me to be more critical without the students feeling threatened.  They are free to, effectively, get more ‘wrong’ before they get a lot right.

It is not necessary to build an ARG to embed opportunity to get things wrong – but if you’re interested in ARGs in education then check out what I’ve said about them in the past, and watch this space for an upcoming blog about making ARGs…

In Summation

Making space for failure means making space for play.  If you’re playing, then it’s ok to get things wrong.  And if you’re playing then you are getting to deeply know in a way that feels safe.  Play is fun.  But interestingly, play is not easy.

Contrary to popular opinion, games are fun because they’re difficult.  Not because they’re easy.  In fact, easy games are boring.  We do not need to make education easy.  We need to find where it’s hard, and celebrate that.  Games do not shy away from making the player work hard.  They just support the player to develop the skills they will need to succeed.

I think that this is at least some of what we need when we’re teaching: good support and structure, with space to fail and lots of challenge.

In the next blog in this series (yep, it’s becoming a series – check me), I will discuss how increasing the challenge leads to greater engagement in learning.  If I can ram it in, then I may also talk about making ARGs… or that might be a blog all of its very own…

Posted in education, Games

Fail Faster

We need to talk about failure.

Specifically, what seems to have become some kind of endemic-fear-of-failing.

Ok.  First off, what is so wrong with getting things wrong?

What is it about making a mistake – or just not getting it right yet – that seems to send us into paroxysms of frenetic confusion?

What is so wrong with failure?

Making mistakes is how we learn.

It is such an intrinsic a part of learning that I believe classrooms should be spaces for failure.  Instead they’re spaces where educators are forced to teach to the exam, and to showcase the fact that they are teaching so clearly, even an ofsted inspector can’t fail to notice.


Because these are the things by which teachers and, by extension, schools are judged.

It needs to stop.

It really needs to stop.

This system is producing generations of young people that have no idea how to fail well.  They don’t understand that you have to throw a hundred ideas at the wall before you get one that just might stick.

The moment their first idea doesn’t quite work, they are broken.

I’ve heard the word ‘resilience’* bandied about a lot in the last few years.  Resilience, it seems, is very important.  We all need to be more resilient.

I believe that in order to be resilient we need to be able to fail.  I was having this conversation with a friend and he said ‘fail faster!’  He’s a games designer, and he went on to tell me that his team gets together every month to come up with a hundred game ideas as quickly as possible.  About 90 of these will be rubbish.  8 will be sort of ok.  2 might be games.

Imagine that.  Scheduled space to get it wrong until you get it right.

And he is right.  We don’t just need the space to fail, we need active encouragement to fail faster.  We need to be so used to throwing ideas around, that we get good at recognising the gems.

Classrooms are, too often, spaces that try to prevent students from getting it wrong.  If we’re getting in the way of failure all the time, how are students meant to cope with the only educational experiences of failure left?  Exams.  We shield them and shield them… and then we wonder why, when finally faced with a space in which they might be able to get it wrong, they faint.

If we want students to succeed they have to be allowed to get it wrong.  They have to be allowed to fail.  We all have to fail faster.



* resilience is an interesting topic, and one shortly to have its very own blog.  Lucky you!

Featured image courtesy of:

Posted in Games, Uncategorized

Campus Crisis – building Alternate Reality Games for learning

So… Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).

I wrote a little post about these and posited that Facebook is a sort of ARG a while back.  Not a very good ARG but, I think, very arguably an ARG.

Warning: when talking about Alternate Reality Games there is a real possibility that I will end up repeating ARG a lot just because I like the way it sounds…


Ok.  Now that’s out of my system… for anyone that isn’t already aware of them, Alternate Reality Games are basically games that are played in both the real and virtual world, i.e. you might play part of it online and another part of it in real-to-goodness offline mode.  Why, you might ask.  Good question.  Well – for a start it can be a great way of engaging with our surroundings in new, imaginative ways.  It is also good to remember that, no matter how much enjoyment we might get out of the virtual, our bodies are in the real.  And our bodies are not just vehicles to get our heads to games consoles.  Indeed – engaging the body and the mind at the same time is about as immersive as any experience can be.  Why else would anyone go to so much trouble to make VR a reality?

I made a little ‘history of ARGs’ timeline a while back.  You can see it here.

It is by no means a complete history, but it does endeavour to give a solid account of the beasts.

So… skipping to the end.  I believe that ARGs are incredibly powerful ways to organise information.  Perhaps even more powerful than traditional stories.

They have greater potential within education than, say, Egan’s story form model, or stories in general, because they require more active involvement from the player(s).

Traditional stories give us the privilege of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective.  ARGs call us to be in the world and to embody this perspective.  Or – to my mind even more excitingly – to explore our own perspective within the play-space.

In other words, in ARGs you are the hero.  Or you can be.

And that is what I tried to capitalise on when I developed Campus Crisis with some wonderful colleagues at my place of work; Campus Crisis is an ARG that teaches players about sustainability, by inviting them to save the world.

Yep – some non-player-characters from the future, have found a way to talk to us now.  And they have one thing to say: help us, our world is dying.  Help us.

And there you go.  The students are tasked with strategising ways to change first their own lives, and then the world… They are given guidance in the form of a blog, some audio files and some teaching videos.  Their tutor is there to add any further pointers, but that is it.  They are the hero.  This is the hero’s journey.  And, in a nutshell, that is a key feature of the ARG, the hero’s journey.  And, on that note, here is a brilliant youtube video about this cunning little structuring technique:

Other things to consider include pace and opportunities for emotional engagement, i.e. why should the player care… and this is a whole thing in and of itself.  But, for now, when thinking about an Arg for learning think: what structure are you employing and why; why should the player care? and where is the pace quick, and where does it give the player some space to reflect?

