Game-Based Learning: Interview with Maura Smale

Transformations  September 30, 2013

Maura A. Smale is an associate professor and head of library instruction at New York City College of Technology, CUNY, where she leads the library’s information literacy efforts. Her academic background includes both a Ph.D. in anthropology (New York University) and a Masters of library and information science (Pratt Institute). She is a member of the Steering Committee of the CUNY Games Network, a multidisciplinary group of faculty and staff interested in exploring the use of games and simulations for teaching and learning. She is also involved in a multi-year study of how, where, and when undergraduates at CUNY do their academic work. Her other research interests include open access publishing and new models of scholarly communication, critical information literacy, and emerging instructional technologies.

This interview was conducted by Mike Roy, editorial board member of the Academic Commons. A founding editor of the Academic Commons with long-standing interest in the impact of new technology on the meaning and practice of liberal education, he is currently the dean of library and information services and chief information officer at Middlebury College.


Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us about games and education. I’d like to start with a clarifying question: There are many different types of games in the world. What do you mean by game? And of the various sorts of games that are available, which ones seem to lend themselves best to educational applications?

Maura Smale: I’ve always found “game” to be difficult to define. A playful contest involving competition and a winner is one definition, though there are lots of games that are more cooperative than competitive or that don’t clearly end with a winner. Similarly, the line between game and simulation can be blurry; I’m not sure there’s a difference between playing the “learn to dissect a frog game” and dissecting a simulated frog. I think most games do involve play, though only if play as an activity does not always require ease or happiness. There are plenty of good games that are sometimes difficult or make the player unhappy (and sometimes that’s the point of the game).

Any type of game could potentially be used in education, as long as the learning objectives for the topic, class, or course aren’t superseded by the game. That is, the game must be in service of what we’d like our students to learn, not the other way around. And that’s what I’ve found most tricky about using games in teaching—figuring out the best game mechanics to use to teach a concept that will result in an engaging experience for students in which they learn the course material.

A focus on learning outcomes leaves the field wide open for the kinds of games to use in teaching. Quiz games like Jeopardyor Trivial Pursuit perhaps have a natural affinity for the classroom—they can be a public, low-stakes form of the assessments that many educators already use. If the content of the game matches the course, like in many historical or military games, the game could be incorporated into the course as source material along with relevant readings. Students can also play a game and then react or respond to themes in it; the rise in the number of games that address serious topics like privacy issues, immigration, and poverty might be appropriate, but so might a discussion of gender issues in commercial video games.

Q: There are ways in which the content of many courses is really a vehicle for teaching broader, more intangible things often referred to as critical thinking skills that have little to do with the actual subject matter being studied. Can you speak to examples of how games have been used to promote this sort of liberal education?

Smale: I think that many, perhaps even most, games incorporate the goals of liberal education that you describe. All games require players to figure things out: from the rules at the outset (sometimes via reading the instructions but also, in more recent video games, by playing through the first, training level of the game) to the strategy required to have the best chance of winning. Every time a player takes her turn she engages in critical thinking, using all of the information she’s gained in the game to evaluate and complete the best move possible. Games can also provide an opportunity for students to practice solving problems until they arrive at the right answer—often referred to as failing forward (a term that I love). That resiliency in the face of a challenge—the ability to pause, reconsider your actions, and come up with creative solutions to a problem—is another strength of liberal education that games can teach and encourage in students.

I’m a faculty member in the library, so the games I most often create and use address information literacy competencies, another one of the broader goals of liberal education. Critical thinking is inherent in information literacy, of course, and to me information literacy is a natural fit for game-based learning. A focus on research, information-seeking, and evaluating information before using it are key components of many games, and indeed there are a wide range of information literacy and library instruction games in use at academic libraries.

Another possibility for using games in education is to involve students in making games in a course. I’ve had less experience with this process, as most of the instruction in my library is of the single-session variety, but have been thinking on ways to incorporate game creation into the workshops that I teach. Asking students to make games draws on all of the goals of liberal education noted above and then some, because students must go beyond playing the game to construct a successful game-playing experience. As they do when playing a good educational game, students ultimately must learn both course content and critical thinking skills well in order to create a game for others to play.

Q: Could you imagine an entire curriculum constructed out of making and playing games?

Smale: Yes, definitely. There are two examples that I can think of off the top of my head (and I’m sure there are more), though both are primarily at the secondary level rather than higher education. One is the New York City middle and high school calledQuest 2 Learn, which takes a game-based learning approach to the curriculum in all subjects; another Quest school opened recently in Chicago. Both are public schools co-run by the Institute of Play, a nonprofit organization that promotes game-based learning. The other is a Latin curriculum called Operation LAPIS, developed by The Pericles Group. It’s an alternate reality game that teaches a two-year course of Latin, designed for middle school through college students.

I would imagine that it would take a fair amount of work to adapt a curriculum designed for a more traditional lecture- or discussion-based pedagogy into one that used games for teaching and learning. But I think it could certainly be done, probably most thoughtfully by a group of faculty collaborating on the redesign of a program. I have occasionally encountered resistance when asking students to play games, which might be a concern for an entire course or program of study based on games. Involving students in making games as well as playing them might help overcome the hurdle of the occasional student who is less interested in games.

Q: Can you speak a bit more about the resistance to using games in education, and what might be done to overcome such objections?

Smale: Sure. Resistance can come from two groups: from educators who may consider using games for teaching and learning to be frivolous edutainment, and from students who are asked to play or make games in classes. In some ways addressing the concerns of the former is easier. There’s a large (and growing) body of qualitative and quantitative research that demonstrates the effectiveness of game-based learning at all educational levels and for many different disciplines.

Overcoming student objections to using games in education is potentially trickier. In my experience some college students are resistant to any form of active learning, and using games is an active learning strategy. They may be accustomed to a predominantly lecture-based curriculum from their K-12 education, which may shape their expectations for college. And some students also resist active learning in courses that they are not especially invested in, perhaps core or General Education requirements. As a librarian I work with many introductory composition courses and sometimes encounter this form of resistance from the students I meet.

Making sure that educational games are tightly linked to the course or lesson’s learning objectives is one strategy for trying to prevent student resistance to game-based learning. I think students may resist a pedagogical strategy when they are unable to determine whether the work they’re engaged in is meaningful in the context of the course. Many students may be concerned about whether gameplay counts towards their final grade, perhaps the opposite of what we as educators are hoping for: the opportunity that games provide for students to fail forward and learn from their mistakes. Taking the time to thoughtfully integrate playing and making games into the coursework, and ensuring that students know why we’re using games in a course, can help overcome student resistance.

Q: Final thoughts?

Smale: I’ve been delighted to read about many compelling examples of game-based learning over the past several years; it’s clear that using games in higher educational contexts is on the increase. Games can provide opportunities for customizing the student learning experience, peer collaboration, and increasing student engagement, all of which can help students achieve their academic goals. I’m optimistic about the possibilities for the future of games in education, from playing to modding to creating, and look forward to continuing to incorporate games into my teaching.

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This interview is part of a special issue of Transformations on games in education, published on September 30, 2013. The issue was developed by Mike Roy (Middlebury College), guest editor and editorial board member of the Academic Commons, and Todd Bryant (Dickinson College), who was instrumental in organizing and developing the special issue.