Exploring game play as a path for learning

My idea of playing video games is usually a quick game of Tetris on my iPad. It gives me a break from whatever I’m doing and usually lasts about 20 minutes, in which my brain thinks about trying to fit different shaped blocks into various spaces to make full lines of blocks without filling the screen. As a primary school teacher I’m familiar with computer games of this type used for teaching spatial relations, problem solving and drill and practice.  I have used video games including Wii Sports and PlayStation SingStar in the classroom, but these were as a reward at the end of term, and the children were able to play them freely or better still against the teachers!

Some months ago a student donated a bag full of video games which he had finished playing to the library. After a rummage around I found a game to explore to see what kind of learning children could gain from video gaming. I brought it home intending to play for a short time, and after an hour had to turn off the PlayStation before I became immersed and the whole night was lost! (I believe I will need to pursue playing this game a bit more, I was just getting the hang of it).

The game I selected was ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age’, I chose this one both for its narrative genre and re-emergence in popular culture with the upcoming film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey later this year. On starting the game I was immediately struck by the intertextual references made in the game with the synopses of each stage of the story taken from the first film ‘Fellowship of the Ring’. Gandalf told the story of the ring and the battles which took place in Middle Earth before the ring was lost. These references continued as you moved through the narrative, meeting other characters including elves and orcs. The player needs some familiarity with the original story to know if they are encountering friend or foe.

As the game began I was cast as a character Berethor, Citadel Guard of Gondor who is on a quest to follow Boromir. The game is set up as a side story to the original text, with intertextual references adding detail to the player’s plot. I was quickly joined by another character, the elf Idrial of Lothlorien, and in battle found I swapped between the characters to take turns ‘acting’. I found I had to quickly refer to the booklet to understand what I had to do to get started, but then put it aside, learning from the experience of playing to understand how to improve my characters’ chances of survival.

In playing this game there was a lot of learning taking place, even in the short time I played:

  • Reading comprehension was vital, as I had to read snippets of text which gave instructions initially, and then small amounts of information which I had to combine to develop actions and strategies during battle to help my characters win more quickly and survive in better health – of course I had to die a few times to understand how it all worked.
  • Inferring and code breaking was necessary through the battles as I learnt what the different symbols meant, the different ‘energy levels’ for health and action points, how to select actions and weapons and how to understand the ‘script’ which showed the order in which the characters would take action.
  • Practicing hand-eye coordination and balancing the use of the different buttons on the controller to make my characters move and do what I wanted them to do.
  • Building on prior knowledge each time I restarted the game, gaining more ‘items’ in my quest to help with battles, thinking about changing strategies to win battles more quickly with less loss of health and action points for each of my characters, and exploring how the characters actions could be helpful to each other.

Most importantly this game teaches the player to be persistent. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. It is only through losing battles and restarting the game at the last save point that you learn the skills and build on your knowledge to enjoy greater success, moving forward in the narrative.


The Lord of The Rings, The Third Age, Electronic Arts Inc, 2004

‘Playstation 2 controller’ by Thom Watson available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomwatson/1449890/ under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0. Full terms available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en

7 thoughts on “Exploring game play as a path for learning

  1. Thank you for these insights – great to see you testing games out yourself! I am curious…you said that after an hour you “had to turn off the PlayStation before I became immersed and the whole night was lost”. Was it because you had other things to do that you didn’t want to ‘lose’ your night? Or is it because you feel guilty if you play games for too long?

    I ask because I find it curious that some people seem happy spend hours reading, but less happy to spend hours gaming. So I thought I’d ask 🙂

    • Hi Kelli, I’m happy spend hours reading, on the computer or playing a game – I get hooked. I just try not to get hooked on a school night or I miss my beauty sleep! I’ll be saving that game for the holidays when I can spend all day (and night) playing. I often find myself immersed in such activities and before I realize it hours have passed! Petra

  2. A great read, Petra! 🙂

    I too am OK with a 10 minute game of tetris, or freecell even after coming home from a busy day and this is fine.

    Prior to this unit, I had never thought about incorporating a Wii in my classroom – and was impressed that you have already done that (you’re one step ahead!)

    I enjoyed reading about the learning experiences that went on when play TLOTR and am now interested in how I am going to incorporate gaming into my teaching practise as I have been so enlightened as to how beneficial it truly is.

    Thanks for the read 🙂

  3. Hi Petra
    Games can be engaging and educational, as you say, but they can also be used as a serious alternative to pain killers as the US army found with burns victims’ pain from subsequent treatment. The game Snowball, was made by doctors to alleviate pain during treatment, as an alternative mind distracting therapy. From the article from the Rock Center by Brian Williams, it appears to work very well leading to soldiers weaning themselves off addictive morphine. So games can have very beneficial effects as well as being addictive. (Ref: http://rockcenter.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/24/14648057-groundbreaking-experiment-in-virtual-reality-uses-video-game-to-treat-pain?lite#__utma=238145375.1635891641.1342440502.1351021774.1351080590.145&__utmb=238145375.3.10.1351080590&__utmc=238145375&__utmx=-&__utmz=238145375.1351015529.142.19.utmcsr=google|utmccn=%28organic%29|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=%28not%20provided%29&__utmv=238145375.|8=Earned%20By=msnbc|world%20news=1^12=Landing%20Content=Mixed=1^13=Landing%20Hostname=www.msnbc.msn.com=1^30=Visit%20Type%20to%20Content=Internal%20to%20Mixed=1&__utmk=31154812)

    • Hi Karen, I thought this was very interesting perspective that you provided. As a nurse I have often used distraction techniques to help with pain relief but I must admit that I have never considered the use of computer games to do this. I think I will have to investigate this further and let my students know about it as well. Thanks Alex

  4. Pingback: CLN647 Group N 2012 - Watchin, Talking and Playing A Game

  5. I have to admit I have had a very narrow view of video games until this unit. I have never been sympathetic to those who ‘love’ playing and never understood their addictive nature.I really enjoyed reading your post and could certainly ‘see’ the learning taking place. I am one of those people who, when I get my nose into a good book, can stay up until 3 in the morn reading so Kelli’s comment about people feeling guilty about playing games into the wee hours in contrast to those of us that can ‘justify’ reading made me think twice about my prejudices. More so after I read Karen’s comment too.

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