Primarily, though, I believe that when you have a solid structure (i.e. everything is there for a purpose), then you should have something that will ‘work’.

I was fortunate enough to deliver a workshop about this game and some of the more subtle points underpinning it at the Playful Learning Conference yesterday.  And if you happen to be reading this, and you would like to know more or chat about it, please leave a comment and I will be very happy to get back to you.

Posted in Games

What we really talk about when we talk about games

If you mention the word ‘game’ in casual conversation, most folk will initially think of video games.  Some might think about board games or chess.  Some others might think of sports.  Or you might think of games you played when you were a child, like Mission Impossible.  Which, come to think of it, I still play.  Particularly when food-shopping.  Because, you know, food shopping is boring and playing Mission Impossible with your toddler, while your spouse pretends not to know you, is much more fun.  I digress…

The word ‘game’ carries with it a lot of associations besides how we might define it.   What are the first three words that pop into your head when you think ‘game’?

For me it’s: fun, play and flow.

Others might feel that games are what we do when the serious and important stuff is done (a bit like the creative, artsy things).  I think that, if we’re honest, even those of us who love games still associate them with childishness.

And because of that it’s easy for us to dismiss them.  So when a game comes along that has real impact, and everyone – or certainly lots of young people (it seems to bother us more if it’s young people) – are playing it, our go-to-feeling appears to be worry.  We ask why.  Why are they playing that game all of the time?  Right now that game is Fortnite.  But this piece isn’t about Fortnite.  It’s about the conversation behind Fortnite.

It’s to do with our assumptions about games, and our associations with them.

You see, I think that in our heads when something is associated with childishness or childhood, two things happen:

  1. We dismiss it – if it’s childish it’s not worth our attention;
  2. We romanticise it – if it evokes childhood then it must convey innocence and, indeed, be innocent.

So something odd happens when a game captures our attention because it is just… wonderful.  I’ll go so far as to say, when it is art.  Because games, like any creative medium, can be art.  And there are some truly amazing pieces of art out there that you can play.  When this happens we can’t quite believe it.  We seem to find it hard to articulate that a game has moved us so deeply.  How can this… this… childish thing make anyone feel deeply?

And something really odd happens when a game (which is associated with childhood and therefore evokes concepts of innocence), is not innocent.  When young people play that game, something must be wrong, because at some level we feel that anything undermining the concept of childhood innocence is inherently threatening.  That’s why children in horror are always creepy.  And, come to think of it, it’s the same reaction that people had to the video nasties of the 1980s.

So, what are we really talking about when we talk about games?

Well, I’ll go out on a limb here, but I think we’re talking about all of the above.  We’re talking about our fears and our hopes.  And those are pretty emotive topics.  But if we put all of that aside for a moment, let’s just try and look at the thing without prejudice.

Games are a creative medium.  Maybe we need to call games something else to get away from all that other stuff, but that’s not a job for this blog.

When we talk about games, we’re talking about something interactive.  We’re talking about something that engages people in ways that other media doesn’t.  The fact that games do this, does not make them superior to other art forms.  Nor does it make them inferior.  It makes them unique.  We can’t really compare a game with a book or a film.  We just can’t and we should stop trying.  A game is a game is a game.  And we need to start taking games seriously.

Posted in Games

thomas was alone: a beautiful example of narrative and gameplay

I completed ‘thomas was alone’ a while ago now.  I intended to write a blog at the time, I even began one, but then work and, well, work took over and I had no time for anything else.

It is, I think, a profound game.  You can tell that it’s profound because it leads you to care about a red rectangle.  Truly.  You care about the fate of a little red rectangle called Thomas.

This game is genius.

It makes you care through the music, the sound effects, the aesthetic, the clever use of short sentences that give it a jackanory story-time feeling, and the bigger narrative about free-will and self-awareness.  Oh, and the narrator.  The narrator is wonderful.  Not to mention the gameplay itself – lovely, rich puzzles and individually-realised characters:

  • Thomas is curious and happy and kind;
  • Chris is grumpy;
  • Claire thinks she is a superhero…

The list goes on.

They all face challenges that they need to overcome – usually by enlisting help from everyone else in the group – and, crucially, they all learn something.  There is character development.

No mean feat for such a small game.

But what makes it profound?  Well, it reminds me of one of my favourite things about us humans, and that is our capacity for empathy.  If we can emote with a red rectangle, then surely that tells us something about human nature?  Often, we talk about human nature in survivalist terms: us versus them.  And this kind of rhetoric seems to be more and more pervasive in current political landscapes around the world.  But the us versus them narrative is not, at the heart of it, human nature.  Not really.  Not if we can empathise with characters like these:

Image Credit: Mike Bithell

The secret about human nature, is that we are creatures of empathy.  We are so empathetic, that in order to make the us versus them narrative ‘ok’, we have to engage in elaborate language systems and propaganda to vilify others and make them seem less than human.  We have to be repeatedly lied to about others, before we begin to let go of our empathy.  And I know this is true, because we are so empathetic that we are able to care about a red rectangle bouncing about on a screen.

And this gives me hope.  This game gives me hope.

It is simply beautiful.  And if you haven’t already played it – go on, give it a go.  It will delight you, it will show you something of what a game really can be, and it will show you what people really can be.